PROPERTY / Their own corner of a foreign field: Holiday memories fade as life reasserts its familiar pattern, but some Britons decide to prolong the idyll by buying a home abroad. Caroline McGhie follows the tracks of their dreams

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JANE HAWKING bought her isolated moulin in northern France five years ago, when her husband, Stephen, was acquiring so much fame as an astro-physicist that the family needed a place of solitude to escape to.

'There was little sign of habitation, only the occasional church spire, water tower or ruined windmill,' is how she described the approach to the house in her book At Home In France. The book combines her own personal story of the purchase with a step-by-step guide for others on how to do it and an invaluable lexicon (which means there is no longer any excuse for not knowing how to get in touch with a plumber in French).

Since her marriage ended, the house has become an even more important ingredient in her life, as a place to vanish to late on a Friday night with the children; somewhere she can go to recharge her batteries. One hour's driving after the Channel crossing and she is there. 'The car turns up the track and there it is, just as it was that first time we saw it, long and low, sleepily blinking at us in the glare of the headlights, awaking from its slumber to welcome us home like long lost friends,' she says.

'Once indoors, whatever the time of night, we always inspect the whole house, running from room to room, delighting in the warmth of Claude's glowing fires, renewing the acquaintance of every old beam, relishing that special aroma of newly chopped logs, woodsmoke, ageing rafters and polish.' Every six weeks she manages to make the journey, taking advantage of the half-terms and holidays that she gets as a language teacher in Cambridge. Once there, she revels in the simpler lifestyle that comes with such a house.

Thousands of British people have done what Jane has done, many of them buying into the three established British 'colonies' in France - the north-west, the area between Bordeaux and the Spanish border, and the Dordogne. Around 43,500 Britons have taken the love affair with France a stage further by moving their entire lives there, taking out French residence permits, huddling round to listen to the BBC World Service, often even Radio 4, and watching French television to improve their linguistic skills.

In spite of the almost naive enthusiasm that the British have for the French rural idyll, the market has seen serious problems in recent years because of the recession. Estate agent Frank Rutherford, who has been working in the French market for 31 years, sees it as a kind of economic barometer. Now that buyers with small budgets are funnelling back into the lower end of the market, he says, it must mean that the recession is finally coming to an end.

This may close up the two-tier market which has been operating - the lower layer made up of British owners who are forced to sell their French homes for economic reasons; the upper layer a solid band of those who put their homes on the market and are prepared to wait to get a reasonable price. 'There are some real bargains to be had among the re-sales, and prices for similar properties can vary enormously,' Rutherford says. British re-sales are growing all the time, with Rutherford's alone having 1,200 on its books.

Unfortunately, however, there is a mismatch between these properties and the majority of buyers, who still hope to find a romantic ruined farmhouse to restore, rather than a house that was done up to someone else's taste three years ago. So the re-sales continue to swell the stock on the shelves while the supply of desirable wrecks in the Dordogne, Provence and areas close to Paris gradually dries up.

But the indefatigable British buyer, like the true sniffer dog he has always been, will always seek out new areas to discover. Already he has moved on, south and west, to the Lot, the Limousin and the Charente, where you can still see dozens of little cottages in the pounds 25,000 range, but where you might occasionally have to put up with sodden Atlantic mists.

The latest places to become really fashionable, however, are Cordes and Gaillac in the Tarn. Both are pretty, wrapped in vineyards, and Cordes has unusual Florentine flourishes in its local architecture. For the last year or so, says Rutherford, British buyers have been happily swapping their pounds 250,000 houses in Fulham or Islington for pounds 100,000 houses there. The atmosphere in the Tarn now is much as it was in the Dordogne 20 years ago.

The British have taken their thirst for semi- derelict property to Italy too, distorting the price of tumbledown hill-top farmhouses along the way. Tuscany, which had attracted English writers and artists for many years, was the first to feel the full force of a new breed of Eighties incomer who pushed prices up by 30 per cent to 50 per cent each year. As the decade drew to a close, the spotlight of interest had moved to neighbouring Umbria. People suddenly discovered that a near-ruin worth pounds 50,000 in Chianti could be bought for a mere pounds 20,000 in Umbria, and all the delights of Florence, Pisa and Sienna were still within reach.

Now, according to Steve Emmett, managing director of estate agents Brian A French Associates, the area to watch is Le Marche to the east where derelict stone farms abound at pounds 20,000 to pounds 30,000 each. Buyers should expect to pay about the same again to modernise. Brown bears roam in the nearby national park, and the ski and coastal resorts are within an hour's drive. 'But you have to accept the region for what it is,' Emmett says, 'this is an area so rural that credit cards and foreign bank accounts have still not really arrived.'

Another Italian spot that is becoming more popular is the island of Elba. It attracted wealthy English purchasers during the Fifties and Sixties, and is now being revived in the affections of the house buyer abroad. The old expats and former company chief executives who came during the last wave of interest still maintain a discreet presence, but new buyers are now moving in: small, modern two-bedroom houses are available at pounds 70,000; much grander villas on the sea at pounds 600,000.

There are believed to be around 30,000 British people with holiday homes in Italy, and another 30,000 who have taken up residence there. Stan and Gwen Jeffs, a retired doctor and his wife whose two children have grown up and left home, are about to transplant their lives from a town house in Chester to a stone farmhouse surrounded by three acres of olive groves on the Tuscan/Umbrian border. 'We have loved Italy for many years and we always go back to it,' Gwen Jeffs says. 'We decided we didn't just want to stagnate for the rest of our lives, we wanted to open a new chapter.'

It was last May that they went to stay with English friends who were already living in Italy and realised that they could do it too. In the summer they went to view some properties and met Carlo Giancarlo, one of Brian A French's agents in Italy, and found their house. They are now restoring it, with the help of Giancarlo, who oversees the work and sends costings and photographs so that they can keep in touch with its progress.

They will take their own wood-burning stove and dog, instal bottled gas central heating, make their own olive oil and barter for goods. The well water is not yet connected to the house but, in time, it will be.

Greece has also to cast its spell over many British travellers, though the urge to buy property along the coast and in the islands was held in check until recently by government restrictions on foreigners owning property in areas designated as defence zones. Since Greece joined the EU, these restrictions have relaxed (except in areas very close to Turkey) and individuals have started to buy.

Sotheby's International Realty now has an agent in the area, Elise Knapp, who searches for properties for sale throughout the whole of Greece and the islands. These are not picturesque ruins: villas on the sea in the pine-scented undeveloped belts of Corfu go for between pounds 250,000 and pounds 900,000; houses on Mykonos in the Cyclades for pounds 150,000 upwards; she also has houses on the island of Hydra which is protected from cars and motorbikes and lies 1 1/4 hours from Athens by hydrofoil.

In Spain the property market remains firmly split between coast and country. The modern coastal developments along the Costas are still struggling to recover from huge numbers of distress sales caused by the recession, while the charms of inland Spain remain relatively undiscovered because the more intrepid British house-hunters seem to have concentrated their efforts in France and Italy.

One company that has tried to lure the British buyer away from the coast is Propertunities. It has built up a seductive portfolio of old stone houses close to the towns of Alcoy and Cocentaina, about one hour's drive into the mountains behind the Costa Blanca. Both are well off the tourist trails. Alcoy is described as a 'mini-Madrid', combing the skyline with its church steeples, while Cocentaina has a more rural charm. Women wash their clothes in the river running through the central square, and the same river runs through some of the houses, providing running water and fish at the same time.

But Propertunities' managing director, Max Winberg, finds that many buyers like the idea of the remote village house much more than the reality. 'They find these properties too pioneering,' he says. 'The mountains are beautiful but there is no English spoken, and once people see them they end up going back down to the coast to look at properties there.' Another new territory for the sniffer dog to get those price-distorting teeth into, perhaps?

The World of Property Exhibition is to be held in Manchester from 9-11 September at the Armitage Centre, Firs Athletics Ground, Moseley Road, Fallowfield, Manchester M14.

'At Home In France' by Jane Hawking, is available from bookshops (price pounds 6.99) or direct from the publisher, Allegretto Publications, 200-208 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9LA (same price plus pounds 1.25 p&p)

(Photographs omitted)