For the niçois all foreigners are English

So wrote Alexandre Dumas in 1841. Patrick Middleton looks back at over 200 years of British involvement with the South of France

Until the second half of the 19th century British visitors and residents were still relatively rare in this region. No surprise, really, since the journey from England – once across the Channel, by coach – was long (in 1815 taking up to 10 days or more), uncomfortable, expensive and often dangerous in the poorly policed countryside. From the mid-1700s those ready to face such a journey included early medical tourists. The South of France was attractive for its warmer climate, a welcome contrast with the chill and gloom of an English winter, while sea bathing, after centuries of distrust, had become valued for its supposed health-giving properties. It was the region's therapeutic benefits that brought Tobias Smollett to the Coast for several years in the 1760s. Dr Smollet, as he was, had a limited admiration for the niçois:  "They show you a mortifying indifference while fleecing you of your money." Despite this, the city later gave his name to a street aware that his writings had helped the area's reputation as a good place for "consumptives". This was over optimistic: many who came in search of a cure found only a grave.

Victoria: 10 years on the Coast

After the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 the number of arrivals here rose steadily although they were long heavily outnumbered by those who ventured no further into France than Paris or the Channel ports. Already, however, by the 1840s there was a significant British community here with its churches, libraries, tearooms, shops, estate agencies and even a small school on what is now the site of the Lenval Children's Hospital. Then, and for decades after, visitors and residents came in the winter season only: the summer was avoided as "the season of heat and stink".

Queen Victoria MonumentAfter mid-century, there was a notable and continuing increase in the British presence. Two factors were at work. First, the coming of the railway which reached Nice in 1864 and Monaco four years later. This made travelling here much more convenient and comfortable. The effect on the Principality was especially striking: in 1862 the Grimaldis' relm had just two hotels, in 1882 there were 48 ... and, of course, the Casino. Towns that didn't get a rail link (Hyères was the best example) went into decline. The second factor which encouraged British interest was Queen Victoria's enthusiasm for the area. After long years of virtual seclusion as "the widow of Windsor", following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, she began to make regular trips here from the early 1880s. Altogether she spent about a year on the Coast, visiting several towns, often repeatedly, but with a particular affection for Nice and "dear Cimiez", as she called it. Reports of her visits led to the Côte d'Azur (the term dates only from 1887) becoming a favourite destination for her compatriots. She did not, however, approve of their visiting Monaco which she regarded with deep distaste. The Bishop of Gibraltar assured her that it harboured "the scum of all Europe" and, passing through en route to Menton, she noted "nasty, disreputable people walking about". Her hostility was heightened by the fondness for Monaco of her son the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who relished the opportunities it offered for his favourite pursuits of womanising and gambling. On at least one occasion he brought from home a "love seat" he had designed which enabled him to have sex with two women at once. His mother was not amused.

Nothing like the sun

Following the First World War (rather less disruptive of life here than the Second) there were very different developments which affected the character of the British presence. Beginning in the early 1920s, there was a change in attitudes to the sun. A tan, once seen as the badge of the outdoor manual worker, came to be regarded as physically attractive and visitors, French and foreign, were keen to acquire a fashionable bronzage and the Coast found itself with an all the year round season and a population of permanently resident retirees. John Strachey, the future Labour politician, wrote from Nice in 1928: "We have learned to like real heat, for we have learned to live, to dress, to eat, to sleep in the right way and at the right times to meet it." Another development had a negative effect. For a century from 1815 the exchange rate of sterling against the franc was remarkably stable within a range of 24 to 27 francs to the pound, and still after the war life here for a middle-class Brit could be easily affordable. In 1931 the UK went off the gold standard and it became much more difficult to survive on a fixed sterling income. On one estimate, within a fairly short period some 40% of the British community upped sticks and left. Those who remained were faced with a different crisis following the fall of France in June 1940. Many were evacuated, including Somerset Maughan, on two coal boats chartered by the British government. Those who chose to stay on were often women married to Frenchmen such as Dorothy Chamaide (see Reporter 150) and Florence Pinglier (see elsewhere in this issue). After 1945 the community was slowly reconstituted and once again a revolution in transport played a key role with the growth of air travel and, more recently, the availability of low-cost flights. Another factor was the development on the Côte d'Azur of new industry, high tech, especially, which brought in a new kind of resident to live alongside the Mayle-order retirees.

A more agreeable place to live

But why does living here, and in so many other parts of France, prove so attractive to Brits? Here in the South, of course, we've got the sun, the sea, mountains and lots of good doctors; Peter Mayle once summed up the matter for me in one word: "lunch". But there's another way of answering the question. France, whatever occasional grouses we may have, is simply a more agreeable place to live. This is regularly confirmed in cross-national surveys. International Living magazine, for example, has just issued its annual rating of countries in terms of their overall attractiveness. France, once again, took the top spot (Australia was number two). The UK was twenty-fifth on the list ... behind Lithuania.

This article is based on a talk given at Victoria in Mouans-Sartoux at the invitation of the Sunny Bank Association.

Photo by mwanasimba - Statue of Queen Victoria in Cimiez, Nice
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