A local’s view
Annette Ashley shares how she and husband Gary, a history enthusiast, fell in love with the Sept Vallées countryside and Opal Coast beaches of Pas-de-Calais
Why Pas-de-Calais ticked all the boxes for two history enthusiasts
What were you doing before you moved to France and what prompted you to make the move?
We bought what was meant to be a holiday home in the hamlet of Hesmond, Sept Vallées, Pas-de-Calais, in 2004. I was working as the manager of a large care home in Kent, while Gary was a project manager for a fire detection company. Life was busy and stressful, and we wanted a peaceful bolt-hole that wasn’t too far from our home in Kent and where we would really be able to feel like we had escaped the crowds, traffic and constant demands of everyday life. At three hours door to door, the lush green Sept Vallées area was perfect.
We moved here full time in 2011. Our two daughters were by then grown up and Gary had taken early retirement due to poor health following a car accident. We felt that keeping two houses going was financially a struggle and the timing just seemed right, so we went for it, sold our house and moved with our dogs, lock, stock and barrel!
Did you find it easy to find a suitable property to buy?
We didn’t really know this area, but had taken loads of holidays in France, especially Normandy where Gary’s dad had been stationed during the Second World War. Pas-de-Calais was a place we drove through on our way to somewhere else really. But, once we had chosen this area and started looking around, we discovered how lovely it is, and there’s so much history here.
Once we made up our minds to buy here, we decided to spend a weekend seeing as many houses as we could; we were determined to find ‘the one’. Luckily for us, an estate agent had this house on his books and when he gave us a virtual tour on his computer, I knew immediately that this was going to be it.
My wish list for a house was: it must have history, a garden big enough to keep chickens and a kitchen big enough to make jam. We went and saw the house, and a week later we made an offer. The house is made up of the former schoolroom of the village, which was funded by the local château owner and the church in 1857, one room was the town hall and the rest was an old farmhouse, all joined together.
The agent said it was habitable, but we spent the first few years camping inside while it was renovated. One of our daughters called it ‘The Blair Witch Project’ as there was a branch growing into the roof and ivy dripped down the front of it hiding the windows. There was no insulation, we were afraid to put the central heating on as the smell of gas was overwhelming, and in winter it was unbearably cold.
The cellar of the house was once the village prison and we’ve found some interesting things in there, including old bottles, graffiti from the First and Second World Wars and a First World War tin helmet which a previous owner had used as a bird feeder.
What do you most enjoy about living in Pas-de-Calais and France in general?
We have five cats, two dogs, nine geese and I don’t know how many ducks and chickens! Having the space to look after animals makes us really happy.
We love discovering places. We went to Étaples recently and left the town by a different route from normal and were blown away to discover streets of architecturally glorious houses.
We absolutely love to walk our dogs on the beaches of the Opal Coast. There’s so much room – they’re never crowded.
And then of course there’s the bread! We enjoy discovering the best boulangeries. People don’t understand but the bread is different here; the yeast, the flour, the fact it’s made by hand, how they knead and bake the bread – everything has an effect!
Have you found it easy to integrate into the local community?
We both love history and we’re keen collectors of First and Second World War memorabilia. Gary has a vast knowledge of the local history and takes enthusiasts round the battlefields. We’ve joined lots of local history associations – both French and English – and we’ve made lots of friends this way. We’re also re-enactors and it’s a popular hobby in this part of France; there’s always something going on for VE Day or Armistice Day and local anniversaries, and many French people are passionate about their history and heritage. Social history is a universal thing, no matter where you’ve come from. We join in with exhibitions, taking some of our memorabilia and costumes to events and we’ve built up a huge social network.
We also joined a local club started by some English expats. We play bingo, hold quiz nights, picnics, learn to bake and all sorts of things and now there are as many French as English members!
What is it like throughout the seasons?
The seasons are so important in rural France where the weather can bring success or overnight failure for hardworking farmers. I always know that if the tractors are out until 4am in autumn, it’s going to rain the next day. In spring when the farmers take the cows to the fields, the frosts are over!
Where is your favourite local market?
Étaples market is twice a week and it’s superb for local produce, the freshest vegetables and the friendly people who work there. The grocery lady knows me so well that sometimes she keeps things back for me, like a tray of plums that are slightly soft but perfect for jam which she knows I love to make. There’s a huge variety of stalls from fish to meat and bread, and after the market we love to enjoy lunch in one of the many friendly, authentic cafés around the market square.
Do you have a favourite place to visit in the area?
Berck-sur-Mer on the Opal Coast is a friendly seaside town with a vast sandy beach. Our dogs Lottie and Harry love going for walks there any time of the year. The local bars are happy for the dogs to sit with us outside or in. It’s very welcoming.
Can you recommend a good restaurant/bistro?
We love the De Drie Kalders in StOmer. It’s an estaminet, a local Flemish restaurant, and the perfect place to go after the Saturday morning market which is fabulous. They have a terrific selection of beers including the famous St-Omer beers of course and a great, authentic menu. It’s decorated, like a granny’s front room, and the staff are very friendly.
Is there any aspect of living in Pasde-Calais that surprised you?
We’d always been told that if you can’t speak French then you won’t make friends with the locals as they get annoyed about it. Well we don’t speak great French and all we’ve found here is that the French are really patient about it and it’s never been a problem. We’ve also found that you get a real person to speak to when you go to the bank, and they’re always willing to help!
Social history is a universal thing, no matter where you’ve come from
of Annette’s Berck-sur-Mer is one Pas-de-Calais favourite places in
Gary and Annette are keen re-enactors
This image: The countryside of the Sept Vallées just outside Gary and Annette’s hamlet Right: Gary and Annette in their garden
De Drie Kalders, Annette’s favourite restaurant