France's hidden northern delight

There are some real property bargains to be had in St Omer, one of France's most underrated areas.

St Omer has a curious mixture of traditional Flanders red-brick townhouses and other of sandy stone, often within the same building. The presence of sandstone reflects its dim and distant origins as a port, although it is many hundreds of years since the harbour silted up and the sea is now 16km away. But its wealth from those years is visible everywhere, from the streets full of large townhouses and vast market square to the grand Gothic cathedral, complete with a painting by Rubens, and the ruined Abbey, destroyed in the French Revolution.

Becoming part of France in 1677 brought further aggrandisement, with the ornate Hôtel Sandelin created to house the Countess of Fruges and now the refurbished museum, and the vast Town Hall, built from the stones of the ruined Abbey despite the eloquent protests of Victor Hugo, who was supposedly inspired to write Les Miserables by his visit to this part of France.

During World War II this part of France paid a heavy price for its resistance to the Nazis - and also had a key role in the development of its weapons programme. La Coupole was a concrete dome created by Russian and Polish slave labour to launch, in secret, the V2 rocket on the enemy across the channel, created by scientists who became the architects of the space race on both sides. It is now a fascinating, and haunting, museum.

Access is one of St Omer's key selling points, and not just from Britain. Belgium is 45 minutes away, Lille is less and, by fast train, offers commutability to Paris. The nicer parts of the coast are half an hour away.

The city - one of the smallest in France, with only 16,000 inhabitants - was founded by Benedictine monks in the 7th century on high land above the river Aa. One of their most remarkable achievements was to drain the marshes around St Omer, creating an area of fertile farmland and beautiful watermeadows which is still home to dozens of families. These are mostly built with no foundations and gradually, over the years, they sink into the marsh, giving rise to endearingly wonky roofs and slanting walls.

Fortunately, the conventional property stock is more solid, with a good selection of traditional farmhouses, manor houses, cottages and townhouses. And the country is also not, as might be expected, flat, with green hills and woods alongside fields and rivers.

Peter Wilton, the St Omer representative for British agent VEFUK, is convinced that the motorway is both the reason for St Omer's obscurity and the means by which British visitors will finally begin to notice the area's attractions.

"It's a blink-and-you'd-miss-it turning off the main road south as you whizz by, one that too few people take," he says. "If they did, they would find a very attractive area full of interesting properties with prices considerably cheaper than more visited places such as Le Touquet, Berck and Boulogne.

"It is 20 minutes from Calais, so it brings easy access to British visitors. Cottages and farmhouses here, an hour's journey across the channel, are plentiful, and cost a third of something similar in southern England, and often have a similar look to a grand English country house or townhouse. With France having so much more space, they are also likely to come with plenty of land if required.

"Once the new Eurotunnel terminal opens in 2006, and access becomes ever quicker, I think that people will begin to explore the surrounding countryside and St Omer will begin to attract the attention it deserves."

What is striking is that the choice of property is as surprisingly wide-ranging as the scenery. British buyers tend to prefer houses of whatever size in their own grounds, although there are a number of elegant, four storey St Omer town houses for sale with pretty courtyard gardens. In a cobbled street near the market square is a white-rendered, 18th century townhouse with four bedrooms, wine cellar and gas central heating, for sale with La Residence for £110,000 (www.laresidence.co.uk, 01491 838485).

Just outside St Omer is a traditional long farmhouse, with outbuildings dating from every period since the 14th century, vast attics ripe for conversion, workshops and two newly refitted gîtes. A property with a huge square footage of residential space but without great tracts of land to keep up, it is clearly being marketed as an option for those looking for a home and business. The farmhouse is on the market with Europale in St Omer (03 21 95 98 98) for offers around £400,000.

Nearby, a village maison de maître, in Ouve-Wirquin, 20 minutes from St Omer, has Brit appeal stamped all over it. Complete with period features - so complete that a modern, functional kitchen might be a buyer's first move - and with scope for renovation yet with a new roof and well-kept exterior, it is large, elegant but with a manageable garden. Europale are marketing the house for £220,000.

Bruno Lemaire, who runs the Europale agency, is confident that the delights of his home town are already starting to become more widely known and says that business is brisk. "We have a number of good properties and there is certainly a lot of positive reaction. More British buyers do seem to be taking an interest in St Omer, particularly because it is so easy to reach the English south coast. If people take that turn off the road, they will see there is much here to admire."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Midsummer swimwear season is well and truly upon us – but diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Property search
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice