They are not seduced by the manageable and modern but by picturesque outcasts. Rundown cottages, derelict barns, neglected manor houses all have their British white knights. There was a lull during the recession but the appetite for French second homes is growing again, made all the more tempting this time by the Channel Tunnel and Le Shuttle as well as the competitive ferry services. A second home in northern France has a real chance of being just that.
If attention and money are to be lavished on a property, it makes sense that it should be within easy reach of the coast and a weekend away. For that reason the Pas de Calais, more open and not as attractive as Normandy and Brittany, has the singular advantage of bringing a second home within about a 45-minute drive from Calais.
Paul Woodhouse bought his two-up, two-down terrace house in Etaples, a small fishing town outside Le Touquet, eight years ago. "I manage to get over for a weekend about every fortnight in the summer. There's nothing like waking up on a Saturday morning to the sound of church bells, its like being in a completely different world and if Le Shuttle is running properly it's just three hours from London."
A keen golfer he has, he says, fabulous courses close by . "Le Touquet is fun but I'm glad I didn't buy there. I prefer the feel of a small town with its classic square. The elderly lady next door pops in to air the house and apart from that it doesn't need any looking after."
Vivian Bridge of North & West France Properties says that inland, apart from the the walled city of Montreuil, the prettiest areas are the valleys south of Hesdin, the market town in the heart of the Pas de Calais. Here, a structurally sound, whitewashed house, with orange pantile roof, running water and electricity, in about half an acre with outbuildings can be bought for about pounds 17,000. Done up nicely it would be closer to pounds 30,000. The strength of the pound and the fact that France is still in recession can blind some people to the hidden expenses of buying a property that needs a lot of work. During the rush to buy French homes in the Eighties, many people bought old places cheaply and then found they could not afford to do them up. Maurice Lazarus of Domus Abroad, who sells only British- owned properties, finds that their restoration work is to a higher standard than is usual locally.
But David King of Hamptons International, says that many British owners got their fingers burnt. They tended to gentrify in a way that did not appeal to the French, who not only were uninterested in restored rural cottages but could not afford the prices any way. When the UK market collapsed they were left with nowhere to turn. The glut of homes for sale has seen Hamptons retreat from northern France for the time being. Normandy, with its rolling hills, cheese and Calvados evokes a way of life that we, the British, find irresistible. No longer able to find the perfect combination of a period home in need of restoration, on the edge of a village with some land anywhere this side of the channel, France offers what Britain cannot.
Tony and Junko Fowle, who have a house in a small town on the Cherbourg Peninsula, describe it as stepping back 40 years. "It is so peaceful, the world seems to stop. There isn't the hassle there. The quality of life, whether the food or the way people live, makes it difficult to leave." It was not an an auspicious start though. They bought in St Sauveur le Vicomte on Black Wednesday, when the pound plummeted. "We paid pounds 30,000 and lost pounds 4,000 on the exchange rate. But we have no regrets. We come over on the night ferry about every month for a few days," says Eric Fowle. As antique dealers, they have no difficulty in furnishing the solid three- bedroom house, which once belonged to the mayor. "We would like to move here permanently when we retire." They are not alone. The numbers of British looking to run their business from France or to part-retire there are increasing. Penny Zoldan of Latitudes says the half- timbered colombage and brick houses particularly in the Seine Maritime region of Normandy are very popular. "The Dieppe area has lovely architecture and with the new motorway it is no more than an hour and a half from the tunnel. A typical long colombage in good order would be in the region of pounds 40,000 and pounds 60,000. If it needs work then downwards from pounds 30,000. They tend to sell quickly."
Some owners choose to bring over teams of British workmen to restore houses, which can, says Penny Zoldan, cause some resentment. "Don't leave your common sense behind, but tradesmen are less likely to take you for a ride if you go very locally." Trouble is, they probably regard anyone buying something like an old pig-shed as being short of more than common sense.
For further information call North & West France Properties: 0181-891 1750; Latitudes: 0181-958 5485; Domus Abroad: 0171-431 4692
Houses shown (right, top to bottom)
Pas de Calais: North & West France Properties
A country house in gardens of a third of an acre near the market town of Hesdin in the Authie valley. The house, with bread oven and a cellar, has two bedrooms plus one in the attic which has been only partly converted. Price (F Fr) 480000 (pounds 53,333).
Detached cottage in reasonable condition with outbuildings and generous land in a village between Frevent and Auxi Le Chateau, about 45 km from the coast. Price (F Fr 240000 (pounds 26,000).
A three bedroom house in an enclosed courtyard with converted outbuildings. It has an acre of garden and fields and is an hour from Calais in the Authie Valley. Price F Fr 550000 (pounds 61,000).
A country house overlooking the Canche Valley in a wooded garden. It has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, cellar, attic and garages. Price (F Fr) 720000 (pounds 80,000).