Could you commute from France?

by PAUL PALMER, Evening Standard

Kent County Council recently announced it was encouraging families to move to Northern France and commute to England via the Channel Tunnel in an effort to reduce the need for new homes in the area.

Although the idea seems absurd, for some people it is already happening.

We talk to one couple about their international commuting lifestyle.


For Ken Pearce, a daily commute to work involves the usual bores: an early start, scraping the frost from the windscreen in winter, traffic jams and the knowledge he will have to repeat the trudge all over again later that day.

But there is an added complication: his office is north-west of London - and his family home is in north-west France.

Mr Pearce must rise before dawn in the village of Aubin-Saint-Vaast, dash 40 miles to the ferry, breakfast as he crosses the Channel and make the long haul up to his new business in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire.

It is a regular routine Kent county council and Eurotunnel would like to encourage.

In an attempt to ease the housing crisis in south-east England, Kent has announced a plan to persuade Britons to move across the Channel and commute back. The council's Tory leader Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart said: "It would take the pressure off Kent. It would also encourage a flow of business people across the Channel."

For Eurotunnel, there is another motive: it claims nearly 10,000 Brits need to move across the Channel to ensure a viable - and affordable - commuter service when the highspeed rail link on the British side finally opens in 2007.

Their plans are not as far-fetched as might first appear. Mr Pearce, 55, and his wife Irina, 50, left their Surrey-home two and a half years ago. Their reasons are shared by thousands

of others who have made the break from England: "Traffic, too fast a pace, too much hassle," says Mr Pearce. "I was born 200 yards from Waterloo station so I am a Londoner, but I'd never return.

"Now I can be at home, in a quiet village, with all the benefits of France, before some people have got off their commuter train in England."

He is adamant commuting between two countries over a large stretch of water is viable. A former employee at Smithfield market, he is used to getting up in the middle of the night for work.

He needs to be: to get to his meat wholesale business by 5.30am, he must rise at 2am and catch the Eurostar or high-speed hovercraft around 3.30am.

"Yes, I get up very early but I will leave the office around 4pm and be back home, French time, by 9.30pm in time for dinner and a few glasses of wine," he said.

Of course, it can - day-to-day - be an exhausting haul. But Mr Pearce says he has always needed little sleep.

"I'm not sure I could do it for a very long period of time," he says. "But because I want to be home in France for dinner, it's something I'm happy to do."

His wife Irina adds: "He misses me, so of course he wants to be home at night."

In return, there is the lifestyle France allows. When the Pearces first bought their detached farmhouse in Aubin-Saint-Vaast it was an ivy-covered near-ruin.

But they paid only £67,000 for it and have so far spent £30,000 restoring it - while their former home in Surrey is now worth around £700,000. T

hey live in an idyllic region known as the Land of the Seven Valleys, a region of fortified townships and rolling fields. From his kitchen table, he has a glorious view across open fields to the village church.

The neighbours are an elderly couple who speak no English but have, nonetheless, become firm friends. Village life revolves around summer fairs, wine tastings, and trips to the local castellated town of Hesdin. It is a far cry from fighting traffic on the A4.

Mr Pearce is fortunate in that his job allows more flexibility in when he must commute. Though, as he builds up his new business, daily early starts and late returns are more common.

Also, because he is a frequent traveller, he is eligible for discounts. Return fares on P&O ferries can cost as little as £60 for a week - compared to £60 for a standard weekly ticket from Liverpool Street to Chelmsford. Total travel costs can be £150 a week - but the cost of living is significantly less in France.

In Surrey, living with their children Christopher, Daniel, and Victoria (now in their twenties), the Pearces paid £700 a year on water bills and £132 a month on council tax. In France, the water bill is £42 a month, the equivalent to council tax a mere £33 a month.

There are still inconveniences to contend with: customs officials can be especially wary on some days, the motorway up to London can be at a standstill.

But Mr Pearce says: "In the main, it's so much easier than commuting completely in England: when I am on the French side, the drive home along the A16 from Calais is actually a pleasure. In the end, we are better off over here."

The couple have become part of their community, which conjures the image often presented of pre-Second World War Britain. "The village children say, ' Bonjour, madame,' when I pass them in the street of a morning," says Irina. "I doubt you'd get that in Lambeth."

She is quick to point out that not everything is ideal. The numbers of British people setting up "holiday home" businesses in her area is such that - in reality - very few actually make any real profit.

Certainly, if the commuting across the Channel becomes more viable - with lower travel prices and the reintroduction of a high-speed sea crossing from Boulogne to Dover - then many more may be moving over from Britain to their corner of France.

Irina also misses takeaways - but all these are minor issues.

She says finally: "I went back to England recently and I could not wait to return. There was traffic, police sirens, people everywhere.

"I turned to Ken and said, 'Oh, let's get home.' It was the first time I'd ever called France home but that's what it now is."

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