Frankly fed up of present francophobia, I went to Pau. The place sits 15 miles short of the Pyrenees, so that one might appreciate the mountains – they rise mid-distance with majesty – without all the faff of mountaineering. It is among France’s fine middle-sized towns with, and here’s the point, a seam of Britishness as thick as John Bull’s forearm running right through. Zap the snow-topped peaks and, at moments, you could be in Berkshire. Well, the nicer bits of Berkshire. There’s much here to leave prejudices scrambled. The Duke of Wellington was a fan, for heaven’s sake.
In a couple of days, I went from an Anglican church, via vast villas and gardens of English sumptuousness to Pau Golf Club, the oldest in continental Europe. Scratch golfer, club employee and young Englishman Harry Mead indicated the honour boards bearing the names of trophy winners and club captains: English-speakers almost to a man. From foundation in 1856, French locals scarcely got a look in for a century.
They weren’t much more numerous at the Pau Hunt, also founded by our ancestors. It still rides out, now with Frenchmen chasing a drag rather than Englishman in pursuit of the uneatable. As English upper-class men invariably favoured horses over families, so hunting wasn’t enough. They also required a race-course and training ground. These remain among the very best, and most extensive, in France. I watched dozens of streamlined steeds surging from the morning mist, ahead of this winter’s major Pau meetings (from now to early February). The spectacle could as easily have been from 1821 or 1921. “Oh, I say,” I said, for I self-identify as upper class.
Back in town, talk turned to Prince Edward who, not that long ago, had shown up in Pau to play real tennis – what the French call jeu-de-paume – as part of a fund-raising tour. “Lovely man,” said Paul Mirat, Pau historian and real tennis master. In few places, thus, is a British past so positively palpable in a French present. St Andrew’s Anglican church still has Sunday matins at 1045am (while St George faces Joan of Arc on the altar triptych). And the Boulevard-des-Pyrénées runs more than a mile along the edge of Pau’s plateau, looking down to the river and plain and away to the full supporting cast of Pyrenean summits. Here is the grandest legacy of the British era. Alphonse de Lamartine said that the boulevard afforded “the world’s finest view over land as Naples offers the finest sea-views”.
A reasonable enough recommendation, perhaps, to give even our most rabid francophobe – a hotly-disputed title – pause for thought. At any event, all this stems from the time when, from around 1820, 100 years, Pau was known as “la ville anglaise”. As a winter resort, initially for British consumptives (who were legion), Pau was as renowned as Nice or Biarritz. Wellington was among the first in, after chasing Bonaparte’s forces out of Spain. Welcomed by the Palois as a liberator, he set up camp on Pau’s plain.
The rush came later, from the 1840s when Scottish doctor Alex Taylor wrote a best-selling door-stopper claiming Pau’s climate was ideal for chest complaints. Granted, he wrote, it did rain in Pau, but this was different from British rain for it didn’t “uncurl ladies’ hair”. It will startle no-one to learn that Dr Taylor had a private medical practice in town. Bingo! The world listened, and top-drawer Britons rolled in.
They arrived unimpeded by any damned nonsense about fitting in. In this remote French country town of 16,000, they recreated a noble British culture, complete with the hunting and gaming, polo and tennis, music salons and bandstands, Anglicanism, British banks, doctors and dentists, and villas with bow windows and abundant gardens. Natives from Pau and the surrounding Béarn region were required only to supply domestic service, put in proper sewers and pavements, and erect monumental hotels and residences. Also to carry golf clubs. “Caddie” apparently derives from “cadet”, French word for “younger” – as in the younger son who, being of less use around the farm, was sent off to lug clubs for the foreign aristos.
Pau Golf Club (PGC) certainly had its moments. Liverpool-born Joe Lloyd – club professional, the first such in France – travelled to Chicago to win the third US Open in 1897, the only man ever to do so with an eagle on the final hole of the final round. He later took on a noble PGC member, Lloyd playing with just a putter, the noble toting a full set. Lloyd won, of course.
By now, Pau was as well-known for sport as it was for curing lungs (and more legitimately so). Simultaneously, the social season blossomed with parties, grand dinners and posh balls in great halls. As a local journalist wrote (bear in mind, this bloke was French): “Convinced, correctly, of their superiority in all domains – especially sociability – (the British) taught the indigenous locals … the rules of savoir-faire.” This included how ladies should be dressed and how to handle a teapot.
And then Americans slipped in, not least J. Gordon Bennett, son of the billionaire newspaperman of the same name. Scandal caused Gordon Junior to leave New York for France when, on turning up plastered for a reception in his future in-laws’ mansion, he unzipped his trousers in front of all the guests and peed in the fireplace. This didn’t hold him back in Pau, where he was a great supporter of sports – the racing of horses, cars, balloons and aircraft – and left prizes for several relevant events. (It was his outrageous life which made his name an expletive.)
Meanwhile, and also over from the US, Wilbur Wright was setting up the world’s first pilots’ school in Pau – attracted by calm weather suitable for magnificent men in their flying machines. Thus was established an aero-tradition which shortly embraced Norman Prince, the driving force behind the Lafayette Squadron of volunteer US flyers. They fought with the French before the US entered the Great War.
By the 1920s, though, the Palois locals were reasserting themselves. They had, and have, much to reassert: mountain traditions (berets, sheep, nearby skiing), a strong streak of independence (from when Pau was capital of Navarre) and a CV including not one but two monarchies.
The vast château dominating the river was the 1553 birthplace of Henry IV, the first Bourbon king and a flirtatious fellow who changed religion almost as often he changed mistresses. The castle boasts the turtle-shell which, allegedly, served as his cradle. It’s a very big turtle-shell.
Across town, French history bumps into Swedish in a galleried house set back from Rue Tran. It was home to Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a Napoleonic commander and, later, King of Sweden. The Swedes lacked a royal heir, so voted Bernadotte into the job – primarily because, as a military man and diplomat, he had the necessary international clout. That he was French apparently didn’t matter. He took the throne in 1818, and his family still reign in Stockholm, and still visit Pau. The little museum tells the tale well, though is presently closed for renewal.
I wandered on to the Place Royale, a London-style square flanked by (what were once) monumental hotels with the correct dimensions for champagne fountains, large orchestras and very wide dresses. Mary Todd-Lincoln, widow of assassinated Abraham, had rooms in the Hotel de la Paix. After stints in a US asylum because unhinged by grief, she’d sought refuge in Pau where she lived as a recluse. She wasn’t even tempted to the official reception for Ulysses Grant when he and his wife passed through in 1878, though it was held in the Hotel de France opposite. Both palaces are now flats.
I needed to eat. The Maison Abadie charcuterie stand in the sumptuous new market hall had a spread to tempt Simeon Stylites down from his pole. Pâtés, cooked meats, saucisson, pies, prepared dishes and Henri IV ham cooked in Jurançon wine: the eye for arrangement wouldn’t have shamed Cézanne. For £12.75, you may pick up a Pass Gourmand from the tourist office and have goes at 12 such stands in the market, plus other food shops elsewhere. Do it. It’s lunch. You’ll thank me.
For further sweetness, I roamed to Rue Joffre where, among very many other sweetmeats, the rather posh Maison Miot sells les coucougnettes de Henri IV. This translates as “Henry IV’s knackers”. Sorry about that, but the ladies selling them are smart and smiling and don’t blush at all. Jolly good the sweets are, too: almonds covered in chocolate and then pink almond taste. The Reine Margot’s Nipples are also available in chocolate form.
From there, I wandered through the old town – dignified and conspiratorial – to the château and onto the 60-acre park beyond. Pau occasionally appears as a park with town-like elements grafted on. Back on the Boulevard, I had a few beers with Paul Mirat. Down below, in another park near the station, is a crop of 104 yellow totems, each one commemorating a Tour de France, and the relevant year’s winner. They’re about head height to Chris Froome. Sir Bradley’s there, too, of course.
And so we talked of Prince William and of writer/barrister Dornford Yates – who was based near Pau – and of the young Winston Churchill who rode with the Pau hunt and of Paul’s forebears, who helped Second World War refugees and escapers over the Pyrenees. There are families in Britain and the US who should be grateful to courageous people round here, and undoubtedly are. Difficult in the circumstances, I’d say, to maintain francophobia. But I’ve been wrong before. I’m not always at my brightest after beer.
How to do it
Fly ryanair.com from Stansted to Tarbes-Lourdes (or Biarritz), then bus it.
The Hotel Bristol is a smashing old town-house rendered 21st-century by new owners this year. One of my finds of 2021 (hotelbristol-pau.com, room-only doubles from £68).
Le Berry is the buzzy Béarnais bistro where you’ll find pretty much everyone in Pau (leberry-pau.com; omelettes £8, meat mains from £13). More contemporary, and extraordinary value-for-money, is the Michelin-recognised L’Interprète (linterpret-pau.fr; three course lunch £18, dinner £32).
For more inspiration on where to stay, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in the Midi-Pyrénées.