There’s nothing new about disgruntled Europeans crossing the Channel in search of a better way of life: the current boom in the London property market bears witness to that. But it’s not all one-way traffic, and despite Europe’s economic problems, many discerning Britons are still prepared to quit these busy shores for a quiet life in the French countryside-and vice versa. In 1789, London-born inventor Anthony Bessemer was forced to flee his adopted city of Paris and return to Britain when the French Revolution broke out.
Charlton House, Strutt & Parker, £1.875m
The successful invention of a process for making gold chains enabled him to buy a small estate in the village of Charlton, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where exactly 200 years ago, his even more successful son, Henry, the inventor of the Bessemer steel-making process, was born. That event is commemorated by an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the wall of Charlton House, which is on the market, for the first time in 33 years, through Strutt & Parker (01582 764343). Launched earlier this year (see Country Life, February 27, 2013) at a guide price of £2.25 million, it has now been reduced to £1.875 million.
The sale follows the decision of its 74- year-old owner, Leslie Creasey, and his German-born wife, Renate, to move to the Languedoc region of south-west France, where, Mr Creasey points out, ‘you get an awful lot for your money’. But rather than buy straight away among the picturesque valleys and ancient castles of their chosen area around Béziers in the Hérault-a former Cathar stronghold better known nowadays for its rugby, bullfights and excellent local wine-the couple plans to rent for a year initially, so they can experience ‘all four seasons’ before committing themselves to a purchase.
Recommended videos for you
Back in Hertfordshire, Charlton House was originally two 16th-century cottages, and it was Anthony Bessemer who, on arriving in 1810, added the elegant main reception rooms behind a classic Georgian façade. During his 33-year tenure, Mr Creasey has further improved the house, which has three main reception rooms, a conservatory, a large farmhouse kitchen, seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and a large garden.
He also converted the former stables and hay barn to a separate studio annexe, where he currently stores the vast architectural, fashion and design archive that he’s painstakingly built up over the past 40 years. It’s hard to imagine two places more unalike than the sleepy rural village of Smallburgh on the edge of the Norfolk Broads, 14 miles north-east of Norwich, and the colourful town of Menton in the Alpes-Maritimes, which sits right on the border between France and Italy, its striking architecture and colourful lifestyle reflecting the influence of the French and the Grimaldis, who, between them, ruled the town over the centuries.
It’s a contrast much appreciated by Bob and Marian Edwards, who moved from Wales to Norfolk, when Mr Edwards was appointed managing director of a packaging company near Norwich some 24 years ago. Soon afterwards, they bought tranquil Old Hall Farmhouse, a Grade II-listed former estate house with early-16th-century origins and later 17th- and 18th-century additions. They grew to love the special atmosphere of The Broads and the wonderful sandy beaches of the north Norfolk coast, and carefully modernised the 5,000sq ft house, combining period charm with modern comfort. Old Hall Farmhouse stands in 3.2 acres of walled gardens, paddocks and woodland and has three reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room, two bath/shower rooms, stabling and outbuildings.
The Edwardses’ love affair with the Cote d’Azur has also evolved over time, and the couple has owned an apartment there for the past seven years. Now, they’ve decided to take the plunge and move to Menton fulltime, having successfully outbid a French buyer for a classic Belle Epoque villa on the elegant Boulevard de Garavan, an area colonised in the 1890s by Russian noblemen and English aristocrats. In the late 1930s, the stately Italianate villa was home for a time to the Russian
émigré writer Vladimir Nabokov, probably best-known for his controversial novel Lolita.
Old Hall Farmhouse, Strutt & Parker, £750,000
Old Hall Farmhouse is on the market through Strutt & Parker (01603 617431) at a guide price of £750,000. But the Edwardses won’t be severing all links with the UK: in due course, they intend to buy a pied-.-terre in Kent or Sussex.
Of all the French medieval bastide towns founded and built by the Plantagenet Edward I of England, who was also Duke of Gascony, the villages of Monpazier and Beaumont, south-east of Bergerac in the southern Dordogne, are among the most beautiful and the best preserved. The area remained an English stronghold during the Hundred Years’ War, and the Dordogne still boasts one of the highest concentrations of Anglo-Saxon residents in France. Hidden away in a secret valley within easy reach of both villages, the exquisitely renovated Le Grand Moulin has been ‘a veritable sanctuary from the stresses and noise of the 21st century’ for its owners, Dutch industrialist Sjoerd Meijer and his artist wife, Gillian, who bought the property as a virtual wreck 10 years ago.
Le Grand Moulin, €3.1m, Savills
The valley runs from east to west, so that, even in midwinter, the house is bathed in sunshine for most of the day. Impeccably restored over several years, the mill house has three reception rooms, four bedrooms and an infinity pool, surrounded by 28 acres of land that includes a large lake, streams regulated by locks, woodland and some magnificent trees. Other buildings include a lakeside studio/art gallery, two loggias, a boathouse, garages and stores.
Sadly in some ways, the progress of Mrs Meijer’s artistic career is taking the couple back to the UK, so they plan to sell their ‘earthly paradise’ in the Dordogne-through Savills (020-7016 3740) at a guide price of €3.1m -and buy a house in London and a smaller property in France.
L’Eclaircie, €1.195m Chesterton Humberts
The wish, or the need, to live closer to grandchildren is one of the reasons often cited by British expatriates of ‘a certain age’ for their eventual return to the UK. That is why the owners of idyllic L’Eclaircie near the sought-after village of La Garde-Freinet, a few miles inland from Saint-Tropez, have reluctantly put their much-loved Proven.al retreat on the market, through Chesterton Humberts International (020-3040 8210) at a guide price of €1.195m- a figure described as ‘sensible’ by French selling agent C.line Delbergue. Originally built in the 1970s, the five-bedroom house, built on two levels with several terraces and a swimming pool, was renovated and extended by the owners in 2008. It stands in 2. acres of beautiful gardens and natural meadows with views southwards over the ancient stone town of Grimaud.
Prospective British purchasers considering a cross-Channel move may be further tempted by the fact that the house-which is in easy walking distance of the village boulangerie and supermarket-brings with it the bonus of an established track record for holiday rentals.
* Follow Country Life property on Twitter