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Bron Drake spent years dream­ing of buy­ing a prop­erty to ren­o­vate in France, and her dream came true in Pas-de-Calais, thanks to its rea­son­able prop­erty prices and close prox­im­ity to the UK. Stephanie Shel­drake finds out how she did it

Living France - - Contents - be­dand­break­fast­pas­de­calais.co.uk

One ex­pat who runs a B&B in Pas-de-Calais re­veals why the depart­ment has much to of­fer

When Bron Drake first set eyes on the 200-yearold farm­house in ru­ral Pas-de-Calais, it was un­recog­nis­able from the cosy home and B&B it is to­day. The ne­glected house had not been lived in for 20 years and had no doors, win­dows, electrics or sep­tic tank. Even the es­tate agent had warned her off see­ing it, declar­ing it was a “catas­tro­phe”, but Bron was de­ter­mined and her gut in­stinct proved to be a good one. “I just fell in love with it straight away,” she re­mem­bers. “I loved the feel of it – it gave me a lovely feel­ing and I’ve never lost that; it’s a happy house.”

Tak­ing on a ren­o­va­tion project was some­thing that Bron had wanted to do for a long time. “About 20 years ago, some friends had bought a place down in the Périg­ord and it needed do­ing up. I’ve never had a hap­pier time in my life – pulling down walls and get­ting my hands dirty. Af­ter many vis­its I started think­ing that I wanted a place of my own. I had no money, but I kept on think­ing about it.”

With­out suf­fi­cient funds to make a pur­chase, Bron con­tin­ued to live in Folkestone where she worked in so­cial ser­vices. When friends bought a prop­erty in Mon­treuil-sur-Mer in Pas-de-Calais, she started spend­ing more time in the area, of­ten com­ing three or four times a year. “I used to look at prop­er­ties for sale and I fell in love with ev­ery one of them,” re­mem­bers Bron, who spent seven years look­ing at houses while try­ing to save enough money to buy one.

“I was quite de­ter­mined and by this time I had come into a lit­tle bit of money so I knew I could do it if the cheap­est, more ruinous house came up for sale – and this was it!” she laughs.

De­spite its di­lap­i­dated state, the lit­tle farm­house, nes­tled in the tran­quil ru­ral coun­try­side of this north­ern tip of France, was full of charm and po­ten­tial. Bron con­tin­ued to live in Folkestone and used a French builder to carry out the ini­tial stage of the ren­o­va­tion – in­stalling win­dows, doors, the sep­tic tank and fit­ting the electrics. “Luck­ily he spoke English and was com­puter lit­er­ate so we could com­mu­ni­cate eas­ily through emails,” she says. “He did the ba­sics, but at that point the money ran out, so gangs of friends used to come over for week­ends and hol­i­days and we grad­u­ally did bits. It’s taken 13 years al­to­gether.” In hind­sight, Bron would not ad­vise over­see­ing a ren­o­va­tion project re­motely. “If you’re hav­ing big work car­ried out, it’s bet­ter be­ing on-site; it’s eas­ier,” she re­veals.

The close prox­im­ity of Pas-de-Calais to south­ern Eng­land made it pos­si­ble for Bron to buy and ren­o­vate the fer­mette while still liv­ing and work­ing in the UK. “It’s only a two-hour trip by Euro­tun­nel, so I came here dur­ing hol­i­days and at week­ends,” says Bron.

In 2008, when Bron re­tired, she was able to come to France more reg­u­larly and for longer pe­ri­ods. “By that time the house was more hab­it­able although I still had a bed in what we call the ‘bat cave’ – the gre­nier – but that was all right,” laughs Bron. Three years ago, Bron de­cided to move per­ma­nently into her French home, and even though her el­derly mother was ill,

she knew that be­ing so close to the UK meant she could visit eas­ily and re­turn quickly if needed.

De­spite be­ing a lesser-known part of France, of­ten by­passed by holidaymakers who head fur­ther south, Pas-de-Calais has ben­e­fited from a proac­tive coun­cil and tourist board. “There are ar­eas where the min­ing in­dus­try has be­come de­funct and there are poor ar­eas, but the Pas-de-Calais coun­cil works hard to in­stil in­ter­est – there’s a lot of cul­tural stuff go­ing on. They turn mines into mu­se­ums and we’ve got the Lou­vre at Lens, which is about 40 min­utes away.

“Vimy Ridge is close by and we’re not far from the Somme. Ar­ras and Amiens are beau­ti­ful cities. It’s lovely; it’s got ev­ery­thing you want – the beau­ti­ful coast­line as well as rather so­phis­ti­cated places like Ar­ras.”

The idea for the B&B was hatched by Bron’s son-in-law. “He sug­gested it and be­fore I knew it, he’d set up the web­site. So I thought I’d bet­ter tell the mairie!” says Bron, who started the busi­ness with two guest rooms – a twin and a dou­ble.

“It’s off the beaten track,” says Bron, whose guests are of­ten Brits re­turn­ing from their hol­i­days in the south want­ing to spend a cou­ple more days ex­plor­ing some­where new be­fore they go home.

“It’s easy for those who want to get away for a week­end”

“Of­ten they don’t know much about the area. They visit places and come back re­ally im­pressed.

“Peo­ple love the tranquillity and it’s easy for those who want to get away for a week­end. I’ve not re­ally ex­ploited the B&B as much as I should, mainly be­cause I don’t have much time,” says Bron who is heav­ily in­volved in the vil­lage so­cial life, and spends a lot of time with friends, both French and Bri­tish.

Bron has con­tin­ued to ren­o­vate the prop­erty, most re­cently the gre­nier which now has an ad­di­tional fam­ily room for guests, along with a lit­tle study with a bed, which can also be used by guests.

In ad­di­tion, Bron has also in­stalled ra­di­a­tors, which, along with her Ray­burn and two wood-burn­ing stoves, will help her heat the prop­erty dur­ing the colder win­ter months.

In­stalling the ra­di­a­tors means that Bron can now wel­come guests all year round, and also plan for the fu­ture. “Now I’m get­ting a bit older, at some point in the fu­ture lug­ging the coal and the wood is go­ing to get dif­fi­cult. I’d like to have an­other 10 years here, all be­ing well, so I thought I’d be prac­ti­cal and make life eas­ier,” she says.

As for fit­ting in, Bron has been ac­cepted by her lo­cal com­mu­nity. “My lovely neigh­bours, An­nie and Régis, have helped me get in­volved in vil­lage life, and are al­ways there if I have a prob­lem.”

With only her school French topped up by a few evening classes, the big­gest chal­lenge for Bron has been get­ting to grips with the lan­guage.

“I get by but I strug­gle when I’m with a group of peo­ple chat­ting and I’m in­stantly lost,” she ad­mits. “One of the is­sues up here is that there is a very strong ac­cent. And the pa­tois is ex­tra­or­di­nary – peo­ple from one vil­lage might not un­der­stand what other peo­ple say. That was a shock to me,” she says. “No one here speaks English so I have to, and I do get by. Peo­ple are kind and pa­tient.”

Sit­ting on her ter­race in the sun­shine, sur­rounded by trees and corn­fields with noth­ing but bird­song to be heard, Bron has no re­grets. “When the sun’s shin­ing here, there’s noth­ing more beau­ti­ful.”

Lead photo: Bron Drake out­side her home and B&B, Le Petit Manoir, a 200-year-old farm­house in ru­ral Pas-de-Calais Be­low: Bron’s chick­ens, Blanche, Hortense and Agnes, lay three eggs a day

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