Have your cake and eat it
Fabulous street markets, boulangeries and cafés where you can watch the world go by, châteaux and gâteaux – how many of us dream of the good life in France on our daily commute? What if you could have that lifestyle, and still work in the UK? Janine Marsh investigates
With UK house prices and the pace of life seeming to be constantly on the rise, many people long for simpler things, long hot summers, great schools, excellent healthcare and the laid-back vibe that is at the heart of the French lifestyle. And with a huge choice of houses in France at lower prices, fast – and, crucially, cheap – transport links, plus employers more open to flexible working hours, living a double life is becoming more commonplace.
ESCAPE TO THE CHÂTEAU
In the summer of 2015, Angelina and Philip Baillie-Smith, then engaged but looking for a wedding venue for their upcoming marriage, had a row. Nothing seemed to please Phil, and Angelina blurted out: “If we don’t find somewhere you like soon, we’ll have to get married in the garden!” Unfazed, Phil replied: “Do you mind where the garden is?”
Angelina’s outburst had given him an idea. While looking online at French properties, dreaming of living the good life in France, he’d found a gorgeous château in the Mayenne, Pays de la Loire, for sale or rent. He negotiated a commercial lease that would enable the couple to market the château as a wedding venue prior to buying. Then, he had another proposal to make to his wife-to-be: would she be willing to follow his dream? Angelina took one look at the photos of the gorgeous 18th-century Château Du Bailleul and shrieked “Yes” all over again.
The couple say a perfect château doesn’t necessarily make the perfect wedding venue and they’ve worked hard to make it the ideal setting. In 2016, they were the first to test its charms when they got married in its garden.
To fund their new business, Angelina and Phil commute to London for their property agent jobs. They have a good choice of routes and generally take the overnight boat from Caen or Le Havre to Portsmouth, or the three-hour ferry from Cherbourg (summer only).
“We go back and forth so much we pretty much know all the crew by name,” laughs Angelina. From Portsmouth, they have a two-hour commute to London where they stay in a room in their flat, the rest of which is rented out.
Despite all the toing and froing, the couple love their unorthodox work-life arrangement. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Angelina.
“The excitement of London versus the peace and quiet of Mayenne and laidback lifestyle France offers.” Philip says that after the day’s work is done, they can completely switch off.
When Wendy and Adam Clemens spotted a 19th-century hôtel particulier for sale in Saint-Étienne-au-Mont, just outside Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais, they fell, in her own words, “madly in love”. They swiftly sold their house in Saffron Walden, Essex, and in 2017 moved into their fourbedroom mansion, for which they paid just over £300,000 (plus fees). “We were very fortunate. The price was cut from £500,000 to £350,000 and the agent managed to negotiate a further reduction,” says Wendy.
Adam, a barrister, commutes to London while Wendy remains in France. Their home is 25 minutes by car to Eurostar’s Calais terminal and the train to London takes 55 minutes to St Pancras. In fact, due to the one-hour time difference, “you arrive before you’ve left”, jokes Adam. “Commuting from here to the UK is easy. In fact, it’s quicker for me to get to London from here than it was when I lived in the UK.”
“We fell in love with the house, but it’s the lifestyle that’s really the most important thing,” adds Wendy. “There’s a sense of community spirit, the neighbours have been really welcoming, and when Adam is working in London, I don’t feel isolated because there’s always something to do. Our daughters Lucy and Alice, who both work in London, love to visit.”
The house is structurally sound with lots of original features, but does need modernising. In between renovation projects, the couple make the most of the region’s brocantes and regularly comb flea markets for vintage and antique furniture and objets d’art.
Being so close to the Opal Coast with its vast sandy beaches and picturesque fishing villages, daily street markets and the friendliness of the locals “makes this a little bit of heaven”, says Wendy.
“Life in France has made me more relaxed and given me more opportunity to do the things I enjoy like gardening or reading, which I never seemed to have time for in the UK,” says Adam. With ten years to go before he retires, the couple have no doubts that commuting to London while enjoying the easygoing pace of France is absolutely the best way of life for them.
LESSONS IN HAPPINESS
Heather and Mike White’s big commute began in 1997, when they snapped up a neglected former schoolhouse in the village of Pierremont, Pas-de-Calais, for just £8,800. The bargain price meant the property was in serious need of both structural work and TLC. But graphic designer Mike was up for a challenge. And 21 years later, the couple’s sheer hard work and artistic flair have transformed the wreck into a stunning home, complete with a design studio for Heather, who works as a creative pattern-maker for a top fashion house in London. For the past two decades, Heather has commuted to the Big Smoke every other week – occasionally more frequently – driving just an hour to catch the Eurostar from Calais, then making the 55-minute journey to St Pancras.
They’ve never regretted the move, says Heather. “Apart from not being able to get a takeaway after a hard day’s graft, there’s nothing we miss,” says Mike. “This way of life really works for us. We have a lifestyle we could have never afforded in London”.
With authentic street markets and the beach on the doorstep – not to mention stunning countryside ideal for walking their dog – it is all a dream come true, says Heather. “It’s a simpler way of life here, people are friendly, there are magnificent cultural venues like the Louvre museum in Lens, plus hundreds of festivals. It really is a very good life.”
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Allison and Rob Howard made their move to the town of Bellac, a ‘Petite Cité de Caractère’ in Haute-Vienne, in 2014 after falling head over heels with a maison bourgeoise they found on the internet.
It took some careful planning to organise everything says Allison, but in 2016 they started their new life in France with their four-year-old daughter Scarlett, who is now completely fluent in French. Rob, a yoga teacher, established a popular studio in Bellac and teaches in the local area; while Allison decided to carry on working as a contractor for an accounting firm in London. She lives one week in France and works one week in London, renting a room from a colleague.
With daily flights from nearby Limoges or Poitiers, the location was ideal. Flights take just over an hour. “Bizarrely the cost of the Stanstead Express train, £29, is more than a return plane ticket to Limoges at €12.99 each way,” says Allison.
“Making a success of living in France and working in the UK is all down to how committed you are to having the lifestyle you want – and making the effort to leave that lifestyle behind when you’re at work,” she continues.
“I love that I can drive to Limoges in 45 minutes and Bordeaux is just two hours away. We love our house, which is within walking distance to shops and restaurants. It only needed decorating, and is perfect for us. The area is gorgeous and there is a lot to do – especially in the summer. We’ve built up a great network of friends here: both French and English-speaking.”
With “no regrets at all”, Rob and Allison insist you can definitely have your gâteau – and eat it too!
Top tips for commuting to work in the UK from France
• Good transport links are essential – whether that’s by air, rail, ferry or road. Make sure to factor this into your property search.
• Sort out a job with flexible working hours before you make the move. It will save you a lot of stress.
• Make sure that a good broadband service is available in your search area. Internet and phone signal are vital for remote working, but can be very patchy in some pockets of France.
• Carefully plan where you’ll be staying while working in the UK to help cut costs. TIP: Airbnb offers short- and long-term stays and can be more economical than booking a hotel.
If you would like some assistance discovering the best areas of France to commute from and find out more about what the property market has to offer please don’t hesitate to give us a call at +44 (0) 1225 463752 or email us at [email protected]
If you can’t find what you’re looking for, or don’t have time to search yourself, FrenchEntrée has a dedicated Property Team to assist you in finding your dream property. Let us know what you are looking for and we will do our best to select properties matching your requirements.
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