Sir Winston Churchill once famously observed that: “The British and the Americans are two nations separated by a common language”.
In similar vein, I would argue that the British and the French are two nations separated by the same history.
When the French – for which read the Normans and their Breton allies – invaded our shores in 1066, they changed the face of England and then Ireland too; forever.
In recent years there’s been a major but thankfully peaceable invasion going on in the opposite direction. British and Irish ex-pats aren’t all settling across the Channel for an easy life or full-on retirement, many of them are seamlessly integrating with the local communities and their culture and have set up their own businesses to cater not just for fellow émigrés and British and Irish visitors but for the locals too – and some have even entered the French political milieu with gusto.
Today there are several men and women from our side of the Channel who have been elected as mayors of the French communities in which they have made their homes. The first of them was Ken Tatham, a thoroughly charming gentleman, now 69, who remains the font of all knowledge in the exquisitely pretty little riverside village of Saint Céneri le Gérei of which friendly community he is as proud as anyone who was actually born in the village that he has called home for 45 years.
Ken was a wanderer in earlier times. Having been born in Weston-super-Mare, he lived and worked in Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and Asia and, he adds with a smile, “Everywhere” before discovering his dream.
“I’ve been mayor here for the last 17 years,” he says. “When we arrived there was a population of 300 but that has now dropped to 140. There are 36,000 communes in France, and that means 36,000 mayors. I have a wide spread of duties and wield a lot more authority than does a parish clerk in the UK. I have to deal with such things as planning, keeping the village clean and tidy, helping to develop tourism and lots more.
Ken isn’t the only Brit living in Céneri, there’s also artist and musician Cephas Howard, a 77-year old Westcountryman who, in his younger days was a member of the hit-making Temperance Seven Dixieland jazz band: “I’ve lived here since 1996 and it’s a great environment in which to work,” he told me. “I can’t paint and sculpt away from any pressure and when I need a break there’s a café bar just down the street.”
Officially designated as ‘One of the Most Beautiful Villages of France’, Saint Céneri is the perfect Norman village but finish that refreshing glass of local cidre bouché and tear yourself away because the region is packed with lots of other beauty spots.
Horse-lovers should gallop to the Haras National du Pin, a short drive south of Caen down the A88 autoroute then down the lanes. This is the French national stud, a magnificent domaine that has been described as ‘Versailles for Horses’.
Here your guide will likely be 45-year old English lady Helen Brown, originally from Deal, in Kent, and settled in France for five years: “I’ve always loved horses, so this was just the right place for me, the Orne departement of Normandy is very much the equestrian capital of France” she says, adding, “My 15 year old daughter is very happy here too. It’s like England but with lots more space and far less rush.”
The history of the stud dates back 300 years, to the time of Louis XIV, the current site having been created at the heart of a 2,471-acre estate of rolling parkland in the 18th Century by the royal architect, Robert de Cote. Today it houses an important art collection, including works by Degas, among others.
Besides visiting the thoroughbred horses in the immaculate stables, visitors can tour a fascinating equestrian museum and enjoy all manner of special events, including flat and steeplechase races, breed shows, show jumping, trials and horse shows.
Claire Strickland set up her home on a ridge above Bellou le Trichard. She runs La Renardière as a B&B and guests now have the option of staying either in the main farmhouse or in a quirky but very comfortable tree house that gives sweeping views over the verdant Norman countryside.
Things are rather grander at La Mouchière, an elegant but very homely old manor house where Roger Huss and his delightful French wife Marie-Monique play host, sharing their country lifestyle and beautiful home with visitors of whom the Brits and Irish make up the majority.
The couple met at university in May 1967, lived many years in England but decided Normandy would be a good place to retire to – and saw the opportunity presented by a B&B operation that would allow them to maintain a rather grander home than they might otherwise have been able to afford.
Nearby is the little market town of Mortagne sur Perche, home each March to the bizarre world black pudding championship – won when I previously attended it in 2010 by an Austrian with his showpieces of a life-size swan and a wedding cake, both made of black pudding!
You can learn rather more conventional culinary techniques by attending one of the inspiring cookery classes run by master chef Philippe Legendre at the stately Château de la Puisaye, another British run B&B establishment, this one with Diana Costes at the helm while her French husband Bruno commutes the 100 plus miles to Paris every day for his work in finance.
Richard Neill found his Xanadu in the countryside outside Bernay, where he built an ecology friendly golf course where nature co-exists alongside the putters and nine irons. There’s an abundance of wildfowl thanks to the many natural water features and everything that’s been man-made blends happily with the natural lay of the land.
Best-selling author William Brodrick believes the Orne’s pretty countryside, temperate climate and laid-back ambiance provides him with a perfect setting in which to ply his craft, even if the crime, mystery and injustice he writes about could be from a different planet. A former monk and barrister, his latest novel, ‘A Whispered Name’ (Abacus), is about the shell-shocked and mentally ill British soldiers, many still in their teens, who were ruthlessly tried and shot for desertion on the Western Front during World War Two.
No visit to the region is complete without at least a couple of hours exploring the busy market town of Verneuil sur Avre, starting the visit with an overview from the 56-metre high Tour de la Madeleine tower. Remains of the old ramparts, ancient half-timbered houses – many embellished with ornately carved stonework, a 15th-Century church of cathedral like proportions and the Abba ye St, Nicolas are just some of the attractions. Try to tie your visit in with a market day.
For further information on the L’Orne region of Normandy, go to www.ornetourisme.com