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When is a village not a village?

The vast majority of house-hunters who come to the Poitou-Charentes region searching for their ‘dream home’ are looking for somewhere ‘rural’ rather than ‘urban’. I have yet to meet anyone, for example, who wanted to view apartments or houses in either Poitiers or Niort, two of our main cities, despite the fact that both have lovely, historic centres and, with populations of just 83,000 and 56,000 respectively, are hardly labyrinthine, anonymous cityscapes. People, when defining their 'location' wish usually say ‘village’ or ‘hamlet’, occasionally asking for an ‘isolated’ setting. When we are discussing their requirements, if I suggest a ‘market town’ they usually shake their heads and say, ‘No…definitely not’.

The interesting thing is that as the day’s search unfolds, people realise that their location labels, based on the U.K. equivalents, simply don’t translate into the same thing over here. A ‘hamlet’ in the Deux-Sèvres might literally be half a dozen houses, or even less. Most ‘villages’ off the main roads lack traffic but also lack any shops or businesses, and are probably closer to what some buyers would consider to be a hamlet. However, drive into a pretty little market town in the Pays Mellois region, such as Celles-sur-Belle, and people generally comment: “Ah, now this is my kind of village!” I’m frequently tempted to say, “When is a village not a village? When it’s a small market town.”

We arrive in France with a stereotype of the ideal French village: a central square with fountains and cafés, an atmospheric weekly market, a smattering of restaurants and shops, the smell of bread wafting from the boulangerie and, at lunchtime, the musical scraping of knives and forks from the terrasse of the popular auberge. You can find these quintessentially French oases all over our region, but they are usually labelled as ‘market towns’, not villages. The mistake or muddle is an understandable one. Places like Celles-sur-Belle have very small populations; only 3,480 people at the last count. In England this would constitute a village, but not in France.

Peter Mayle once wrote a memorable chapter on the ‘ideal village’, a fictionalised place which was made up - like a jigsaw - of elements of a number of different Provençal villages. The mouth-watering descriptions made you want to book a seat on the next flight out to the Midi and bask in the afternoon sun of a pavement café, watching people (and life itself) drift along at that wonderfully sedate, rural French pace. Celles-sur-Belle reminded me of Mayle’s description when I first came across it a few months ago. I’d often passed the sign for it as I headed from Melle to Niort but had never turned off the main road to explore it.

It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-March. Two weeks before, the nights had been cold but Spring had seemingly been by-passed and it was already 26 degrees. The shutters of the houses were all firmly closed, keeping the inhabitants cool inside. Lunch was over and people had returned indoors. The place seemed cocooned in a siesta-shuttered silence. The only sign of activity was a group of early-season tourists being shown around the magnificent, formal gardens of the twelfth century abbey. The central square – with its auberge, restaurant, bar, shops and tall, striking-looking Romanesque church tower – was deserted. I realised straight away that this setting was exactly the type that most of us have in mind when we picture our ideal village.

Chatting to the lady in the tourist office, I commented about the problem of labels and name tags: ‘hamlet’, ‘village’, ‘market town’ etc. To my surprise she replied that Celles-sur-Belle wasn’t either a village or a town but in fact a “petite cité de caractère”. Oh la la! Somehow I didn’t think that it would work: “Now, madam, you asked for a rural location. How about a little city? No? It is a very, very, very small city.”

Seriously though, this problem of labelling and pre-judging brings me back to one of my well-trodden themes. It really is vital to keep one’s house-hunting mind open. If the house you have fallen in love with on the internet seems to have a road in front of it, don’t simply dismiss the property out of hand. Ring the agent up and you might find out that it’s only a sleepy country lane where two tractors crossing represents rush hour. If that beautiful-looking cottage you’ve been reading about is ‘not detached’, again don’t reject it without further thought. It might simply be that the unused store-room backs on to a neighbour’s shed or barn. Not necessarily a ‘deal breaker’, then. Equally, when a property description reads ‘located in a small market town’, don’t think of a characterless, sprawling U.K. conurbation with dangerous or drab suburban estates. It might turn out to be that “living village” you’ve always dreamed of buying in.

A recent client of ours was amazed by the facilities available in the likes of Celles-sur-Belle, Melle and Civray. He lived in a small town outside Winchester with a similar population and the only commerce it had was one post office/general store which constantly struggled to stay in business. Here he now has a full range of bars, restaurants, choice of bakers and butchers, traditional open-air market and artisan shops all on his door step. That’s one of the many reasons why I fell in love with rural France; despite the growing presence of large-scale supermarkets and retail parks, French communal life continues to thrive in the larger villages…or small market towns…or little ‘character cities’. Vive la différence!

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Rodney Marshall

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