Helen Skelton recently moved to Canet-Plage near Perpignan after her husband, rugby league player Richie Myler, signed with the Catalan Dragons. She reveals why it the perfect place for her and her young family to live
How are you adapting to life in France?
We’re so lucky – we’re in Canet-Plage, right on the coast. We’ve been made to feel very welcome here, which is a credit to the rugby club and the area. It’s good that my husband Richie plays rugby and that he went to a job – I think it would have been different had we come here cold. We’ve got good friends and we’re loving our life here!
Have you experienced any culture shocks?
Obviously a lot of life is very different. We can’t get over how relaxed everything is, taking two hours for lunch and the importance of family. It’s completely different in that sense and that’s been really good for us. The biggest culture shock is the shops being shut on a Sunday!
How often do you commute to the UK for work and how do you manage with a toddler in tow?
Quite often, but my work is unpredictable, so there’s no typical month. Sometimes I travel as often as two or three times a month, other months not at all. My family is brilliant and come and meet me wherever. I’m really lucky. And my little boy, Ernie, loves flying on aeroplanes! All those people in a confined space… he loves going around saying ‘hello!’
Can you describe your property?
Until recently, we were in an apartment overlooking the harbour and the sea and, as I was always up early with Ernie, I watched the sunrise over the ocean every morning, which was incredible. Now, we’re renting a brand-new, eco-friendly, three-bedroom villa with a pool. It’s modern, white and open-plan, situated right by the beach and on the edge of a vineyard. We can get five litres of wine for €5!
Chef James Martin on his love of France and French food____________________________________________________________
Are you considering purchasing a property in Perpignan in the future?
We’d like to buy a house, but it really depends on what happens next. Plus we’ve got to be practical with a toddler and another baby on the way!
Had you visited the area before the move?
Funnily enough, my parents found a photo of me at a campsite which is just down the road! I think it was the first foreign holiday they took me on. So yes, I first came here some time ago.
What do you love most about France, and the Perpignan area?
The weather, of course, the importance of life and the food, which is great. Lunch takes ages and Ernie is welcome everywhere. It’s really nice for kids, especially in summer (it’s a totally different place in winter!). The people here work to live rather than live to work, which is a good approach. I think we can learn a lot from that. Nothing is done on a Sunday, which is brilliant! It’s a bit like England 20 years ago. Everyone smokes though, which isn’t so great. And they don’t pick up dog poo, which is also a bit like England 20 years ago!
What are your favourite things to do in the area?
We spend all our time outside in the summer. We’re often on the beach. There’s 4km of promenade and when Ernie was a baby I walked the pushchair up and down there every day. I’m trying to get him to use his balance bike along it now. We go on the carousel most days. There’s a restaurant that’s open year-round. It looks out onto the beach but also onto the square, so on market days we sit outside and watch everybody go by while we eat. We’re in there so much, they’ve become a bit like an extension of our family! There’s also a nice spa hotel, some great bars on the beach and some fancy restaurants with soft play areas… children are very well catered for.
Have you spent much time exploring the region?
We love visiting Montpellier, Carcassonne, Nice and Collioure, which has an amazing light show at Christmas and New Year. We go to the nearby hot water springs. We’re really close to Spain, so we travel down the Spanish coast a lot, to Barcelona, Girona… We also love visiting a little whitewashed fishing village, Cadaqués, where we sit on the jetty, eating tapas.
How’s the local gastronomy?
It’s amazing! We’ve never had a bad, or expensive, meal in Perpignan. You can get a fantastic salad, main course and wine for around £15 each. Richie loves mussels, but I’m allergic. We never go to the supermarket, we use the local market; it’s so cheap and easy and it’s all there. The region’s also renowned for its amazing antiques markets.
Do you ever visit them?
Yes, we go to the local one in Canet and there’s a big one in Perpignan every Saturday. They have some really weird and wonderful stuff, such as Egyptian masks and wooden carvings.
As an adrenaline junkie, do you enjoy a sporty, outdoor lifestyle?
I bought a paddleboard when we first came here and we rollerblade on the promenade. We’re only an hour and half away from the mountains so we sometimes go skiing. I’ve yet to go canyoning, and there are loads of other sports to try, like potholing.
Do you enjoy the ‘good life’?
I feel very lucky to be living ‘a’ good life. I get quality time with people I love and we live close to beautiful mountains and lovely beaches. There is no one good life – everyone’s measurement is different – but living in the south of France means I can juggle my family, my work and my free time, which is pretty good to me!
How’s your French?
When I’ve had a drink of wine, my French is excellent! In a social environment with my girlfriends, it’s great. I did French A-level and then worked in a fish restaurant in the big fruit and veg square in Nice to improve my language skills. It was an amazing adventure and fantastic fun. Richie has three lessons a week. He’s doing well but it’s a challenge. His previously very English accent has really improved. Ernie starts nursery soon and hopefully he’ll start picking up a few words then. He already says Oh là là – a lot!
Do you socialise with the other rugby wives?
Yes, I’ve been out with the French girls, which has been really helpful. There are no mummy/baby groups here so that’s been a bit of challenge. It’s a different language and culture, but everyone’s in the same boat with kids and stuff, so topics of conversation are the same.
Finally, you recently cycled across northern France to commemorate 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, during which you discovered a family revelation…
Yes, it was sombre but amazing to see… I knew I had relatives serving in WWII but didn’t know about the WWI. My grandad’s uncle was on the front line and, fortunately, survived.
Helen can be seen presenting BBC1’s Countryfile on Sunday nights. She is an ambassador for Karrimor clothing, Sports Relief and Comic Relief.