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
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