When I first began researching British incomers in Ariège, I was curious as to why they’d chosen that out-of-the-way corner of France. It turns out that choice wasn’t always the right word… For quite a few people it was simply where the house was, rather than an informed decision based on what that area offered as a way of life to them, beyond the house itself.
People also talked about the Ariège weather, the slower pace of life and the wonderful walks, but when I probed it became clear that not many had been familiar with the region before making the move. Some had looked all over France and had settled in Ariège when an estate agent called them to say that there was a house available that ticked all of their boxes – that overused cliché beloved by presenters on the property shows. ‘But we’d never heard of the Ariège’, people told me. One couple told me that they’d never even visited France on holiday, but liked the idea of living somewhere in Europe that was close to mountains. At my reckoning only around a quarter of the people I spoke with actually knew the Ariège beforehand; this might be from years of visiting friends who lived there, although one woman confessed to going into an estate agent’s while on holiday and buying a house there and then. ‘It wasn’t planned at all’, she admitted.
Despite all of this, on arrival people found that the area offered all kinds of opportunities that were unavailable back in Britain. To one couple, the location in south-west France was ideal for further travelling within Europe, avoiding the fate of their neighbours back in England who were ‘digging in to die’. Another woman had taken on the challenge of creating an ‘English garden’ in the Pyrenees, a contrast to life back in England that had become too easy and predictable.
Of course the right house that ‘ticks the boxes’ must also be affordable, and I had a sneaking suspicion that people ended up in Ariège because property prices hadn’t yet reached the levels of those in Provence, Dordogne or the Pyrenees further west. In fact many of the incomers had originally looked to settle in the neighbouring Aude region, perhaps drawn by the drier weather and Carcassonne. But the fact that they had drifted west and ended up buying in Ariège suggested that the ‘right house’ could be found at a more affordable price here, compared with areas closer to the coast or in neighbouring départements. Yet another cliché from the property shows comes to mind – your money goes further. It’s easy to think of people as wealthy and privileged if they can afford to move to France, and in relative terms they are, but some found the new life full of financial constraint. One couple were facing a loss of thousands of pounds on a house they could no longer afford to live in; another couple were surprised that they now had to save up to eat out. The woman who bought the house while on holiday sounded worn out by the high cost of living in France, citing what she saw as unaffordable food, taxes, petrol, road taxes and the health system. It was a good job, then, that everyone seemed to appreciate being able to lead a simpler, less consumer-led life.