Stone’s throw away
Just a hop across the Channel, the lush countryside of Normandy is perfect for holidays or a permanent home, says Carolyn Reynier
We are in northern France between Le Havre, to the west, and Dieppe, on the stretch of coastline known as the Alabaster Coast – la C�te d’Alb�tre. It does sound better in French, doesn’t it? Let me introduce you to Veules-les-Roses, as pretty as it sounds, which lies in the Pays-de-Caux area of the Seine-Maritime department.
My abiding memory of my only visit to this seaside village many moons ago is watercress. I’m not quite sure why my husband and I were in Veules. We must have been on our way to the Cotentin, that finger bit of Normandy that sticks up into the Channel... or on our way back. I do know we stayed the night; quite possibly, looking at the photos, in the relais h�telier mentioned further on. I remember our room had a small terrace overlooking the river Veules, which flows all of 1.3km from its source into the Channel, making it the shortest coastal river in France.
I remember we walked along a stretch of the River bank looking unsuccessfully for the cressoni�res, the watercress fields for which Veules is famous.
I also remember being disappointed that we couldn’t buy bunches of freshly picked watercress from the man selling it in the street. “It won’t keep,” he said. “It will have wilted by tonight. You need to eat it now.” We couldn’t eat it straight away so we didn’t buy it.
To find out about the property market in and around Veules-les-Roses, I spoke to Alain Soudey, of Cabinet Alain Soudey. It splits into two distinctive sectors. In the very popular micro-market of Veules-les-Roses itself and what Soudey calls the couronne, the surrounding circle made up of the villages of St-Aubin-sur-Mer, Sotteville-sur-Mer, Blosseville-sur-Mer and Manneville, all within a radius of less than 3km of Veules, property transactions are holding up well. Then there’s the more general property market in what he calls the campagne caussoise, the surrounding Pays-de-Caux countryside.
The micro-market of Veules-les-Roses is intensif’, says Soudey because it is small and there are few transactions as a result. The Belgians and Dutch are currently the predominant foreign buyers. There are some German purchasers too. English buyers are still around, says Soudey, but in smaller numbers. Other local purchasers come from Rouen, and Paris and its suburbs. Some 95% of purchases, says Soudey, are for second homes.
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I recalled the architecture in Veules-les-Roses being rather pretty, I tell Soudey. “Brick, flint, half-timber and granite,” he says. Various historical periods are represented; the original village was built in the 11th and 12th centuries nearer to the beach than it is now. A tidal wave wreaked havoc and over the 13th and 14th centuries, the village was reconstructed where it now stands.
There isn’t much new building going on in the 21st century. There’s a small estate up on the St-Valery plateau not that far from Veules, but access is quite difficult because it is steep so you need a car. “It’s not the same clientele,” says Soudey. The length of Veules-les-Roses is about the same as the length of its little river, so you can easily get around on foot.
Although Veules doesn’t do modern residential apartment blocks, there are two former large hotels (by Veules standards large’ means 70 to 80 bedrooms) which have been converted into residential buildings containing primarily studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments.
Value in veules
Prices are between €1,500 and €2,500/3,000 per m�, says Soudey, who has two offices, one in the main street in Veules, the other in Montville, just outside Rouen. Although prices in the surrounding couronne will be slightly lower, he says, the immediate area around Veules is still very popular. For example, a couple of kilometres from Veules a pretty half-timbered long�re, renovated in 1995, is on the market at €286,200. Built in 1850, it has four bedrooms, 130m� of living space and grounds of 1300m� (Cabinet Soudey).
If you like the look of Veules, are looking for a business opportunity and selling bunches of watercress is unlikely to produce enough income to keep body and soul together, Soudey is currently marketing a former 14th-century coaching inn. This relais h�telier, which my husband and I may or may not have stayed in, underwent substantial renovations 15 years ago, in keeping with the architecture, and now provides B&B type guest accommodation.
Veules-les-Roses (the name Veules comes from the ancient Saxon word wa�l, meaning a water outlet) is one of the oldest villages in the Pays-de-Caux area, judging by the important Merovingian corpses lying in one of the cemeteries. From the 11th century on, the little river served as a dividing line between the two parishes of St-Martin on the left bank and St-Nicolas on the right bank. Next to the Val chapel, rebuilt in the 12th century on the foundations of an ancient oratory, lepers were housed in an annexe, known as the maladrerie, until 1650.
The parish church of St-Martin fared better than its neighbour. The ruins of the 13th-century church of St-Nicolas look out over the sea. With the exception of the tower, St-Martin’s church was destroyed during the Hundred Years War, but was rebuilt in sandstone in the 16th century and is today a classified monument. The organ, which dates from 1628, and the surrounding buffet are the work of Guillaume Less�lier, the Rouennais organ builder who also built the organ in Le Havre cathedral.
The port of Veules was once important with fishermen landing catches of herring and mackerel, but religious wars divided the population, ruining local agriculture and trade. The religious divide was usefully marked by the women’s clothes – Catholics wore red skirts, Protestants wore blue.
The village also lived off its river-related income. The Veules waters were used to wash sheep’s wool and to turn the wheels of the grain mills that were constructed all along the river banks. Buildings, mainly constructed of wood and thatch, were prone to going up in flames which were presumably put out by water from the Veules. Following the industrial revolution, mills were converted to grind flax but many Veulais departed for Dieppe or settled in St-Valery, taking with them few belongings but lots of savoir-faire.
Today, the weavers have gone and the fishing has fizzled out. Happily some of their old houses built in sandstone, flint or brick remain, like the 60m� four-bed fisherman’s cottage, built in 1900, just one kilometre from the beach, on the market at €166,000 (Cabinet Soudey).
Veules-en-Caux, as it was known until it changed its name in 1897, hit the headlines in the early 19th century when Ana�s Aubert, an actress at the Com�die Fran�aise, fled Paris to drown her sorrows following an unhappy love affair. Upon her return to the French capital, she vaunted the praises of Veules to such an extent that artists and writers, including Victor Hugo, arrived in droves.
This sudden notoriety had an impact on the village architecture; pretty seaside villas popped up all over the place to join the artisans’ cottages. The events of 12 June 1940 also had an impact on the village architecture. A bloody battle resulted in the destruction of the seafront, the casino and many of those pretty seaside villas (35 of which were destroyed on that one day).
Although the village was rebuilt, the destruction was so great, especially along the seafront, that it was impossible to recreate the seaside resort of times gone by. So up went modern buildings – houses, a new casino… Thankfully there still remain some fine, richly decorated r�sidences de charme. One such is a mid-19th century, 178m�, three-bed house built in sandstone, flint and brick 150m from the beach, standing in grounds of 1,300m� bordered by the Veules (€380,000; Cabinet Soudey).
Victor Hugo stayed in a bungalow attached to the villa that his friend, novelist and dramatist Paul Meurice, had built facing the sea. It had been decked out rather like a ship’s cabin. “Next to his bedroom of varnished oak with beamed ceiling was the study where a large bay window opened onto an infinite view of the sea; opposite, the ocean was reflected in a bevelled mirror,” wrote Hugo.
The great man worked in his study in the morning, appearing around 11am to walk round the garden and along the seafront. Lunch and the rest of the day he spent with friends and their families. French writer Emile Bergerat tells us that when he was chez Paul Meurice, Victor Hugo’s favourite walk was along the banks of the Veules, where he sometimes used to leave snippets of verses attached to trees or in birds’ nests.
Oh, I mustn’t forget to tell you about the oysters. The first seed was planted on the coast here in 1997. The area didn’t seem to lend itself to this form of aquaculture. And nobody knew what they were doing. In spite of this unpromising start, the project has gone from strength to strength. The results of four years of experimental oyster beds have been satisfactory; the next phase is under way.
And if you want to get under way to Veules-les-Roses, you can sail from Newhaven to Dieppe or from Portsmouth to Le Havre. By car, it’ll take you about an hour and a quarter to get to Veules from Le Havre, another hour to drive from Calais; take the train to Rouen or St-Valery-en-Caux. You can also fly to Paris; there are local airports at Caen and Rouen-Boos; and if you find any of Victor’s verses along the banks of the Veules (and they’re still visible beneath the bird droppings) you can fly your own plane into nearby St Sylvain airport.