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Crisis affects Britons in rustic corner of France

Thousands of Britons have moved to the idyllic Dordogne. But with the global financial meltdown, their fat years there have gone on a crash diet.

February 02, 2009|Henry Chu

EYMET, FRANCE — They call this the "land of 1,001 chateaux" -- and maybe as many B&Bs with full English breakfast.

In the shadow of crooked, half-timbered buildings in this French medieval town, British-accented English burbles through the weekly market like water in the centuries-old fountain on the town square. Down a side street, past stands of pungent French cheeses, a glass-fronted shop hawks baked beans, Marmite and other specialites britanniques.

Members of the local cricket club go to bat on a nearby sports ground. And every Thursday, the fish-and-chips man pops round in his cart.

Over the last 20 years, a longing for life in the slow lane has turned this beautiful, rustic region of southwest France, known as the Dordogne, into a magnet for so many British retirees and young families that some call it Dordogneshire.

The cross-channel invasion has been greased by the strength of the British pound, which for years allowed Brits to swagger across Europe like barons. But since autumn, the global recession has pulled the once-mighty pound to Earth.

Tourists and expatriate Brits used to getting 1.35 euros for every pound now speak painfully of parity between the two currencies. Suddenly, the British find themselves paying attention to the prices on menus, or doing new calculations on overseas mortgages.

In France, it means the fat years have gone on a crash diet, humbling British transplants whose incomes, even modest ones, fed lives drizzled with sunshine and local wine.

"Myself and many others with English pensions, it's not funny at all. I've lost maybe 20%, 25%," said Clin Bond, 74, who lives in a nearby village. "I have to pull in my horns a bit."

Gone are the small luxuries -- dinner at the local brasserie, a quick trip to Spain -- that added even more romance to life here. Instead, Bond said, mass contentment among the British expats has given way to a "mass 'grizzle': moaning, groaning and complaining."

Media reports have told of some Britons packing up and moving back to their homeland. But residents insist there has been only a trickle of people who have gone back, if that.

That, though, could be due to lack of opportunity as much as lack of desire. Britons who hear their native land beckoning are likely to be squeezed on both sides: In France, their pounds are worth less than ever, yet neither are they certain of finding a home or a job in credit-crunched, recession-racked Britain.

The only choice for many is to stick it out, stretching their cash as far as possible.

"You have to think twice now. The renovations on my house, they're going to have to wait," said Julie Grant, a breeder of champion springer spaniels who moved here about two years ago for the laid-back lifestyle and open spaces.

For the moment, Grant, 49, is leaving as much of her savings in Britain as she can, relying instead on the euro earnings from her pet-grooming business here in Eymet.

She is one of an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Britons, out of an overall population of 400,000, who have settled in this region, a dreamy collage of green fields, rustling trees, crumbling farmhouses and picturesque villages huddling beneath moss-covered stone churches built during the Middle Ages.

Ties to the British Isles stretch back at least as far as that era, to the castle-storming, tankard-raising days of the Plantagenet kings, starting with Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ruled England in the 12th century.

Many of the new crop of immigrants have, in fact, come across the channel in search of a bygone Britain, albeit one of more recent vintage.

"Dordogne has always been seen by the Brits as the England of the '50s in terms of landscape, gastronomy, the environment," said Alexandra Thevenet, who works for a development company in the Dordogne and for the local Franco-British Chamber of Commerce. "Historically, we've had a lot of British retirees . . . who had a lot of big purchasing power, who used to come over here and buy castles and have them renovated for a fraction of the cost of what it would have cost them in the U.K."

The steady stream of Britons swelled into a flood after 2001, when discount airlines such as Ryanair launched flights from Britain to the area. The profile of newcomers changed as well, from the silver-haired set to people in their 30s and 40s looking to escape the rat race. Five times as many Britons as any other nationality moved here.

"Most people that came over fell in love with the area. It's more an irrational decision, as in 'God, it's beautiful -- let's go and live there,' " Thevenet said.

Many set themselves up as contractors, real estate agents, restaurateurs and owners of small businesses, often catering to fellow Britons. But that now works against them, with the pound so weak.

Tony Martin, who moved here five years ago, started a business to help Anglophone newcomers make the transition to living in France. Membership hit a peak at the end of 2007, but "slowed right the way down" last summer.

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