The Dordogne: These may not be Englishmen's castles, but it feels like home
The French staked their claim on the Dordogne in the Hundred Years War. Now the British are taking back the land, farmhouse by farmhouse
Think of a colour. Any colour – as long as it's green. Olive, bottle, lime, khaki, emerald, jade, teal, chartreuse, moss, viridian – but always green.
The rolling hills and vales of the Dordogne are a study in one colour with infinite gradations. Patchy woodlands and small shimmery lakes are cross-hatched by vineyards, plum orchards and fields of unruly sunflowers. Terracotta-roofed hamlets, ivory bell towers, and the occasional turreted castle break up the dominion of green, but look equally rooted in the soil. Timeless and seemingly benign, it's a fairy-tale landscape where unicorns should roam and one in which peasants and princes might just live happily ever after.
The English and the French fought over this region during the Hundred Years War. The French won that spat with what they thought was a conclusive battle in 1453. But nothing is for ever. The Brits are back, reclaiming this pleasant land by stealth, chipping away at French sovereignty, farmhouse by farmhouse.
Le Manoir de Tachau, near Duras, where our gîte is located, is one such. Despite the French name, the estate is substantially an outpost of the Home Counties. The commander-in-chief is indeed a military man. Lt-Col J W Molyneux-Child, Lord of Dedswell and Papworth, comes bounding over to greet us. He is accoutred in nothing but a pair of alarmingly skimpy Speedos, and his regimental swagger stick is absent, but his bristling moustache and air of martial authority are dead giveaways.
The colonel bought not just the manor house but the entire hamlet 10 years ago for, as he puts it, "loose change". Old limestone farm buildings were restored; an "English" garden was created and a swimming pool was installed next to the surrounding vineyards. His time in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers must have helped him to find the confidence to take on such a sprawling project. The resort he has created does have shades of boot camp. A flagpole by the pool flies the flags of home – England, Wales, Scotland – changing by the day, depending on where his paying guests originate. They are encouraged to join in the pageantry; one Scottish family brings bagpipes, and they pipe the flag of St Andrew down in an improvised ceremony at sunset.
What do the locals make of such British antics? Hard to know as there are no French to hand, but I suspect they have long adjusted to great English eccentrics. John, as we come to know him, is a septuagenarian, but his energy and enthusiasm for his big retirement project are infectious. He spends all summer at his French estate and the winter back at his manor (I am not speaking figuratively) in Surrey. Unlike most others who have bought into the area, the colonel can choose just how British or French he wants to be.
The Brits of the Dordogne and Lot are surely a conflicted lot. They came because they wanted a piece of rural France, but they came in such numbers that they've ended up with precisely what many had hoped to leave behind – other Brits. Throughout my stay, I run into expats in restaurants, bars and supermarkets who insist that their particular patch is somehow more authentic, more unspoilt, more French than some other village or town. They seem oblivious to the glass construction of their houses.
The fortified bastide town of Eymet is by general consensus the most afflicted. A third of the population of the town is British, and their profile is not low. There are numerous English estate agents, pubs, and bookshops; grocery stores sell brown sauce and Marmite, DIY shops stock Farrow and Ball paints, and there is, of course, a cricket team.
The town is the de facto capital of Dordogneshire (a coinage that infuriates many locals). The expats here, as elsewhere, have a reputation for being linguistically challenged and insular. A friend, Laurent, who is from the Dordogne says: "It is a bit ridiculous. This is an area known for its food, and you hear the English at the supermarket complaining that the crisps are not the same as back home."
Such irritations melt away under the floodlights of the night market (held every Tuesday during the summer season). My son Niko and I wander through the pretty arcaded square picking out the accents of English and French in about equal ratio. We settle at one of the many trestle tables that line the Place de la Bastide, joining a gaggle of chattering teenagers (French). The stallholders are doing brisk business in local wines, ice cream, caramelised nuts, charcuterie, barbecued sausages, handcrafted lampshades and exotic tagine pots from the Maghreb.
We are served salade gourmande on paper plates, piled high with generous portions of foie gras, magret de canard, smoked lardons and confit de gésiers (gizzards in fat); a périgourdine feast for just ¤9 (£7.80). Another ¤2 is invested in a plastic cup of chilled honey-sweet Monbazillac from a vineyard up the road. The evening is balmy, the party is on. Soon Niko is joshing in pidgin French with the teenagers. On this evidence, Eymet is not about to lose its Frenchness anytime soon. The entente is very cordiale.
The temperature the next day is well into the 30s. This is when you notice you are not by the seaside. But the region compensates with open-air leisure centres based around the many lakes. Or did. We turn up at the Base de Loisirs (leisure centre) just north of Sigoulès to find the site is derelict. Weeds are pushing through the asphalt; the tennis courts seem to have been abandoned mid-match; grass is reclaiming the artificial beach and the water slides are arthritic. An official notice nailed to the entry kiosk declares the centre was shut down by order of the mayor on 7 May 2008.
It is the same story at the Lac de Castelgaillard near the colonel's estate. A sturdy steel gate is pulled across the entrance and the signage is stark "Baignade non autorisée" (swimming prohibited). We have to drive south-east for 45 minutes beyond the town of Miramont-de-Guyenne to get near water. But even the lovely Lac du Saut-du-Loup is bereft of swimmers.
"It's the EU," says Patrick, whom I meet as he lopes along the shore with
his dog Vixie. "They say the water is too green, too thick. Too full of bacteria." The authority of bureaucrats cuts no ice with Patrick, a French adventurer who has spent much of his life in Brazil and as a fisherman in Iceland. Now in his mid-fifties, retired or jobless, he is back and doesn't recognise the country he left many years ago.
Without access to the lake, the adjoining camp site has lost its raison d'être. The lakeside Auberge du Chaperon Rouge, despite beautiful views, also looks a bit ghostly. There is no one here but us.
Patrick asks us to join him on one of the decrepit yellow pedalos that are scattered around the lake. The contraption, shaped like a VW Beetle, barely floats but the invitation is irresistible. We set off, dog on board, Niko pedalling furiously, but the rudder linkage is broken and progress is problematic. We are limping along when we hear angry shouting. An official-looking lady is waving her mobile at Patrick, demanding we return tout de suite. A stand-up row, with lots of Gallic shrugging, follows. I have an idea this is not the first time Patrick has upset her. "The managers here tell me the water is dirty," he fumes later, "but I tell them I am more dirty than the water."
In Duras, the other must-see bastide in the vicinity, it seems the whole of Aquitaine is up for sale. In the estate agents' shop windows, large stickers – "English spoken here" – make it clear who the target market is. It seems entirely plausible that even the town's commandingly placed chateau could go to the English if the price was right – after all that is exactly what the shrewd Durforts clan of Duras did when they switched sides and pledged allegiance to the King of England in 1345.
The chateau, extensively restored from a ruin in the past 30 years, is a source of much civic pride and is not currently available. But much else is, from the water mill on the River Dropt at Eymet to the local restaurant in St Sernin de Duras. The colonel also has property on the market. He takes me on a tour of a cluster of farm buildings he has partially restored and readied for British buyers. He has, rather charmingly, placed price tags in front of each, like so many items in a car boot sale. "Les Vignobles" is yours for ¤150,000, the barn next door is priced at precisely ¤252,520.
But the colonel reveals he has not made a sale in the past five years. The modern British invasion has been halted, or at any rate slowed, by economic realities back home. History, however, has taught both the British and the French to play the long game in this region. It may take another 100 years to resolve this.
How to get there
Sankha Guha travelled from Portsmouth to Caen with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; brittanyferries.com), which offers return crossings from £132 in total for a car and two passengers. He stayed in a gîte at Le Manoir de Tachau courtesy of Owners Direct (ownersdirect.co.uk), property ref FR1134, which are available from £488 per week.
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