Class of ’89

Never mind a year in Provence – Deb­bie Folkes re­flects on three decades in Cal­va­dos

French Property News - - Contents -

A big year for Ger­many, Peter Mayle, FPN and a fam­ily from the Mid­lands

It was ‘The Year That Changed The World’ ac­cord­ing to Time Mag­a­zine. Though Ger­many bring­ing down the Ber­lin Wall was some­what more sig­nif­i­cant, for my hus­band Mar­tyn and me, 1989 was our own mo­men­tous year as it marked the start of our French ad­ven­ture.

That year we be­came the proud, though some­what shell-shocked, own­ers of a mai­son se­condaire in the Nor­mandy coun­try­side, in­land of the D-day land­ings beaches. Peter Mayle’s mem­oir A Year in Provence first hit the shelves that year too, though no­body knew it would be­come a global best­seller.

Another pub­li­ca­tion that was launched in 1989 was French Prop­erty News. I have been a reader and, lat­terly, a sub­scriber, for many years and love read­ing the ‘real life’ sto­ries, com­par­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and the buy­ing process. Did any­one else buy their French house af­ter just one view­ing, based on a gut feel­ing that it was right as soon as they walked in the door? We did. And I would do it all over again. Ab­sol­u­ment!

Cap­tured by Cal­va­dos Our French ad­ven­ture be­gan on 1 July, 1989, as we drove back to the ferry port af­ter a hol­i­day. It was a glo­ri­ous day and, wan­der­ing into Bayeux late-af­ter­noon, we idly looked in es­tate agents’ win­dows, spot­ting one house that we par­tic­u­larly liked the look of in a small vil­lage be­tween Isigny-sur-mer and St Lô. At around £35,000, all fees in­cluded, it was the equiv­a­lent cost of a one-bed­room apart­ment back in the Mid­lands where we live. We ar­ranged to view it, plus three others for good mea­sure. I re­mem­ber there were some real bar­gains to be had, though some prop­er­ties op­ti­misti­cally de­scribed as “dwellings” had no roof, sag­ging walls and ac­ces­si­bil­ity only at low tide!

With the op­ti­mism of (rel­a­tive) youth at that time, we plunged into the view­ings with no pre-plan­ning and we ba­si­cally made our minds up when driv­ing to the ferry the next day. It all seems to­tally mad look­ing back, but we weren’t alone in what we were do­ing; the mar­ket was buoy­ant and lots of Bri­tish peo­ple were buy­ing prop­erty.

Plain sailing sale Just three short months later we were in the no­taire’s of­fice wad­ing through the acte de vente. Half­way through, with the help of a trans­la­tor, we asked about the re­sults of the sur­vey and searches. “What sur­vey? What searches?” was the re­ply. “If you wanted those it was down to you to or­gan­ise them.”

Pan­icky mo­ment. Well, the house had been stand­ing for 200 years, we rea­soned. It must be sound, yes? We signed.

Nav­i­ga­tion of the French le­gal sys­tem com­plete, we had lunch with the for­mer own­ers, a Parisian doc­tor and his wife who were re­tir­ing to Brit­tany, and then scut­tled off to re­mind our­selves of what we had ac­tu­ally bought.

New neigh­bours Al­though some­what shab­bier than I re­mem­bered, the house was pretty, cov­ered in Vir­ginia creeper that was be­gin­ning to turn red, and in a fairly good state.

With three bed­rooms and a fourth to be fin­ished, it was un­fa­mil­iarly large as we lived at that time in an apart­ment in the UK. There were un­fa­mil­iar night-time noises too, and we locked our­selves in be­hind closed shut­ters on the first night!

The house came with a small ap­ple or­chard and pad­dock, where a neigh­bour kept his sheep in re­turn for keep­ing an eye on the house. We for­malised the ar­range­ment and it has suited us all to this day. Our neigh­bours have be­come firm friends and we have at­tended var­i­ous wed­dings, birth­day par­ties and chris­ten­ings since. On one mem­o­rable oc­ca­sion, an 80th birth­day party, dur­ing a game of cha­rades, my mime was a chicken lay­ing an egg, to the amuse­ment of the whole as­sem­bled com­pany!

When we first ar­rived, it was clear that my school­girl French (and the abil­ity to re­cite La Ci­gale et la Fourmi ver­ba­tim) wasn’t go­ing to get me very far. But thanks to per­se­ver­ance, a good dic­tionary, time with our neigh­bours and the good and pa­tient help of a tu­tor, we can now hold our own in most sit­u­a­tions.

Cross-chan­nel ex­plo­ration One big up­side to buy­ing in Nor­mandy is, of course, its ac­ces­si­bil­ity from the UK. Some years we have vis­ited as many as 12 times, earn­ing us a visit to the bridge with the cap­tain on Brit­tany Fer­ries af­ter 20 years of travel with them. Back in the early days there were more ferry com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing on the west­ern chan­nel but some were fairly ba­sic

and we now have the lux­ury of the larger fer­ries and the ben­e­fit of the high-speed boats in the sum­mer. We are mem­bers of the Brit­tany Fer­ries Club Voy­age scheme with the dis­counted rates it brings, for us and our fam­ily and friends.

In the early days we would drive miles get­ting to know the area, the beaches, towns, mar­kets, ap­ple fes­ti­vals... you name it. These days we are more likely to be found closer to home and par­tic­u­larly in Bayeux, a place I never tire of. The Satur­day mar­ket is an ab­so­lute go-to and our Satur­day evening meal is al­ways con­cocted from the best the mar­ket has to of­fer.

There are so many beau­ti­ful places to visit in Nor­mandy but some­times it’s nice to go ‘nowhere at all’ and sit with a beer watch­ing the world go by. In­vari­ably, we have friends or fam­ily with us. This is def­i­nitely a house and a re­gion made for shar­ing.

If we do feel rest­less, we of­ten go to the Belle Epoque re­sort of Di­nard, across the es­tu­ary from St-malo, as our friends live nearby. Awe­some ex­pe­ri­ences we’ve en­joyed close to home in­clude the 50th, 60th and 70th an­niver­saries of D-day and the Tour De France which had stages in Nor­mandy on three days last year. We were within feet of the Queen on the oc­ca­sion of the 50th an­niver­sary of D-day, as she walked with the then pres­i­dent, François Mit­terand, to Bayeux ceme­tery and I also had the ab­so­lute hon­our of meet­ing some of the World War II veter­ans at Ar­ro­manches in 2014.

What’s new? Twenty eight years have gone by in a flash and we have seen lots of changes.

The house has been trans­formed, de­spite our early thoughts that ‘noth­ing needed do­ing’. Over the years, we’ve fin­ished the fourth bed­room, re­fur­bished the bath­room, added a shower room on the first floor, re­placed the roof, tack­led the gar­den and bought an ad­ja­cent field.

Ru­fus, our small choco­late cocker spaniel, ar­rived in 2009 and is now on his third pass­port. He is very much the lo­cal celebrity and is greeted warmly in ev­ery bar and res­tau­rant; he’s usu­ally catered for be­fore we are al­lowed to or­der. Ever felt in­vis­i­ble?

My per­sonal sit­u­a­tion has also changed rad­i­cally as I took early re­tire­ment in 2015 af­ter 38 years in the in­sur­ance in­dus­try. It’s meant we have been able to spend much more qual­ity time in France.

We have seen many more Bri­tish buy­ers pur­su­ing their own French dreams, peak­ing, I would say around 2007. Since then, our ex­pe­ri­ence lo­cally in Nor­mandy has been a re­duc­tion in prices and houses stay­ing on the mar­ket for a con­sid­er­able time. Hav­ing said that, if you are buy­ing then there are many bar­gains to be had, par­tic­u­larly beau­ti­ful coun­try prop­er­ties with land, which would re­main a dream in the UK. Brexit and other pol­i­tics aside, if you are look­ing for a re­laxed way of life in a fab­u­lous coun­try, I would en­dorse France whole­heart­edly.

At around £35,000, it was the equiv­a­lent cost of a onebed­roomed apart­ment back home in the Mid­lands.

The ivy-clad fa­cade of Deb­bie and Mar­tyn’s house in Nor­mandy Deb­bie in the prop­erty’s or­chard

Deb­bie and Ru­fus en­joy­ing the mar­itime air at Grand­camp

Mak­ing a home in Nor­mandy

Deb­bie never tires of Bayeux mar­ket Ex­plor­ing Bayeux Sum­mer in Nor­mandy The cou­ple’s favourite res­tau­rant, La Marée, over­looks the port in Grand­camp-maisy

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