Pas-de-Calais

From the dra­matic cliffs and sandy beaches of the Opal Coast to the depart­ment’s lush val­leys and bu­colic coun­try­side, Janine Marsh ex­plores the pic­turesque vil­lages and his­toric towns of Pas-de-Calais

Living France - - Contents -

Dis­cover the de­lights of north­ern France with a Bri­tish writer who has lived there for the past 14 years

Many peo­ple think of Calais as a land­ing point for a hol­i­day some­where else in France. Visi­tors ar­rive in their mil­lions ev­ery year, ei­ther by ferry or train, and then whizz straight onto the mo­tor­ways, headed south.

But to do that is to miss out on the many at­trac­tions of Pas-de-Calais, and if you’re not af­ter the ex­treme heat of the south, this is an area that has a huge amount to of­fer as I dis­cov­ered when I bought a house in the lit­tle-known Sept Val­lées area 14 years ago.

REAL FRANCE ON YOUR DOORSTEP

Pas-de-Calais is a bit of a se­cret part of France. Per­haps be­cause it’s so easy to get to, there’s a ten­dency to dis­miss it as not real France – but noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. This is au­then­tic France at its best. A short drive from the busy port town of Calais, you’ll find en­chant­ing fish­ing vil­lages, ver­dant farm­ing ham­lets, an­cient forests, his­toric towns and mag­nif­i­cent coastal re­sorts.

The weather is akin to that of Devon or Corn­wall – gen­er­ally with­out ex­tremes and great for gar­den­ers. Pas-de-Calais is the potager of France, and agri­cul­ture is one of the main in­dus­tries. There are vast fields of veg­eta­bles, wheat and maize, sugar beet and chicory. The marsh­lands of St-Omer are fa­mous for their veg­etable-grow­ing prop­er­ties in­clud­ing their bumper crop of more than seven mil­lion cauliflow­ers a year. This is hops coun­try rather than vine­yards, but the Cham­pagne re­gion is easy to get to for those who like to buy di­rect from the source.

ENTENTE CORDIALE

Pas-de-Calais is said to be one of the friendli­est places in France and the lo­cals have an en­dur­ing pas­sion for their her­itage.

The land is marked by a strong con­nec­tion with Eng­land, which once ruled Calais, and by bat­tles go­ing back thou­sands of years. Julius Cae­sar launched his con­quest of Bri­tain from Boulogne, one of the most fa­mous bat­tles of the Hun­dred Years’ War took place at Agin­court and Henry VIII met his ri­val, French King Fran­cis I, on the so-called Field of the Cloth of Gold near Guînes. The scars of the First and Sec­ond World Wars will, of course, re­main for­ever.

Th­ese days, the depart­ment is home to a cul­tural cen­tre ded­i­cated to Entente Cordiale, at Harde­lot, the only one of its kind in France.

COAST TO COAST

The Opal Coast runs the length of the coast­line of Pas-de-Calais from the bor­der with Bel­gium round to the bor­der with Pi­cardy and is dot­ted with pretty and au­then­tic fish­ing vil­lages. From vil­las over­look­ing the sea, lock-up-an­dleave apart­ments, grand manoirs and pretty farm­houses, there’s a huge choice of homes.

With two en­tries in the top 10 beaches in France (ac­cord­ing to TripAd­vi­sor’s 2018 Trav­ellers’ Choice Awards), you’ll dis­cover var­ied coastal styles from golden sands to dra­matic cliff tops, rocky out­lets where you can fish for shrimp, and se­cret bays where seals frolic.

Le Tou­quet, voted the sixth best beach in France, seam­lessly com­bines town and sea­side liv­ing in a swish lit­tle re­sort known lo­cally as the ‘Monaco of the North’. It has a fab­u­lous Satur­day mar­ket, coiffed av­enues, Parisian-style shops, smart ho­tels and ex­cel­lent restau­rants, in­clud­ing the Miche­lin-starred Le Pav­il­lon at Le West­min­ster Ho­tel.

Wis­sant, voted the 10th best beach, has im­mense golden sands that stretch along the bay be­tween the Gris-Nez and Blanc-Nez cliffs from where you can see the white cliffs of Dover on a fine day.

Boulogne-sur-Mer, a Ville d’Art et d’His­toire and the big­gest fish­ing port in France, is brim­ming with at­trac­tions. “If this were but 300 miles fur­ther off, how the English would rave about it,” said Charles Dick­ens of the town where he spent a great deal of time. He would al­most cer­tainly recog­nise the old town to­day with its cob­ble­stoned rue de Lille, edged with restau­rants and bars, and the in­cred­i­ble basil­ica of Notre-Dame. It’s also home to Nau­si­caa, the French Na­tional Sea Cen­tre, which is one of the largest aquar­i­ums in the world.

TOWN AND COUN­TRY

Ar­ras is the cap­i­tal of Pas-de-Calais, an ar­chi­tec­turally splen­did town with huge squares bor­dered by tall houses with Flem­ish fa­cades. It is home to a UNESCO-listed bel­fry, which was voted the peo­ple’s favourite mon­u­ment in 2015 (on the France 2 television pro­gramme). The small city is like an ur­ban oa­sis set in lush coun­try­side, sur­rounded by pretty vil­lages with easy ac­cess to Ar­ras’s many charms and fa­cil­i­ties.

Less than an hour from Calais lies the Sept Val­lées, an area of tiny ham­lets and charm­ing towns, such as Mon­treuil­sur-Mer with its cob­bled squares and an­cient ram­parts. The scenery and life of the town in­spired Vic­tor Hugo’s Les Misérables and ev­ery year around 600 lo­cals put on a fab­u­lous show of the author’s fa­mous story com­plete with horses, can­nons and fire­works. The town is known as a ‘ des­ti­na­tion gas­tronomique’ thanks to the num­ber of ex­cel­lent food out­lets in­clud­ing two Miche­lin-starred restau­rants, fab­u­lous wine shops and a su­perb food mar­ket.

It was near here in a ville tran­quille, a tiny ham­let of 142 peo­ple and 1,000 cows, that I fell in love with my old farm­house. Cost­ing around £66,000, I got 21 rooms and an acre of land (my neigh­bours say I paid 10 times its worth) and years of ren­o­va­tion – I have never re­gret­ted it.

WHY BUY HERE?

Pas-de-Calais is the eighth most pop­u­lated depart­ment in France, but it’s cer­tainly not over­crowded. Calais, with around 75,000 in­hab­i­tants is the largest city. EIght out of 10 prop­er­ties in the re­gion are de­tached houses, with a high pro­por­tion of sec­ond homes be­cause of re­cre­ation and tourism – both French and for­eign. There’s a great choice of town, coun­try

or sea­side liv­ing, fab­u­lous street mar­kets, lo­cal gas­tron­omy and ex­cel­lent trans­port links to the UK and Europe.

Tim Sage, re­gional man­ager of Leggett Im­mo­bilier, who lives in the Sept Val­lées, says this is an area that’s re­ally un­der­es­ti­mated and of­fers ter­rific value. “It’s the clos­est French hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion for the UK which makes it easy for ex­pats to still see friends and fam­ily and for sec­ond-home own­ers to spend more time on hol­i­day and less trav­el­ling. It has the ad­van­tage of low-cost homes with av­er­age house prices at £140,000.”

Sit­ting in the Com­merce Bar in Hes­din, sip­ping an espresso while watch­ing the ac­tiv­ity of the large weekly mar­ket, he en­thuses, “I live in a beau­ti­ful area sur­rounded by open coun­try­side in a home that would have been way be­yond my dreams in the UK. For those want­ing ei­ther a home or com­mer­cial base, Pas-de-Calais is at the heart of the trans­port net­work; the mo­tor­ways all meet here giv­ing ac­cess to any­where in Europe and be­yond.”

A REAL GOOD LIFE

Ex­pats Donna Gavin and part­ner Nik Meer­gans moved to Pas-de-Calais 11 years ago with Donna’s daugh­ter Ella, then aged 10. Com­ing from Sus­sex, they sought, as they put it, the “real good life” and like me chose to set­tle in the Sept Val­lées.

They orig­i­nally chose this area so that Ella could stay in touch with her fa­ther in the UK, and although she’s now grown up and work­ing in France (and fully bilin­gual), they say they wouldn’t con­sider mov­ing any­where else.

“It’s com­pletely un­spoiled here, plus there’s a strong sense of com­mu­nity spirit that we re­ally love,” they tell me. “Peo­ple are more gen­uine and fo­cused on fam­ily, friends and good liv­ing.”

The cou­ple say they love how they have the best of all worlds – close to the coast and beau­ti­ful coun­try­side while en­joy­ing ease of travel to the UK and Europe, which, as Donna’s work takes her to both Lon­don (55 min­utes from Calais to St Pan­cras) and Bel­gium (a mere hour by car) is ideal.

Donna says that the lo­cal peo­ple were so wel­com­ing, she quickly felt that this was home. Their farm­house needed a lot of ren­o­va­tion, in­clud­ing the sta­bles that artist Nik has lov­ingly con­verted into what is now their charm­ing B&B ( farm­house.fr).

Re­lax­ing in their beau­ti­ful cob­bled court­yard, which fea­tures some of Nik’s fab­u­lous sculp­tures, lis­ten­ing to birds sing, a goat bleat­ing nearby and chick­ens cluck­ing, you get a real sense of the true tran­quil­lity and gen­tle­ness of the Sept Val­lées.

“Shortly af­ter we moved here, our 78-year-old neigh­bour watched us work­ing on the house,” Donna says. “A menuisier him­self, he was de­lighted to com­ment on our choice of tim­ber and tools. We dis­cov­ered that he had made all the wooden win­dows for our house, and his wife used to buy milk from here ev­ery day when it was still a work­ing farm.”

Other neigh­bours bring gifts of veg­eta­bles and fruit, seedlings for the gar­den and ad­vice to help the keen gar­den­ers achieve their aim of be­com­ing more self-suf­fi­cient.

“Friendly, idyl­lic and au­then­tic,” is how Donna sums up life in Pas-de-Calais.

I cer­tainly sec­ond that.

The an­i­cent ram­parts of Mon­treuil-sur-Mer

Ex­plor­ing rue de Lille in Boulogne-sur-Mer

Be­low: The colour­ful Hes­din mar­ket

Le Tou­quet has been named as one of France’s best beaches

Above: Donna Gavin and her part­ner Nik Meer­gans

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