Our Man In Normandy: Find a rustic retreat away from other Brits

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The Independent Online

There is a tired old British witticism which goes: "France is a wonderful country - if it weren't for the French". Has the time come to refresh the joke? Should we now be saying "France is a wonderful country - if it weren't for the British"? According to an article in the influential newspaper Le Monde last summer, there are the first signs of an anti-immigrant back-lash against British property-owners - and residents - in rural France.

This may be true in a mild, limited and local way, in those places which have high concentrations of British temporary or permanent immigrants, such as the Dordogne. Overall, judging by personal observation in Normandy and elsewhere, Franco-British racial strife seems to be rare to non-existent.

British incomers remain not only welcome but prized by small villages and towns which are struggling to survive in the green, empty centre of France and the inland areas of Brittany and Normandy. Our own neighbours, in a hamlet in the Norman hills, said that they were relieved to discover that we were British when we bought our weekend and holiday home five years ago. When we'd rolled up in car with a "75" numberplate, they had assumed, with heavy hearts, that we were Parisians.

In many cases it is the longer-established British residents who feel most threatened by the "new" British invasion of "Dordogneshire" and its borders. Until, say, five years ago, almost all of the British incomers were seeking holiday or retirement homes. There is now a wave of younger British migrants to the French south-west who want to escape the congestion at home. Some seek work in France or set up local or telephonic or internet businesses. In other cases, the family settles in France and the bread-winner - male or female - commutes by cut-price flights to jobs in London.

There are small towns in the south-west where the most commonly heard language in the Saturday street market is English. A study by the French rural property federation discovered that almost 3 per cent of the land area of France is now owned by Britons (the largest British land holding in France since we were booted out at the end of the Hundred Years War). Tensions can arise if British (and Dutch and Belgian) money drives up local property prices, but this can also please as many locals as it annoys. For the most part, the British property-seekers are in a different market from the locals. The British have an insatiable hunger for old stones. French country people prefer modern bungalows, with kitchens and fitted carpets - and roofs.

Personally, I have some sympathy with long-standing British residents who are uncomfortable at the thought of being swamped by other Britons. In most cases, the older residents say, they chose to live in France because they loved France and the rural French way of life. They did not want a slice of the home counties parachuted into the Périgord.

I would heartily recommend British people looking for homes in France to look beyond, in some cases only just beyond, the traditional areas of settlement. Market forces are already causing the new British migrants to scatter over a wider area. A shortage of available ruins has driven up the price of property in the most sought-after parts of Dordogne, Gers or the Lot.

If you want a bargain, and you want to experience French rural life as lived by the French rather than other francophile Britons, steer a little to the north and east of the Dordogne. Corrèze, the fief of President Jacques Chirac, is a beautiful, hilly and wooded département, which is already becoming sought after as a kind of overspill from the Périgord area. Cantal, located on the western fringes of the Auvergne has stunning green mountains - a kind of Peak District writ large - and some of the very finest French cheeses.

My own favourite is Creuse, just a little further north: one of the emptiest and most unspoiled French départements, with surprisingly English-looking, rolling, wooded, green countryside. You can still find tumbledowns in the southern and eastern parts of Creuse for £20,000 or less. Roofs come a little dearer.