Maggie and Bea Ordever left their home in southeastern England last October, a few months after Britain voted to leave the European Union.
“We’d made the plan before Brexit came along,” says Maggie, 67, who worked in the hospitality industry. “We didn’t want to choose Spain or Italy because we wanted an easy route back for family. And we fell in love with Brittany.”
The Celtic-influenced region of Brittany, in western France, felt like home to Bea, 54, a design engineer.
“When we were driving north, south, east and west looking for properties for sale,” she says, “it felt comfortably similar.”
It’s not only the landscape. The Bretons, the local people of Brittany, trace much of their heritage to ancient Britons who fled Cornwall after the collapse of the Roman Empire. In addition to French, some also speak Breton (Brezhoneg), a Celtic language that resembles Cornish.
The Ordevers bought a 19th century house in the village of Seglien and renovated it into a bed-and-breakfast, La Grande Maison Seglien.
The couple soon discovered there were other British citizens not only in their own village, but throughout Brittany, including many who may have arrived since Brexit.
Britain’s Office of National Statistics says that as of January, 157,000 Britons live throughout France. One big concentration is in Brittany, where 13,000 British nationals live, according to the region’s economic and social committee (CESER). There are also 10,000 second homes belonging to British citizens.
Ille-et-Vilaine, which deals with citizenship requests for Brittany, told Le Monde that before Brexit, it received between 10 and 20 citizenship requests a year. But it has received more than 160 since Brexit.
In the village of Gouarec, with its rain-scented, medieval-flavor homes and lush trails and cycling paths, there’s also the Association Integration Kreiz Breizh, an organization that helps British newcomers in Central Brittany acclimate. AIKB volunteers even host their own bilingual podcast.
“Recently, I’ve noticed more British people coming to live here on a permanent basis,” says AIKB’s Maggie Fee, who has lived in France with her family for 15 years. “It’s people who were intending to come anyway and who were not going to let Brexit put them off.”
She’s often their first point of contact to sort out how to become permanent residents.
“We talk about the two most important things which really need to get sorted when you come to live here, which are the health system and the tax system,” she says.
There are also intensive French language classes and conversation clubs. Fluency in French is a requirement if the British transplants want to obtain citizenship.
Anne Guillemot, the former mayor of the nearby village of Perret, hosts a conversation club at her home there.
“We tend to keep our language, culture and habits, and they keep theirs,” Guillemot says. “So we make plum confiture [jam] together, and try to get the English to speak some French.”
She also tries to learn English from British transplants like 88-year-old Andrew Beldowski, a retired IT worker who’s spending his golden years orienteering in France since moving there 12 years ago.
“I can manage in French myself now,” he says. “I try to speak French to the newcomers, too, because some of them stay in their own little circles.”
At Gouarec’s local tavern, run by Guillemot’s 45-year-old daughter Solen, you often hear more English than French. Solen and retiree Lucien Le Corre, 81, who’s having his afternoon glass of wine at the tavern, say they’re still not used to hearing English.
“I just bought a car from one of the British people. It has the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, so that really confuses the police when they pull me over,” Le Corre says, winking.
Local councilwoman Kate Husband says the influx of British nationals may be helping the local economy.
“If you go to any of the shops, any of the DIY stores, people doing up houses, it’s absolutely chock-full of English people,” she says. “A lot of small businesses, tourist-type businesses are now run by English people.”
She and her husband, Geoff, are British themselves. They moved from southwestern England to Brittany 27 years ago to run a cycling tour company. Their three children were born and raised here.
“I have dual nationality, and my husband will have it fairly soon,” she says. “We felt like we should get French nationality just to make sure we didn’t have any problems staying here” after Brexit.
Husband says that although many of her friends back home are upset about Brexit, none of them are planning to relocate here.
“I don’t think people will move to France simply because they want to stay in the EU,” she says. “It’s a huge thing to move to a foreign country.”
Maggie and Bea Ordever, the bed-and-breakfast owners, say there’s no looking back.
“When we came we decided, ‘Sayonara, England,’ ” says Maggie Ordever. “It’s all or nothing, sink or swim. We were horrified by the results of Brexit. It may well spur us to take French citizenship in order to remain here long term.”