Lovely while it lasted…
What is it that persuades half of all UK expats to pack up and return to Britain? Andrew Eames reports
Four years ago Steve and Angela Hall sold their home in Chester and went househunting. “We have always loved France and had spent many holidays there,” says Angela. “We wanted a large property next to water and close to a village that we could renovate and build up to be a bed &breakfast business.”
What they found could have sprung from a fairytale: a sumptuous six-bedroom château by the river Lot in south-west France, complete with swimming pool and four acres of garden.
“As soon as we drove up the drive to Château Caillac, everything felt right,” she says. “The original features along with modern plumbing and electrics were ideal. We fell in love with it there and then.”
The plan was to live there after their two children had finished university. So they moved into rented accommodation in Cheshire – where they run an engineering company – and embarked on bringing the 19th-century château up to date.
But then they were dealt a shattering blow. Angela, 43, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and everything changed. “It is not that we had any doubt about the French healthcare system,” she says. “It was simply that, as and when my health started to deteriorate, I wanted to be with family and friends. I had to prioritise what is important to me.”
So now the château is on the market for €1.6million (£1.26million), and the Halls are renting a farmhouse in Cheshire. “We’ll stay close to our business for the foreseeable future,” says Angela. “Maybe one day we’ll be able to buy ourselves a small place in France.”
The phrase ‘‘living the dream’’ conjures up images of an overseas idyll with a balmy climate, a terrace with a view and a bottle of something bubbly, but it doesn’t always work out. In fact, half of all Britons who live abroad will eventually come back. Nearly 400,000 of us emigrated in 2006, but at the same time 177,000 others returned.
Yet emigrants’ attitude to those who return is strangely unforgiving. When contacted by The Daily Telegraph, the typical view from expats in France was ‘‘Wild horses couldn’t drag me back’’, and that those returning “must have failed to integrate’’. In other words, they didn’t try hard enough.
“We have had a mixed reaction from the local community,” admits Simon Phillpotts, 61, who is shepherding his family back to Wales after five years in the Midi-Pyrénées, in south-west France. “I suppose you could detect some Heart and home: Angela and Steve Hall and the French château they are leaving behind. Below, for Jenny and Colin Outhwaite, at their converted 17th-century millhouse in the Vendée, family comes first feeling of betrayal. But I don’t feel that we’ve failed. There’s an element of miscalculation, maybe, in that I thought it would be easier to work from here than it turned out to be. Perhaps that was naive.”
But the real reason that Simon and his wife Emma have decided to give up their sixbedroom manor house with swimming pool, ponies and 17 acres is not work. It is simply that life moves on: “Our children and our elderly parents come before anything.”
Simon and Emma’s parents are no long physically robust, and their two teenage children, Archie and Lara, are at boarding schools in the UK. “The children are fluent French-speakers,” says Simon, “but Archie didn’t get the most out of the village school and we felt that the private sector in the UK had a more rounded education.”
It is not as if the Phillpotts had been unprepared for life overseas. The son of a diplomat, Simon grew up living out of a suitcase, and the family moved to France direct from several years in India, where he had been a consultant to the textile industry. But now they are trading in their enviable lifestyle, and have had to accept that any property they buy in the UK will be a considerable step down.
‘We’ll miss the peace, the beauty and the security,” admits Simon, who sells mind, body and spirit books online (sphillpott[email protected]). “In Tarn we could go out and leave the front doors open. But it isn’t all lovely. It can be very bleak and cold during the winter, and the whole region seems to go into hibernation.”
Jenny and Colin Outhwaite are another couple on the move. Both in their late fifties, they have been running a gîte business at their converted 17th-century millhouse in the Vendée, in western France, for six years. It has been profitable and enjoyable, but – like the Phillpotts – their priorities have begun to change.
“When we left the UK, our four children were single and working in the London area,” says Jenny. “They would come out for holidays and we would have quality time together.” But two are now married. “I want to be there when my grandchildren are born. I feel I am too far away here.”
The Outhwaites are selling Les Jincheres, for
€540,000 (£430,000). The property, which consists of a four-bedroom millhouse and two three-bedroom gîtes has a swimming pool, a half-acre lake and Jenny and Colin plan to retire and are braced for a downsize — probably to a two-up two-down close to London. “It has been a very hard decision,” Jenny says. “We’ve been very happy here.”
Steve and Angela Hall feel much the same. “We have thoroughly enjoyed our time at Château Caillac, and we will be very sad to say goodbye,” says Angela. “The local people of Fongrave have been kind and welcoming, even though at times our French has been less than perfect.
“There are many things we will miss: eating outside with friends and family overlooking the river, relaxing by our pool, walking down to the village to get the bread each morning and stopping for a coffee and a chat with the locals; summer evenings at the farmers’ markets tasting the delicious local produce, swapping homemade yogurt for fresh fruit at the farm shop, walking our dogs around our lovely grounds…”
Cheshire’s nice, but it just hasn’t got the same je ne sais quoi.
Angela Hall: www.chateaucaillac.com; Jenny Outhwaite: 00 33 549 95 05 40 or through www.lesjincheres.com