Normandy: so close but so different
Normandy has been a favourite British destination for decades. We look at the region, jobs and property
Normandy has been a favourite British destination for decades. Reminiscent of the English countryside with its thatched cottages, half-timbered houses and bucolic prairies, it is idyllic and full of charm.
There is a significant slice of common history since William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, leading to the common language of Anglo-Norman and novelties such as the Tower of London being built in Caen stone. In France, this episode is remembered through the Bayeux tapestry, an amazing work of craft which has shed light on the customs of 11th-century France and the different stages of the Norman Conquest.
The modern face of Normandy was shaped by its role in the D-Day landings of the Second World War, where the coastal towns of Basse Normandie were among the first to be liberated, but paid the price in civilian deaths and cities razed by relentless bombing in bloody battles that lasted weeks.
Those days are remembered in the many cemeteries of Allied or German soldiers, the ruins of bunkers that can still be found on beaches and the museums and monuments, of which there are over 20 in the two regions, dedicated to prolonging the memory.
If it is remembered for the darker days, Normandy is also known for having produced writers and artists whose love for their land became public through their art.
Maupassant immortalised the beauty of the area in his works and Victor Hugo, in Demain, dès l’aube, wrote of his sadness as he walked from Le Havre to Villequier on his yearly pilgrimage to the grave of his daughter, Léopoldine, who drowned in the Seine.
The unforgettable colours of Le Havre harbour in Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet gave rise to the Impressionist movement and his love of nature can be seen in Giverny, south-east of Rouen, where his pink stuccoed house has been restored with its water garden.
Etretat cliffs have drawn artists of the calibre of Jean-Baptiste Corot and Eugène Delacroix, as did Dieppe with Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir.
Normandy has its share of palaces, castles and manors, but its richest architectural heritage is medieval, with the 150m towers of the Abbey of Jumièges being the tallest building in the region in the 11th century.
You can get a taste for the region at the Palais Bénédictine in Fécamp, an extraordinary example of gothic and renaissance palace where the Bénédictine liqueur is made.
Did you know?
Bayeux number game: There are 626 characters in the Bayeux Tapestry, more than 200 horses, 50 dogs, about 500 other animals, 30 buildings and 40 ships. The 70m of embroidered cloth is in its own dedicated museum. Remarkably, it was undamaged in two fires in the Middle Ages that destroyed its original home of Bayeux cathedral.
Cabbage patch: Many English words come from Norman and replaced their Nordic or Saxon equivalents after the 1066 conquest. Catch is said to come from Norman chacier, to hunt; garden from Norman gardin and French jardin; cabbage from caboche, the Norman word for French chou.
Literary corner: Several of France’s most illustrious authors are Norman. Corneille, the author of ground-breaking tragicomedy Le Cid, was born in Rouen in 1606. Gustave Flaubert is also from Rouen and the city has a museum dedicated to the author of Madame Bovary. Guy de Maupassant was born at Tourville-sur-Arques in Haute-Normandie. Poet and novelist Raymond Queneau was born in Le Havre in 1903.
D-Day civilian toll: Calvados faced the largest toll of civilian deaths during the D-Day landings in June 1944, with more than 8,000 killed in the fighting. 700 civilians died in one night alone in Lisieux and over the summer 2,000 were killed in Caen as the town was turned to dust in the bombings. Altogether 20,000 Normans died in the aftermath of D-Day.
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Explore the streets of Rouen
The capital of Haute-Normandie is a city rich in history. You can go back to Roman times to understand its foundation, learn about the Normans with William the Conqueror and hear about the last moments of Joan of Arc as she was burnt at the stake in the old market square.
See Etretat and the natural arches of its cliffs
Enjoy a walk on the wind-swept white cliffs and think about the hidden treasure of the kings of France, reputedly hidden in the needle rock that is such a dramatic feature. Readers of Maurice Blanc, author of the novels about gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, will recognise it as one of his leitmotifs.
Mangez des pommes
Freshly picked from a tree, squeezed into a glass of juice or prepared in a rhubarb and apple tart, the Norman apple is outstanding. Apple also goes well with cheeses such as the local camembert. It also makes alcohol, the most obvious of which is cider, but also Calvados. Try a Trou Normand, a digestive apple sorbet sprinkled with Calvados eaten in the middle of the meal; pommes à la grivette, a speciality with apple, cottage cheese, sugar and calvados; or a traditional sweet from Rouen called Sucres de pomme.
Visit the Le Pin national stud
The Haras du Pin in the Orne is known as the Versailles for horses and is a listed national monument. Set over 1,000 hectares, it hosts equestrian shows throughout the year but is worth a visit just for the 18th-century chateau and stables. The historic stud has stables with 10 species of horses from Percherons to thoroughbreds and French trotters.
"Our village has three hairdressers, two bars, a restaurant, two banks and two bakers"
Peter and Kathy Baker
BEING near to the ports was a major consideration for market research professional Peter Baker and his wife, Kathy, a quality development manager, when they started looking for a secondary house in 2003.
The couple, who live near Newhaven, wanted somewhere for weekends and holidays: “We had friends with a house in Normandy and we always wanted to do something similar,” Mr Baker said. “We decided it would be better to be nearer the ports, so we could go much more often and have shorter trips.
After four months of research, they found their 1790 house in Bacqueville-en-Caux, near Dieppe, with the river Vienne running along one side of the house and a beautiful lush garden.
“We just found it so attractive. Funnily enough, when we started looking, we said we would look for a Normandy house with colombages, a longère in the middle of a field and within three miles of a baker’s shop.”
“But we saw this place, within three minutes of a baker’s, a little brick building that was not what we had asked the estate agents for at all, we just had a coup de coeur.”
“It’s relatively small – the downstairs is just one big room, upstairs is three bedrooms. In the past, it was either three or four houses; four tiny houses, possibly service houses for the chateau nearby.”
They visit at least once a month for a few days and say Bacqueville-en-Caux is a lively village: “It’s an absolutely charming, 18th-century brick village. With just under 2,000 population, it has three hairdressers, two bars, a restaurant, two banks, two bakers and so on. The surrounding small villages have lost many shops, but Bacqueville-en-Caux has kept more.”
What they liked best was the peacefulness and vast, beautiful countryside.
“It has got an incredible sense of peace and relaxation about it. We know the area very well; we bought bicycles in a car boot sale. So we’ve cycled and walked.
“The country is beautiful, especially in the valleys, although the flat bits in between are a little desert-like, with huge fields of grain and crops.”
Although they are very comfortable in Normandy, they have never considered moving permanently and prefer to keep it as a place to come to relax and recharge their batteries. Being regular visitors has also meant they have had a chance to build a real relationship with locals.
“You meet the retailers and the neighbours slowly, and people up and down the lane, and they invite you to their house first for an aperitif and then for more,” Mr Baker said.
“People are wonderful and so helpful. When you speak to people in bars, if you ever say, ‘Where can I get one of these?’, you get 10 people trying to help you.”
"Using local tradesmen is what helped us perhaps get to know more people in the area"
Anne and David Peters
A HUNTING lodge, built between the 15th and 17th centuries, was the perfect property for Anne and David Peters, who wanted space for their horses and for a gîte.
After searching Brittany and down to Charente, then across to Limousin, an English-speaking agent helped them find the dream house in lower Normandy and they moved from Surrey to Condé-sur-Sarthe, a village outside Alençon, at the end of 2004.
They fell in love with the stone house and barns on nearly three hectares of land, saying: “We saw this house and thought it had got us marked on it. It ticked all the boxes.”
Anne Peters said: “We knew it had room for the gîte, and it was good for the horses and not too hot.
“One of the big pulls was the fact it was not too far from the UK for people to travel because of the business that we wanted to create. By ferry or by Eurostar, they could get to us in four or five hours.”
She added: “We are three miles from the forest, so there are loads of lovely walks; we are probably an hour and a half from any of the beaches and our guests all say there is so much to do within a couple of hours of this area. They can go to the Loire valley, to Mont St Michel, to Paris or to Le Mans. We are pretty central.”
Having designed and furnished the gîte, the couple called in local artisans to renovate and turn the old barn into accommodation of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a lounge, a dining room and a kitchen.
Opened in 2006, their gîte and swimming pool have been met with great success, and has been fully booked throughout summer, while having the odd winter lets.
Now the cost of living has brought its share of difficulties and they are looking at diversifying into English immersion live-in courses as Mrs Peters is a qualified Toefl English teacher.
Mrs Peters said she had made every effort to learn and integrate, but struggled to find a job and remembers being pushed away by one of her local supermarkets.
“I tried to get a job as a shelf-packer and they looked at me as if I had fallen from the back of a lorry. There was no way I would get that job because I was not French.”
However, their experience of moving to Normandy was smooth overall, with the usual up and downs, especially with the taxation system, which could sometimes be blamed on a lack of information in English.
She found people friendly, but kept themselves to themselves: “I find it very difficult to pop in on a French person. They are always very polite and will always offer you drinks, but it is difficult to totally integrate.
“We were perhaps naïve when we took on this project, but we were also very lucky. I think using local tradesmen is what helped us perhaps to get to know more people in the area and be more accepted.”
"The cost of living is probably better here on the whole"
Geoff and Diana Shorto
Location: Le Mesnil-Adelée
PART-TIME jobs at Marks & Spencer helped newly weds Geoff and Diana Shorto spend free time looking for a house in Normandy.
Mr Shorto, from Cheshire, worked for BA and Londoner Diana, who also worked in travel services, lived in Hampshire before retiring and starting their new life in France.
“We liked Normandy, we liked the countryside. We had been searching for a number of years and went to Brittany and looked south of Rennes, but it was too flat and boring,” Mr Shorto said.
“The countryside here is very much like where I grew up. We looked at Swiss Normandy as well; that’s the sort of terrain we like and it is also convenient for visits.”
Le Mesnil-Adelée is a village of about 200, half an hour from Avranches and 90 minutes from Ouistreham and Dinard, with ferries and flights to the UK. It is about three hours from Paris.
Their research paid off, after a number of disappointments with viewings, when they heard about a farm cottage coming on to the market. The 200-year-old house had been extended about 50-60 years ago and was set in a beautiful plot of land with cider apple trees.
“Having seen that, we fell in love with it. It had not got a cellar, which we wanted, and it was not on the edge of a village, which we wanted,” Mr Shorto said.
“It did not tick all the boxes, but it was a compromise and had the tranquillity and the right amount of land. We wanted a hectare, we got exactly a hectare. And it was in the area and the size that we wanted.”
After re-flooring the ground floor and having it pointed, they will finish the house in about six months, but have more projects lined up, including plans for a formal garden.
Now the couple are living a busy and happy life, but have had a few adjustments: “We had to get used to the shopping habits where major places close at noon and don’t open again until 14.00. You have to plan, otherwise you waste half the day waiting for the shop to open. Strangely, because supermarkets are franchised, branches can have different prices in the next town. So you have to shop around.
“The cost of living is probably better here on the whole. The taxe d’habitation is a tenth of what it was in the UK – and our house was not as big and did not have as much land.
“Living here has been wonderful. We have very nice French neighbours; everybody we have met without exception has been very helpful and friendly.”
The job market
Veronique Crézé, Normandy delegate of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce
What are the main industries in Normandy?
The main fields are car manufacturing, chemicals, biology, health, aeronautics, logistics and transport and, of course, energy: the nuclear plants at Paluel and Penly produce more than 10 per cent of France’s electricity. Haute-Normandie is also the third region for foreign businesses and a preferred location for big industrial groups. It has an exceptional port infrastructure. As for Basse-Normandie, there are plastics engineering and the food industry, which represents 20 per cent of all industrial employment. The second most important sector is electric and electronic construction. There are also 6,000 people employed in working with horses, while twice this number work in tourism.
How has the region weathered the financial downturn?
We are a highly industrial region, so it has been a difficult time, but we have tried to emphasise innovation and exportation. The British have come to live in Normandy for a long time and do not seem to leave it as easily as they do other regions.
What opportunities are there for English-speakers in the region?
The following sectors are promising: chemicals, biology, health, aeronautic and logistics/transport. The biology, health and aeronautics sectors are expanding internationally, so they are likely to have opportunities, and the transport and logistics fields are also worth looking at.
What advice would you give people trying to start up a business in Normandy?
I would start by getting them to contact the CCI in charge of business creation near where they intend living and, if they are facing language problems, put them in contact with the CCI International Normandie either in Rouen or Caen. They can also contact us at the Franco-British CCI for Normandy. We have a special event for owners of British businesses on December 13 at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Rouen, along with the different country clubs run by the CCI in Normandy. This will be the occasion for us to launch the UK club for Normandy.
Housing market is improving, especially if priced at right level
Bruno Lacroix, president of the estate agents’ federation FNAIM in Haute-Normandie
What is the market in Haute-Normandie like today?
It is stable and there is even a slight tendency towards improvement in terms of number of sales: between five and 10 per cent in volume. It is a general observation for the whole of Haute-Normandie. The number of transactions is in slight progression, with prices relatively stable except in rural zones. For large agglomerations, there is a slight revival of prices: 2-3 per cent increase on average. But in rural areas, we are still 10 per cent down on prices compared to last year, so it continues to shrink and there is more offer than demand. As soon as you get 10km or 15km away from cities like Le Havre and Rouen or medium-sized towns like Dieppe or Evreux, we are still in something which is very difficult for our colleagues: very few buyers.
How has the market been in the past two years?
2009 was a little particular and a little difficult, so the tendency now is different: a return of confidence in the market. I think people tell themselves that interest rates are so low that they really should invest. I think this is the spirit. With rates at 3-3.5 per cent, it will not always be the case. So people have a positive attitude, but there is still a climate of caution given the economic issues and the fact that there is a lot of unemployment. People negotiate very hard, buyers and sellers alike. What sell the most is still less than €100,000 for small properties or apartments; and for houses, anything that is below €180,000-€200,000. We remain on very low markets. As an example, towards Bernay in the pretty countryside of the Eure, the selling price of a 85m² property with 1,500m² of land, rather well finished, was e245,000. That starting price was over-evaluated by the client, but the crisis meant that, eventually, he faced up to the fact that it could not be worth e245,000. It sold at e170,000. This was market price.
What type of property sells best?
In large cities, we had not seen many buyers for prices between €250,000 and €800,000. We are now recovering some buyers in the category of more serious goods. For properties of €400,000 and over, we are seeing some buyers again. In rural zones, it is still very difficult. Sellers think about getting €1m for a chateau, but buyers make their offers at e650,000-e700,000. So people put a 40 per cent cut on the price of 2006-07. A well-known micro market is sea-facing property, but people are not selling because they are not interested in prices. When prices match what buyers are willing to pay, then business does happen. But it is very rare, there are very few sales. Prices have gone down 10-12 per cent on the highest range of property or the very well located, but there is not a great tendency for bargains.
How important are foreign buyers to the area?
We have been an abandoned market for a certain numbers of years. Basse-Normandie and Brittany were always more sought-after, Brittany more so. For me, the biggest concentration of investors, and especially those who like nature, go to Brittany. I think to live here may not be enough of a contrast enough for the British. One of the advantages of Haute-Normandie is the price, but the Norman countryside is very beautiful and the beach coastline is very pretty. Our foreign clientele is essentially a British one. Often, they look for peace and quiet, the land and houses with character. If they can find a longère of wood and cob, they like it. They want something genuine and continue to look for the country house or manor and castle, of course according to their means.
What advice would you give to potential buyers in Haute Normandie now?
I think countryside prices are becoming about right again for an investment from the British, but they have to be extremely careful. Their best interest is to deal with professionals, because otherwise people will mistake them for Americans. So they should be extremely vigilant and should not engage in an immediate negotiation. They should have some discretion and, if possible, avoid meeting the sellers during the viewing. You just have to look at what happened around 2000 and later, when the pound was high for the British. For one, they had the economic means; then, they were a bit baffled by prices, and today there are many who find themselves with property on their hands. They were also sold goods that were not of a very fine quality, things that were not worth the prices paid and needing much more work than planned. So they should be careful in this field because, when an estate agent can do a good deal, he will not hesitate. So customers should be careful. I would recommend looking in the Pays de Bray, which is very hilly and very beautiful, the nicest part of which are Eu and le Tréport. Look also at the coast with the bordering Pays de Caux with Dieppe, Etretat and everything else. I think sellers have achieved a certain maturity in their thinking and will be satisfied just to find a buyer, because in rural areas what we are lacking terribly is buyers.
So buyers are king at the moment and they have a choice. When they negotiate, they should be aware that they have the choice to put things in perspective.
I advise them to look at their buying price for houses bought before 2003-04 and they will realise that today, there is plus value. Today’s market price is extremely reasonable and there is no loss. It might be a loss compared with the price they had thought of, but
it is a gain compared with the acquisition price.
How many estate agents do you have under the FNAIM banner in Haute-Normandie?
200 selling points and 145 estate agencies.