In the New Year I was introduced to a couple who had fled Britain impulsively on New Year’s Eve with just a suitcase each to escape ‘Brexit Britain’. They rented a terraced house in our quartier of the village and had us round for supper, and I also went there to watch football on the laptop. They appeared to live modestly and frugally, wore the same clothes every day, and spent their days walking ceaselessly in the blazing countryside armed with shepherd’s crooks.
Had they done the right thing, we privately wondered, fleeing their native land merely to prove their allegiance to the ideal of a politically and culturally united Europe? And if it was the Union Flags that they were so afraid of, there are far more proudly displayed tricolours in republican France than there are in Blighty. Surely they would wake up one morning, having come to their senses, and return defiant but chastened to their home and two cats?
Not a bit of it. The next thing we knew their house in the UK was sold and the effects auctioned off and they had bought a house in the Lot department of western France, which is just underneath the Dordogne.
Last week the foreign correspondent and his wife and I drove there from the Var to have a look at the new house and have a gander at a different part of France while we were at it. Those we knew who had been to the Lot characterised the area as raining all the time but the honey-coloured building stone was reminiscent of the Cotswolds. Which, if true, was a far cry from the emergency water regulations and still smouldering bush fires in the Var.
We drove west for seven hours or just over an inch on the map. The scenery changed from North Africa to East Sussex. In western France there was nobody there. At one stage our B road passed through half a dozen villages and the only living thing we saw was a black cat stalking something in long grass. Finally we turned off the road and passed along a track down an avenue of plane trees at the end of which was a moated castle perched on a riverbank. Our Remainer friends’ new home. The castle, we soon learned, was 13th century in origin, extended in the 16th, and comprehensively renovated in the 21st. Nineteen bedrooms, five boilers and a chapel. The river was the Thames at Henley but with not another property for miles.
We were directed to our respective bedrooms to unpack and prepare for supper. Mine had a wardrobe 12ft-tall and there was another six feet to go before the ceiling. Two cathedral-sized windows opened on to a courtyard on one side and a medieval mill and weir on the other.
As a cave dweller who has to mind his head, the gigantism of the furniture and the large amount of air between my head and the ceiling was unsettling.
We were there four nights. For the first two nights the size of my bedroom relative to the size of me lying in bed had a nightmarish quality and I couldn’t get off to sleep. I passed some of the time by shaving my little head with an electric razor as smoothly as possible in a massive gilt-framed mirror.
One can get used to anything, however, and by the third day I was coming and going beneath the ceilings painted with frescoes and cherubs without giving them a thought, other than that, as a riposte to the new, nastier spirit abroad in Brexit Britain, they were certainly an imaginative one. Last year I read somewhere that the French property market was awash with chateaus and castles. No doubt since then all of them have been snapped up by petulant Remainers who can now fly the EU flag from their own battlements. And while wishing them all the best of British, one can’t help wondering which country they will move to next should Le Pen or her lovely niece cause an upset in May. I’ve heard that you can buy an entire town in Italy for not much. Just a thought.
I spent my time as follows. After breakfast, harmonica practice on the winding 16th-century stone staircase. Then Mr A.J.P. Taylor on proud France’s humiliation by Bismarck’s Germany, and after midday an alarming shade of local rosé wine costing €1 a litre that was out of this world. In the vinous discussions that took place after midday, I was one Brexiteer against four Remainers. But after a brief flare-up on the first night the subject was diplomatically moved to green activism, global warming and interplanetary travel — subjects about which I know nothing — and stayed there. But I was perfectly happy, while the concepts swirled about my head, to simply watch the swifts and the sluggish river and sip and wonder.