Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Rigole d'Hilvern













Our house in Brittany is very near to the Rigole d'Hilvern. It's a 'cut'... a mini canal if you like. But it hasn't been navigated by any boats. Our neighbour did tell me though, that when he was a boy, he and his dad regularly caught Pike at the top of the lane. And, even though it winds for 62.5 kilometers (only 25 or so as the crow flies) it has no locks (as a feat of engineering - it drops just 3mm in height for every 10 metres of its length) and these days not much of its length holds water Many of the pedestrian bridges that cross it have rotted away leaving just the stone buttresses, pillars and iron railings. But it still manages to attract thousands of walkers and riders every year, both equine, pedal powered (and occasionally our neighbour on his trials bike) via hundreds of access points as it winds its way under roads and tracks past hamlets and villages between Lake Bosmeliac and Hilvern near to Pontivy (Napoleon's northern Garrison town) where it joins the Nantes Brest Canal and the River Blavet.
The digging of the Rigole provided work for the 10 years between 1828 and 1838 for redundant linen workers; those left high and dry when their industry's biggest customer, the French Navy, upgraded from sail to steam. I often speculate about what life must have been like at our place whilst the digging team worked their way slowly past, dropping down the hill a couple of hundred metres to draw water from our well, buy cider and eggs or to use the bread oven to bake dough which they might bring to work with them. Being good citizens of Napoleon they also planted trees as they worked, ensuring that future generations (as well as Boney's army) might also walk in the shade.There are plans in place to lay a track of crushed and pounded stone along one side of the Rigole. All part, no doubt, of making sure that as many people as might wish to can make full use of what has become a popular (if sometimes overgrown) amenity. We are yet to be convinced that this will be an improvement. The existing grass 'tow paths' may need mowing three or four times a year by whichever commune's works department they are passing through - but maybe the added awareness for the facility will also mean that more vehicles than just the two tractors a day that pass the end of our drive will mean trippers, picnickers, hot dog vans, a car park... I'm joking of course. At least I hope I am!
The original need for the Rigole has long passed. Originally it kept the Nantes Brest canal topped up with water when low levels needed a lift. Napoleon first decided that the main canal should be constructed to move goods without exposing them to plunder by the English fleets that controlled the seas around the 700 miles of Brittany's coastline. So, you see it was all the fault of 'les Anglais' and Napoleon's key adversary, Nelson, in the first place... that the Nantes Brest canal was excavated. And so, if the place gets too busy we've only got ourselves to blame!

Hot off the Press! With enormous help from Brussels - so thanks all you UK tax payers - the Rigole is being given a face lift... The tow-path on one side of its entire 60+ kilometers is being 'paved' (actually with a top layer of crushed stone) to allow a greater number of cyclists and walkers (not to mention wheelchairs and baby buggy users) to enjoy the facility. We walk or cycle a couple of miles along the rigole as often as we can. It opens up such a wealth of 'extra'... whether that is just access to otherwise hidden hamlets or to collect the fallen boughs and branches to keep our winter fuel costs down... It's especially good for keeping an eye on the wildlife you won't find near to roads... deer, foxes, badgers and wild boar. With typical French efficiency many trees have been removed, doctored or planted to ensure that the rigole lasts for another hundred and fifty years.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Life is better in Brittany & Normandy



We bought a house in central Brittany in 1999 for just £12,000GBP. And it's the best move we haven't yet made! I should explain. For family reasons we still yo-yo between Sussex and Brittany. Initially the house was nothing more than a project to which we would probably retire at an undetermined point in the future ••• I don't think we realised quite what we were getting into. Not just from the amount of work that we had taken on... but how enjoyable it could be as a bolthole before it might become our permanent home. Obviously we liked the house sufficiently to buy it (who wouldn't for 12 grand?) and we knew broadly that Brittany was a very pleasant region of France - having been on a couple of scoots around. What we didn't know was how well placed we would be for all that the area has to offer...proximity to the coast, lakes, rivers, the Nantes/Brest Canal and the historic cities, towns and villages; their architecture, earthworks, culture and entertainment ...we've even (now) seen Bruce Springsteen at a festival - just a half hour's drive from the house).
Finding the house back in 1999 wasn't easy. Estate agency (as we know it in the UK) was still taking shape over in northwest France and evolving from the traditional role in property transfer historically undertaken by the notarial system. The same goes for the web-marketing of international property. Some of the fledgling sites in those days were good on-screen but didn't necessarily match up in reality. We were messed around by one or two agencies who probably thought they were doing a good job. Without some extremely good luck we would have missed out on seeing the house we eventually bought. No thanks to the agents whose organisational skills were full of holes. We probably wasted about £1,500 before we got to see the house we eventually bought due to the ineptitude of the stringbag beginnings of people who are now our competitors...
Two years after buying in France we (once again accidentally) became involved in establishing a business based around introducing those interested in buying property in Brittany to the right calibre of agents who had on their books to the right kind of property to 'hit the spot' for prospective clients. We began with just a handful of properties in just one small area through one fledgling agent. But we did come up with a great name for marketing purposes (nice to know that a career in advertising didn't go to waste)... www.ahouseinbrittany.com - Interestingly the market is now peppered with so many names that are inspired by ours (bleeding annoying actually - but what is it they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery). The only problem we had back in 2001 was that as soon as we began advertising and getting our name around we had calls and e-mails from people wanting houses in Brittany - yes - but houses all over Brittany! To cut a long story short we have now been at it for 8 years and have around 2,000 properties on our sites and have working relationships with around 30 agencies. We have expanded the operation to include www.ahouseinnormandy.com and www.ahouseinthe loire.com (the Loire site is still in development, having been first uploaded during the beginning of the recession - but we're working to recruit new agents in greater numbers).
How is life better in Brittany and Normandy?
Well, for a start, property prices are much lower than in the UK...and the French don't pay road tax (can you imagine 'Teflon' Tony or 'Flash' Gordon coming up with that for the UK?). And, remember, France has the same population and yet two and half times the road network of the UK... so it costs their government far more to dispense with any extra charge on motorists. The roads in France are better and emptier too than any you'll find in Britain... In Brittany if there are more than 3 cars between you and the horizon it's known locally as a 'traffic jam'!
Our local rates in Brittany are just £400pa as opposed to £2,200ish in Sussex. The pace and quality of life is better suited and there is an unhurried and definitely less crowded feel to the place (111 people per square kilometre as opposed to 390 in England...the most crowded country in the EU).

Brittany has more than 1,000 miles of stunning coastline and it mirrors Devon and Cornwall across the channel with creeks, beaches, marinas, moorings and lakes, rivers and canals aplenty. So much of the topography is very similar and nowhere is more than around an hour's drive from the coast. The locals are friendly... especially if you make the effort to integrate and speak with them in French. And there is a warmth amongst new neighbours with plenty of opportunities and activities to help newcomers to fit into their new community. Friendships are easily made with the many Bretons and Normans who remember D-Day too and, if it wasn't that giving us a bond, it is the fact that Britain was under Norman rule for a good few years after 1066...so, our up and down relationship with the French is still definitely 'up' with those whose ancestors have historically lived close to the coast in the north... those who were touched by foreign occupation and tyrrany. Watch this space - I'm going to be adding posts with tips and hints and other related subjects I may get to cover as I get time... I still have a couple of websites to keep up to date - Bon Chance!