Best of both worlds - Life and leisure in Limousin

The Haute-Vienne is an oasis of tranquillity within easy reach of civilisation, writes Rebecca Hopkinson

Situated in north-west Limousin, the Haute- Vienne department is composed of vast swathes of peaceful, unspoilt countryside, which makes it ideal for those seeking to escape the stresses of modern life. Yet, its unique accessibility also means it has plenty of appeal for those continuing to work in the UK.

The single-runway airport at Limoges is blissfully easy to navigate and better connected to the UK – boasting flights to 13 UK destinations via Ryanair and BMI Baby – than any other regional airport in France. Another major draw is the low cost of living and the wide range of reasonably priced property on offer, from stone cottages and farm buildings to manoirs and ch�teaux.

Those who’ve managed the switch and now enjoy the best of both worlds either commute, work from home or are based in the UK, retreating to their French home for a significant proportion of the year. Annie Eymard of property agency Step Immo confirms: “Quite a lot of people from the UK have settled here. Some have retired, many run successful businesses and others have holiday homes.” However, the area is by no means overrun with expats, Annie explains: “Those who do buy here settle well into the local communities, whether in rural, village or town locations.”

The weather is slightly warmer and sunnier than London from May to September and slightly colder in the winter months, particularly in the hillier eastern part of the Haute- Vienne. The Limousin has around 1,000 lakes in total, many of which are suitable for swimming. Other country pursuits on offer include fishing, watersports and horseriding through the forests. When walking through the countryside to the north-west, it’s thrilling to know you are tracing the steps of the original Grandmont Monastic Order, who were founded in the 11th century and planted many of the original trees and laid the mossy paths that wind around the hilly terrain.

PROPERTY MARKET The current devaluation of sterling against the euro can pose problems for those needing to convert money from earnings or the proceeds of a UK sale. However, the cheaper cost of living and recent drop in property prices in the area go some way to compensate for this.

It is difficult to predict whether the region will ever rival neighbouring Dordogne in wealth and popularity. Many who enjoy the unspoilt tranquillity of the Haute- Vienne hope it never does. However, even if the Limousin retains its position as the cheapest region in France, prices there are expected to rise in common with the rest of the country.

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Without a doubt, it is currently a buyers’ market. “House prices here escalated quite rapidly until 2007 when they became static, and during 2008 and 2009 prices dropped by around 10%,” says Annie Eymard. She adds that fewer people from the UK are buying in the area and vendors are prepared to accept less than before, so there are some real bargains to be found. “Pre 2008, the average buyer's budget for a ready-tomove- into property was €250,000. Now it’s €100,000 to €150,000,” she says. “For a property in need of renovation the typical budget used to be around €90,000, now it’s around €40,000 to €45,000. Buyers tend to look around more before they settle on a property and hesitate before committing themselves. They ask more questions and have greater confidence, so are prepared to negotiate on price.”

Stress-free lifestyle Erika and Les Ward escaped the rat-race in Scotland four years ago when they moved to their idyllic French home. Erika swapped a career in teaching for one as an artist, which she practices in her studio, while Les is a director in an animal welfare organisation. “You can go for wonderful walks in the forest with the dog before work,” says Erika. “Although we were in a rural location at home, it was never quite like this. It’s beautiful around here.” Les agrees and is “delighted to have such a tranquil work environment”. They live with their two horses, dog and two cats in a hamlet. “It’s so charming and unspoilt, and the people are so friendly and oldfashioned,” says Erika. “It’s what’s been lost in Britain.” She says that not many people speak English, but they’re helpful when you try to speak French. She found learning the language at the French Institute enormously beneficial in helping her to integrate. Les cites the excellent flight links as essential for his work. “The airline links to the UK are getting better and better. When we first moved here, it was impossible to get a direct flight to Edinburgh, we had to go via Southampton. But now you can get direct flights to Limoges.” Erika says their property has appreciated slightly over time, although they bought when prices were at a premium. Now that the market has cooled, she advises being cautious and looking around before making a commitment. “Houses aren’t going as quickly so people can establish themselves and know exactly where they want to be”, she says.

Value for money Steve Nicklen, a managing partner of a limited liability partnership, and his wife, Alex, PA to a financier, live in Kent, but spend long holidays in their second home in the Haute-Vienne, which they bought five years ago. Steve says he was drawn to the peace and seclusion of the area as well as the opportunities for walking. He also cites its relative cheapness compared to the rest of France as a major attraction. Steve can retreat to their French home for a significant amount of time because he’s his own boss and doesn’t work full-time. “My wife’s salaried but her leave is generous and she can buy extra leave,” he adds. He thinks it works well “because of the stage of life we’re in”. When asked whether he thinks they have the best of both worlds, he replies “I do really”. However, Steve thinks that living there on a part-time basis may limit how well they are able to integrate with the community. “Although everyone’s extremely friendly, courteous and helpful, our only good friends are English,” he explains. Steve advises prospective buyers to check first for a broadband connection, if this is essential, as some areas of the Haute-Vienne don’t receive it. “The French government has said it sees broadband as a general utility that everyone in France is entitled to, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it,” he says. When asked what advice he’d offer to people thinking of following in his footsteps, Steve says: “Be realistic about how much work there is to do on your property and don’t bite off more than you can chew, especially if you can’t be there to oversee the workers. If my stepfather wasn’t willing to do the work, I think we’d have struggled.

Quality of life Pete Binns works as a management consultant in the UK, but his permanent residence is in the Haute-Vienne, where he lives with his wife Helen. As their house is a maison de ma�tre, there’s plenty of room for their family and friends to stay during the summer months. Pete says that commuting to the UK from his French home is possible because “my work involves periods when I need to meet and work with clients on a face-to-face basis and other times when I’m involved in desk research”, which can be done from home. Although he mentions the flight links to the UK, he generally travels by train and Eurostar “to avoid the hassle of flying”. The journey to London takes approximately six hours. “On the train I can read or work on my computer so it’s not wasted time,” he adds. As to whether he has managed to combine the best of both worlds, he says “in many ways, yes. Being in the Limousin is fantastic for the quality of life and we’re in a brilliant village with great, mainly French people who are close friends”. Pete advises others thinking of following in his footsteps to learn French, otherwise “you’ll just be a tourist”. He believes their move was successful as they had already owned their home for six years, so they “knew what they getting into”.

www.step-immo-cussac.com