Property: Normandy conquest
A hassle-free property across the Channel? Head for France's untrampled north, says Gerard Gilbert
A large number of French property-owning Brits spend two weeks in the summer and perhaps one at Easter in their Gallic retreats - much of which time is spent dispelling the damp and cobwebs of unoccupancy and doing urgent DIY. That's after you've spent two days - or should that be daze - recovering from your 12-hour southerly schlep down the autoroute. And forget the garden, which will be a jungle of bindweed and thistles that you might just as well give over to the local farmer and his livestock.
So what about something closer to hand? Northern France is the unfashionable end, of course, but it is still France. Napoleon and generations of autocratic centrists have made sure of that. Calais, thanks to the wonderfully unfussy Le Shuttle, is now less than two hours' drive away from the centre of London, while new motorways are bringing parts of Normandy (imagine Sussex with more space and fewer cars) to within four hours' drive from Piccadilly Circus.
I part-own a farmhouse in the Seine Maritime departement of Normandy, about 20 minutes from Dieppe. When the Boulogne-Abbeville segment of the A16 motorway is finally completed next spring, I should be able to leave work here at Canary Wharf in London's East End at five o'clock on a Friday evening and be sitting down by a blazing fireside with a glass of Calvados come the stroke of nine. Conversely, I could lock up the front door of our fermette at eight o'clock on a Monday morning and (thanks to the hour time difference) be settled behind my desk at The Independent by 11am, a reasonable hour in medialand. Voila. The French home can be comfortably weekendable. I go to Normandy at least once every four weekends (more often in the summer), plus the usual holidays. The only prohibition is the cost of the Shuttle - or ferry if you prefer - but even that isn't too bad away from peak holiday seasons.
The biggest no-no for many potential buyers in northern France, though, is the weather - which is pretty much as found in southern England. But take the long view. Global warming may soon make Provence uninhabitable to all but scorpions and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, while Picardy will bask in Provencal languor. And, in the meantime, not everybody prefers hot weather. The four seasons in Normandy are beautifully gradated, even if I do wish high summer would hang around a few weeks longer. Region by region, then, this is a very rough guide to the desirable parts of northern France.
Nord and Pas de Calais
Generally seen from the window of a car or train speeding to Paris and beyond, the Pas de Calais is not without interest or beauty - and there is a massive regional park at its centre. Some of the best sandy beaches in France are to be found south of Boulogne and towards Le Touquet, while the pretty town of Hesdin makes a good base for property viewing (thick white-stoned-wall houses are the style here). One glance at your Michelin guide will also reveal a greater concentration of "starred" restaurants in the area than almost anywhere else in the country, a legacy of the area's historic role as the playground of Paris. To the east of the region you are more properly in Flanders, with its beer-drinking Flemish connections. Why not two foreign cultures for the price of one? Lille, meanwhile, is fast becoming one of the most exciting cities in the country - and has Eurostar and TGV connections. Fancy a short break? You could be in Bordeaux in five hours.
I have slowly been discovering Picardy, with its sombre associations with the First World War, while toing and froing from Normandy, and have been developing an appreciation for its rather wild, open scenery and pretty cottages. The bay of the Somme is another place apart, with its flat, marshy landscape and twin capitals of Le Crotoy and St Valery-sur- Somme, both extremely attractive towns. Driving around the area in June I was struck by its similarity to the landscape around La Rochelle. Watch out for unexploded shells from the Great War while digging the hole for your septic tank. These are still being uncovered in alarmingly large quantities.
The most obviously attractive of all the northern regions of France, with lush green meadows, orchards, half-timbered houses and a fine regional cuisine based on milk, apples and the sea. By next spring motorways will go in one long sweep all the way from the Channel Tunnel to Caen, in the deep heart of Normandy, via Rouen. The Seine Maritime is the most easterly - and thus accessible - Norman departement. The Caux plateau, dominating the landscape to the east of Le Havre, can seem monotonous in the flatness of its great wheat fields, but tucked all about are beautiful river valleys, while in the more intimate Pay de Bray - home of the heart-shaped Neufchatel cheese - you can still find those archetypal timbered properties (the French call them colambage) in the region of pounds 20,000. Anywhere within striking distance of Dieppe gives you a second port of entry, although the fast-ferry service from Newhaven to Dieppe is currently earning itself a notorious reputation for lateness and mechanical failure to rival the London Underground's Northern Line.
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