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Sun, Feb 01, 2004 - Page 12 News List

British investors bringing life to French ghost towns


A few years ago this village looked likely to turn into a ghost town, but today the future looks rosier for what could be described as the British capital of central Brittany.

"When we opened up six years ago there were lots of houses for sale up and down the main street. Now they've all been bought" and renovated by Brits, said the owner of a small bar and restaurant on the high street of this large-ish village of 1,200 people not far from the town of Lorient.

"There are people in the streets now, the place looks livelier," said a chemist glancing down the main street, where nowadays clean and curtained 16th and 17th century granite facades outnumber cobwebbed, shuttered homes going to ruin.

Guemene-sur-Scorff, once better known for its local variety of andouille sausage than for its links to Britain, is one of the three communes in central Brittany specially prized by Brits enamored of buying up and renovating old stone Breton houses and farms.

In two years, said Guemene's communist mayor Christian Perron, the population has grown 2 percent, reversing the trend of the 1990s, when its numbers were dwindling. "The phenomenon is continuing," he said, though there is little left to buy or fix.

With demand outpacing supply, prices have spiralled. Small stone homes in need of repair that three or four years ago were sold for 22,870 euros to 27,440 euros (US$28,300 to US$34,000) now go for as much as 91,470 euros (US$113,300), Perron said.

The upside for the locals is the economic impact. The supermarket reckons it does 15 percent of its trade with Brits, while the local school director Christophe Baron said that "without the 15 British students we would have had to shut down one of the classes in the school."

The reason there are so many Brits, said Sian Powell, once a resident of Bristol, now the owner of a tea-room in Guemene, is that "real estate is cheaper, and that there are TV shows about houses for sale on the continent."

One recently arrived couple for example bought a place for 120,000 euros after selling their home in Britain for 300,000 euros.

"But that's not the only reason," said Powell, also citing the quality of life, the calm.

In nearby Saint-Caradec-Tregomel, a tiny village of only 450 people, Hugh McAvinue, a 36-year-old Irishman who lived for 13 years in London, bought up the bar and tobacconist's two years ago after throwing in his job running an advertising agency.

"Here you can buy the house of your dreams," he said.

After selling his own place for £250,000 (US$453,000), McAvinue bought a house for £90,000 -- a third of it for repairs and renovations -- in Langoklan, a village of 400 people that is 15km away from his Celtic bar, Le Goblin.

"You can take the time to live," he added. "I close on Wednesdays [when French schools generally are shut], I eat with the family every night, I know the neighbors. In London I never knew them," he says in French, a language he couldn't speak at all two years ago. He has even learnt a few words of Breton "to understand the older people."

"I didn't want to bring my children up in Britain. I want them to be French or Breton," said the father of three.

On the village square of Langoklan, three quarters of the people milling about speak English and are busy chatting about their favorite subject -- what's wrong with England, its schools and specially its hospitals.

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