Overseas Property: What's the French for tum-ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum?

Thanks to a plot twist in The Archers, Debbie Gerrard has abandoned Ambridge for Reims. Ginetta Vedrickas looks at what she is likely to find there
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The Independent Online

Archers fans everywhere must now be mourning the departure of Debbie. Having turned her back on beloved Ambridge, she's relocated to the city of Reims in north- eastern France to join a seed company where, according to the script writers, she is living in a rented flat which comes with the job. It's not exactly a story to set hearts racing, but France is seeing ever-increasing numbers of Britons doing the same thing. Few, however, according to agents selling French property, ever choose to live in Reims.

Vivian Bridge, of agents North and West France, rarely finds clients stating a preference for this city, or area, and he is surprised by The Archers' script writers choice of venue: "We find very few buyers want to be based in Reims. It just doesn't hold the same attraction that other places do," Bridge adds: "It's rather economically depressed and it's landlocked. Most buyers prefer to be within striking distance of the coast."

Reims may be too far east for most buyers, but Bridge says that the rest of northern France always appeals to some: "A hell of a lot of people don't want a long drive and, while the Pas de Calais is less popular than Normandy and Brittany, it has some lovely areas within it." Bridge, whose own second home lies near to Le Touquet, finds that most buyers specifying northern France have a budget of around £60,000 which still buys you a small farmhouse, although in recent years prices have risen sharply: "In the Nineties, prices went nowhere but, since Millennium year, they have risen by about 40 per cent."

An Archers' spokesperson explains why they sent Debbie to Reims: "It was chosen specifically because it's an agricultural area and it suited the profession that Debbie is in." It may be agricultural, but this part of France is perhaps better known for its champagne production and it attracts many visitors who want to sample the delights of the champagne maisons which lie between Reims and Epernay to the south. The city, too, has its own charms and boasts a Gothic cathedral, which features Chagall-designed stained glass in its east chapel.

Nine years ago, Dutch-born Mr Marks relocated to this area, for work rather than the lure of the champagne or the cathedral, and bought a farmhouse in Beautor, around 50 miles north of Reims. He is again about to relocate and, through property website www.overseasrealestate.co.uk, he is marketing his home, which he believes is in an ideal location for British buyers: "We are close to the A26 motorway which is very convenient for people living in the UK. They can easily go back and forth to see their families." Most of his neighbours are French; Marks speaks the language fluently, and he cautions against buying in this area if you don't: "You have to speak French, which is a problem for everyone. Even we Dutch find it easier to speak English than French, perhaps we're more motivated to learn, but if you are going to live here then it's necessary."

Marks's farmhouse is for sale at €265,000 and lies on a plot of 3,500sq m, including several outbuildings. He has reservations about leaving: "It's extremely pleasant living here. It's so calm and there are no traffic jams, no pollution. It really is the French countryside." He has also felt very welcome: "We are foreigners, yet we've been quite well accepted and the people are nice and friendly, so in a way it will be a pity to go."

Frances McKay, of agents Francophiles, finds properties such as Marks's farmhouse "generally sell to the converted who already love this area." She gets few enquiries, on average one a year, for Reims: "It's always surprised me as it is very pretty. There are loads of vineyards as it's champagne country and there are rolling hills everywhere. I often go there for short breaks"

McKay believes that one reason British buyers may not choose this area is that gardens tend to be small. "Vines rule in this area and all the land is given over to them." Climate may also be a factor: "On the eastern side you get an extreme climate; the winters are extremely cold, with snow, and the summers are baking." But there are many advantages, particularly for the buyer who doesn't wish to find him or herself living among other British people.

Gardens may traditionally tend to be small, but Francophiles have just taken on a recently renovated 200-year-old house which is 15km from Reims and which lies within a quarter of an acre of land. The house has six bedrooms, several open fireplaces, a large reception room, conservatory and a walled garden containing stables and a swimming pool and is for sale at €520,000, currently around £361,111. Should Debbie decide to settle permanently, it would prove ideal.

North and West France: 020-8891 1750 www.all-france-properties.com www.overseasrealestate.co.uk; Franco philes: 01622 688165; www.francophiles.co.uk