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

Living France - - Contents -

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

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