The most English city in all of France
Frankly fed up with the current Francophobia, I went to Pau. The place is 15 miles from the Pyrenees, so one can appreciate the mountains – they rise halfway up with majesty – without all the art of mountaineering. It’s one of the beautiful mid-sized towns in France with, and that’s the point, a seam of Britishness as thick as John Bull’s forearm running through. Skip the snow capped peaks and at times you could be in Berkshire. Well, the finest bits of Berkshire. There is a lot here to keep the prejudices blurred. The Duke of Wellington was a fan, for heaven’s sake.
In a few days, I went from an Anglican church, passing by vast villas and sumptuous English gardens, to the Pau Golf Club, the oldest in continental Europe. Scratch golfer, club employee and young Englishman Harry Mead indicated the honor boards bearing the names of trophy winners and club captains: English speakers almost for a man. Since its founding in 1856, French inhabitants have barely been able to glance at it for a century.
They were hardly more numerous at the Chasse de Pau, also founded by our ancestors. It still rolls, now with the French chasing a drag rather than an Englishman chasing the inedible. As English upper class men invariably preferred horses to families, hunting was not enough. They also needed a racetrack and a training ground. These remain among the best and most extensive in France. I saw dozens of streamlined frames springing from the morning mist, before the big meetings in Pau this winter (between now and the beginning of February). The show could just as easily have been from 1821 or 1921. “Oh, I say,” I say, because I identify as belonging to the upper class.
Back in town, the conversation turned to Prince Edward who not so long ago showed up in Pau to play real tennis – what the French call palm game – as part of a fundraising tour. “Handsome man”, declared Paul Mirat, historian from Pau and true tennis master. In few places, then, is a British past so positively palpable in a French present. St Andrew’s Anglican Church still has Sunday matins at 10:45 am (as St George faces Joan of Arc on the altar triptych). And the Boulevard-des-Pyrénées stretches for more than a kilometer and a half along the plateau of Pau, looking towards the river and the plain and far towards the full cast of the Pyrenean peaks. Here is the greatest legacy of the British era. Alphonse de Lamartine declared that the boulevard offered “the most beautiful view in the world on earth, just as Naples offers the most beautiful views of the sea”.
A fairly reasonable recommendation, perhaps, to give our most enraged Francophobe – a much contested title – a pause for thought. In any case, all this dates from the time when, around 1820, around 100 years ago, Pau was known as “the english city”. Winter resort, first for British consumers (who were legion), Pau was as famous as Nice or Biarritz. Wellington was among the first, having driven Bonaparte’s forces out of Spain. Welcomed by the Palois as a liberator, he settled in the plain of Pau.
The rush came later, from the 1840s, when Scottish physician Alex Taylor wrote a successful doorstop claiming that Pau’s climate was ideal for chest issues. Certainly, he wrote, it rained in Pau, but it was different from the British rain because it did not “straighten the hair of the ladies”. It will come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Dr Taylor had a private medical practice in town. Bingo! The world has listened and the leading Brits have arrived.