It’s not always as much fun as this – clambering about in a roofless wreck dating from the fourteenth century; a stone spiral staircase in the remains of the tower and an unsuspected vaulted cellar below, discovered when the termite specialist from the town hall fell through the floor into its entrance.
‘What bad luck,’ said the neighbour. ‘Fill that in quick before the archaeologists find out about it.’
My husband is a serial house renovator, beginning in the evenings after work in London as a young man when his haggard looks on arrival at the Stock Exchange in the mornings prompted his then boss to counsel him not to be out on the tiles every night. Stifling the urge to respond that actually he had been under the joists he remained quiet and just smiled mysteriously when colleagues asked him how he managed to pull the birds so successfully.
He continued in France…..but there was an obstacle to progress.
The artisan francais.
In that time and in that place the artisan francais was the bodger supreme and the client did as the bodger told him as he, the bodger, was, after all, the artisan while the client was only the client.
You wanted a damp course installed for the new kitchen? Fat chance.
A. The bodger didn’t know what it was
B. The bodger didn’t intend to find out.
Instead, should you be rash enough to go away for a week the bodger would promptly dry line your kitchen instead thus putting out all your measurements for the units.
What with that and the habit of mixing up a barrow load of cement just before lunch and dumping what remained unused in the shrubbery it was clear that the artisan francais was not the answer to prayer.
Then a friend in the village – a Turk married to a French woman – put us on to a friend of his, another Turk running his own building business.
We had struck gold.
His estimates were reasonable and accurate; he knew what he was doing and he had an eye and a feeling for old buildings.
He and his main men – the mighty Osman and the monosyllabic Ramazan – supplemented by the young men straight from Turkey, undertook the heavyweight stuff; removal of walls, replacement of roofs, replacement of rotten beams with RSJs, laying floors, making arches and doorways….our part was the follow up work; pointing, painting, puttying and grouting. Uncomfortable though they were, given the endless metres of tiling I had to grout the bogging pads certainly saved me from an attack of grouter’s knee – something which sounds as if it should have been celebrated by Rambling Syd Rumpo:
There were arts to learn…an RSJ does not look at ease alongside ancient beams: the answer is to enclose it in a plasterboard case, then mix up a gunge of glue and plaster which is slapped on with a liberal hand, combed to imitate wood grain and anointed while wet with walnut stain.
Sounds naff…looks good and certainly fooled every expert.
To restore limestone mouldings perished by the weather you could buy a powder called ‘Patrimoine’ – but it wouldn’t last unless you first applied Bondex to the site to be restored. And at that period you had to bring your Bondex from England.
Bringing old wrecks back to life was a joy.
Some we lived in, some we rented out, others we sold on straight away, but each was a pleasure.
When you can find this old lady, windows broken, water running down the walls,
and restore her dignity
You feel that all the work was worthwhile.