Charmed by Charente

Local produce sold at the Saturday market in Ruffec

Local produce sold at the Saturday market in Ruffec - Credit: Archant

Having fallen for northern Charente seven years ago, James Rolt now helps a growing number of buyers do the same

The river Charente running through Verteuil

The river Charente running through Verteuil - Credit: Archant

Charente is a department that has been known and loved by UK holidaymakers and homebuyers alike for many years.

Fields of sunflowers are synonymous with Charente

Fields of sunflowers are synonymous with Charente - Credit: Archant

While the main areas of focus have traditionally been the Cognac area and the southern part of the department that borders Dordogne, northern Charente has slowly but surely been seducing more and more UK buyers with its unspoilt rolling countryside, beautiful sunflower fields and gorgeous character-packed riverside towns and villages that exude traditional French charm.

The town hall, Ruffec

The town hall, Ruffec - Credit: Archant

In fact, over the past few years, while the majority of French agents are reporting year-on-year declining sales from the peak in 2005, we have seen quite the reverse – seven years of unbroken growth.

WHY BUY HERE?

The area of northern Charente starts just to the north of the department’s capital Angoulême. It is an area of understated natural beauty, far enough south to pick up the lovely clement weather and high amount of yearly sunshine hours of the south-west, yet far enough north to make it easily accessible in the car from the UK. The ports of St-Malo are a four-and-a-half hour drive.

In fact, transport links to this area are excellent with Poitiers, Limoges, La Rochelle and Bordeaux airports all within easy reach with frequent flights from all over the UK.

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Furthermore, the excellent TGV network means that you can leave London on the Eurostar and be in Charente within six hours. This is set to get even quicker with the opening of the new fast LGV service in 2016.

Most of the clients we meet simply love the relaxed way of life that this area enjoys. The locals are laidback and friendly, while the villages don’t feel like tourist havens that are packed in the summer and dead in the winter.

Local life goes on and when you’re wandering through the large market in Ruffec’s central square on a Saturday morning with the busy stalls, inviting smells and accordion music drifting out on the breeze, you really do get the sense of being in the middle of ‘real’ France.

The river from which the department gets its name is at the centre of everything as it winds through the region, offering great spaces to swim, to fish or simply to stroll along on a sunny afternoon. You see glimpses of the beautiful river everywhere. In fact, during one day’s househunting last week my clients observed that we had crossed the River Charente 10 times – over 10 different bridges.

POPULAR PROPERTIES

Property prices in the whole of Charente are very attractive compared to the rest of the country. Recent data from the Notaires de France shows that the average price for a character property here in 2012 was €115,000 – a massive €50,000 or 30% less than the national average (and that’s not even including the Paris region).

However, when you look a bit further into the details, the trend becomes even more interesting. In northern Charente, the average price for a character property bought by our clients in 2012 was €85,000 – nearly half the national average.

What is also interesting is the fact that, although as an agency we cover over 2000 square miles of northern Charente, over 70% of our sales in the last three years have been in a small triangle of 20 square miles between the bustling market town of Ruffec and the two historic protected villages that surround it: Verteuil-Sur-Charente and Nanteuil-en-Vallée.

These three jewels are attracting more and more tourists and house-hunters each year and are worth exploring further:

RUFFEC

Ruffec is an important market town that lies halfway between the cities of Angoulême and Poitiers. Its transport links are fantastic with easy access to the N10 motorway and a TGV station that allows commuters to be in Paris in little over two hours or Bordeaux in an hour and a half.

The town was founded over 1,000 years ago by Guillaume Taillefer, a military chief who constructed his château in between the town’s two rivers, the Lien and the Péruse. The quaint town is packed with history and while little remains of the château itself, a five-bedroom former gatehouse built onto its ramparts is available for purchase even today for €295,000.

The façade of the 12th-century church is also stunning and the town square with its market, shops and cafés is always buzzing with life, even in the winter.

This traditional French town has become increasingly popular with property hunters. Townhouses in need of refurbishment start at as little as €50,000, while larger properties with small gardens are still available here for less than €100,000.

For those with slightly higher budgets, four-bedroom properties within walking distance of the centre-ville with good-sized gardens are available for under €200,000.

VERTEUIL-SUR-CHARENTE

There is one sight that nobody arriving in the historic village of Verteuil-sur-Charente can miss: the huge and staggeringly beautiful 11th-century château owned by the La Rochefoucauld family that sits on the River Charente and dominates the skyline.

The river meanders through the village and visitors catch glimpses of it and the château at every turn, whether they’re browsing through the shops and art galleries or enjoying a drink in one of the many cafés.

An upsurge in popularity caused by a recent French TV programme about the village has meant it has become a real tourist spot – and properties are being snapped up very quickly both as permanent and holiday homes.

On the market at the moment is a lovely habitable village house with a garden and a second house to renovate at just €108,000.

If you’re looking for something really special, a beautiful stone house has just come onto the market with a stone spiral staircase, huge fireplaces and uninterrupted views over the château and river – all yours for €763,200.

NANTEUIL-EN-VALLÉE

What Nanteuil-en-Vallée misses in wow factor compared to the huge château of its neighbour Verteuil, it more than makes up for in the elegant charm of its medieval buildings, winding streets and riverside arboretum.

The remains of the 12th-century Benedictine abbey are still to be seen today with the newer 15th-century version dominating the main square.

The terraces of the two great restaurants are always busy, especially in the height of summer, and many visitors have been so enchanted by the village that they have ended up as proud owners of holiday homes in the heart of it.

One majestic four-bedroom townhouse with front and rear gardens, a second house to renovate and plenty of scope to create a fantastic bed and breakfast costs just €250,000.

THE SURROUNDING COUNTRYSIDE

Of course, while some property hunters are looking to be within walking distance of amenities, there are many others who prefer the peace and tranquillity of a rural setting but with these three towns and villages nearby.

A country property to renovate with lots of land can start from as little as €50,000 while a great value holiday home, ready to move into immediately, can start from just €80,000.

Bigger farms are available from €150,000 and these days €200,000 will often get you a three or four-bedroom house, often with a pool or a gîte.

WHO IS BUYING HERE?

Our client base is extremely diverse and people come from all over the world to buy property here. Last year, clients from 14 different countries around the world bought property through our agency including New Zealand, South Africa, Dubai and America.

There are over 8000 British people living in the area as permanent residents and thousands more that own holiday homes here. This means there is a lively and active ex-pat community but fortunately it doesn’t have that over-saturated ‘Little Britain’ feel that some other areas in France can have.

In very general terms, the UK buyers that come to live permanently here are slightly younger than in the south of the department or Dordogne and many more of them tend to work or set up an activity here. Most are willing to take on some kind of renovation work to create the home of their dreams.

If you too are looking for a lovely property in an area offering beautiful scenery, great climate, very affordable properties, super accessibility to the UK and a relaxed and traditionally French feel to life, northern Charente is definitely an area worth visiting.

James Rolt is Director of Compagnie Immobilière Charentaise

Tel: 0033 (0)5 45 30 35 31

www.properties-in-charente.com