Rural France offers Brits a real chance at the good life, but before you buy a home in splendid isolation make sure you’ve thought things through
For many, living in an idyllic rural setting without close neighbours or noisy roads is a dream that can actually be fulfilled by buying an affordable property in the Brittany countryside. The attraction of peace and quiet in those vast spaces is a powerful motivation for the new experience of relaxed and stress-free living, whether you are looking for a holiday home or permanent relocation.
A bit of land for keeping animals or trying out self-sufficiency only adds to the quality of life for active sorts. But the realities of rural living need careful consideration before you take the plunge. Some incomers have found their paradise in the middle of nowhere; others have not.
Where I live in western Brittany, there is no shortage of property in attractive scenery as hill ranges, woodland and secluded river valleys are characteristic of the region’s sparsely populated interior. Many cheap properties in Morbihan and Côtes-d’Armor are located in the central areas furthest from the sea. Their beautiful locations may be very tempting, but it’s important to think through the consequences of opting for a rural location. From my own personal experience, or first-hand tales from property- owning friends, here are some issues to consider.
The simple life?
The idea that life is somehow simplified by living in relative isolation is persuasive. But don’t let that gorgeous mill-house in a lonely spot down a 2km-long track blind you to the practicalities. Not least may be the minor nuisance of having to get into a car and give up half an hour just to get a loaf of bread. On a sunny day those seductive surroundings tend to override such petty considerations, but try to think through a whole year of existence before you get the chequebook out.
Weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable. Outdoor living is great in a good climate with plenty of sunshine, but here in Brittany we are well-known for our ‘four seasons in a day’, long winters and, especially in the west, heavy rainfall. Snow is less common than 15 years ago, and we do have plenty of dry frosty days when walking in the crisp air on country tracks is a pleasure It’s worth considering the practical implications of living up or down steep hills or along lanes and river banks prone to flooding. The wonderful quality of summer life in the peace and quiet of a sylvan setting will certainly be balanced by less appealing conditions at other times of year.
Of course, there’s the basic problem of getting to supplies and services. Delivery of goods may pose problems in remote locations. You will be dependent on a car, and a couple with only one vehicle will need to coordinate their outings if there is no access to public transport and the nearest village is a long slog by bike. Buses mostly serve main towns at times that schools and offices or shops are opening and closing. In some areas, a bus tour of country villages may collect and drop off pupils. If you have school-age children, their transport to school may be a major factor in your property decision.
French rural communities are often close-knit, and moving into a hamlet may present some difficulties for integrating, especially if all your neighbours are French. Speaking the language, or trying to, will be essential. Most people are welcoming; like everything and everywhere in life, it depends on the actual individuals concerned. Any incomer in France would be wise to tread carefully and try out the lie of the land. If you are seriously considering buying in such a place with half a dozen houses, try to chat with the residents before committing yourself to the purchase. This will give you a fairly clear idea of your welcome, and finding one good neighbour will be reassuring as you settle in.
Sometimes the initial thrill of finding peace and privacy can blind us to some obvious basics. Check and double-check boundaries and rights of way when buying rural property. Lines are more easily blurred in the countryside and usage over time may establish rights. If there are mature trees marking the edges of your property, do they actually belong to you? It is not unknown for a beautiful line of tall specimens shielding a house from view to vanish suddenly, as the bank they were on was actually the legal possession of a neighbour who now appears not so far away.
Crash, bang, whiff!
In any rural setting you will need to take account of two basic aspects of the countryside: farming and hunting. Most countryside locations will bring you into fairly close proximity to farms large or small. In addition to splendid views over rolling hills and fields, there will be very muddy roads at certain times of the year, often heavy chemical spraying and sometimes all-night harvesting in late summer with huge lights and noisy machinery. Be aware from the start of the implications of the triumph of Maurice the cockerel. He won a famous victory in the courts in 2019 over incomers who objected to his early morning vocals. This has led to a recent French law protecting the ‘sensory heritage’ of rural life. A government minister stated that living in the countryside meant accepting certain nuisances like animal noise and tractor activity. So, you have been warned!
Indeed, in Morbihan, property buyers now have to sign a new clause in purchase contracts declaring that they are fully aware of activities in the local area that may be unsightly, noisy or smelly. The prefecture took action after receiving five to 10 complaints a week from new residents (mostly former city dwellers) who weren’t expecting church bells, noisy chickens or smelly slurry and sileage.
The rules of hunting are complex and vary from department to department, but it is an important part of traditional rural life and very much in evidence through autumn and winter. It is possible to certify your land as a nature reserve, but how will you police observance and how will the neighbours – on whom you depend in an emergency – view this? Most of us live with these things and become used to them as normal facets of country living, but the strength of your feelings about the treatment of animals could be a factor in where you want to live.
It is tempting to focus on the freedom and privacy of living on a large plot with no neighbours, and this may be just what you want. But isolation of habitation means being at home alone a lot, and it’s worth thinking about whether you want to belong to groups or drop in regularly on friends when every outing involves a journey.
The nearest villages may not have shops, although there will usually be a bar with a dépôt de pain. Going out in the evening to the cinema or a restaurant becomes a major effort. Even 20-minute car journeys each way on narrow, windy roads in the dark can be a disincentive. It can also take a surprising amount of time to get used to the most basic features like total darkness and silence at night. If circumstances dictated, could you cope alone in that environment?
There are other important issues to consider. Health problems tend to affect most of us as we get older. How far is it to the nearest doctor, hospital or chemist?
Many live very happily in the countryside in all parts of France and here in Brittany we are fortunate to have such a variety of scenery and natural beauty at our fingertips. If you enjoy your own company, drive confidently, speak French to neighbours and take part in any local celebrations going, rural living will be a rich and rewarding experience.
Wendy Mewes is a Finistère-based writer. Her latest book The Stolen Saint, a novel set in a Breton village, is out now.