Roy Thompson, a 66-year-old ex-miner and former prison officer from Durham, north-east England, has lived in western France with his wife, Jean, and two of their five sons since 1993.
I left school in Durham at 15 and went down the mine where I worked for about six years until our pit was shut. After that I was a salesman and driver for a butcher, then for a steel company. Finally I joined the prison service at Durham jail and stayed for 26 years.
At 49 I was medically retired because of stress. After I retired Jean and I looked around for a project. We read a few “how to live in France” magazines and came over to have a look around. We bought an old wreck with a barn in Lot-et-Garoinne, Aquitaine, where there aren’t many other English people. The place needed total conversion. It had never even had water or electricity. There was a water meter but it had never been connected.
We had to work on it for quite a while but it is now done and dusted. We’ve got plenty of land — you can park 20 or 30 cars on the drive — a little swimming pool and nice stuff to eat and plenty of wine. We like the lifestyle. Even driving is still a pleasure because the roads are half empty. I’ve got space and a house that I couldn’t afford in England.
Before we moved we went to classes at the college in Durham, only the girl there taught us Parisian French. When we came down here, with that accent, they couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand their local accent either. It was like a Geordie (from north-east England) trying to talk to a Cockney (from east London). There turned out to be a lot of regional dialects in French.
I’ve got one or two good French friends. Our friend Nadine is our angel. She is the secretary for two mairies (town councils). One day a job came up for a municipal odd-job man, a cantonnier, and she asked if I wanted to do it. First I refused it. But because the house was finished my wife said: “Get out from under my feet.” It was a good little job — only 17 hours a week plus it got me into the system. I had to cut the grass throughout the village and look after the cemetery and do any little jobs in the school, I got along with both the mayors during my time.
I worked for a few years but last year, when I was 65, I decided to pack it in. My sons all went into the army and finished up in the same regiment in Germany. Now they’re out and my second son, Carl, has come over to live round here, so I put him in the picture for the cantonnier job. We’ve now had two generations of Englishmen looking after this little French village.
I’m not into agriculture, though I tried. I had a little spot at the top of the garden where I grew a few tomatoes and some onions but I kept forgetting to water them. It’s all farmland round here and I like to know what they’re planting. Mostly, it’s vegetables, corn or rapeseed and of course our area is famous for prunes — the pruneaux d’Agen.
We get invited to the ‘chasse’ (hunt) meals, which are a big thing round here. We eat everything that they shoot. Usually, you start at about 12 o’clock with an aperitif — a touch of pastis (French liquor) — and you’re still eating venison, wild boar, confit de canard, at 6 o’clock. Then they’ll invite you to return for the night-time do where they’ll barbecue something.
We’re never homesick because we are always off visiting our sons in Germany or wherever. We do miss fish and chips a lot. When we go back we always treat ourselves to thing we need here except for tea old-fashioned fish and chips in Durham. Otherwise we can get everything we need here except for tea bags. Some of the French tea bags are not really our cup of tea.
Adapted from Carolyn Lyons, Financial Times
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