Now what? Life in rural Ariege

Burblings about adjusting to life in the deep south west of France or "la France profonde" as they call it here and the challenges of restoring a ramshackle collection of tumbledown buildings. I mainly write about local festivals, events and celebrations and, most of all, the weekly ritual of combing vide greniers and brocantes for pre-loved vintage treasures.

4 September 2011

The start of the restoration work

Jeff and I had equipped ourselves with old clothes, hammers and chisels, protective masks and gloves weeks before in preparation for the day that work began.Before I go any further I think it might be useful to state in the manner of Dragons' Den “where we are” when we finally started work.

  • our planning dossier was accepted at our local Mairie on 9th February and had been passed to the main planning office in Lavelant. They had 3 whole months to authorise or decline our proposal. “Forget about default permission” Neil, our architect, had told us, “and there is an additional 2 month period after permission is granted when anyone can raise objections”. So the earliest we could begin “les grands travaux” was May 2011, and even then the work would be restricted to the restoration aspects of the build (e.g. roof replacement) and not involve any of the facade changes that might be objected to.

  • Mr White, the Géometre, had made his initial visit and stuck a few wooden stakes in the ground. He now had to do various clever calculations and re-register the results with the cadastre. Hopefully he will then return and put the final bornes in position which will precisely define some of our boundaries. We do not have any idea how long this will take (but I'm betting it could be quite a while...) * Update: at the time of publishing this blog for a second time on 4 September 2011 this work has STILL not been completed...

  • We had asked for a water supply to be connected 2 weeks before. We visited our local mairie and completed a form. “I'll mark it as urgent”, the ever helpful secretaire told us. We're haven't received the devis yet and we're not holding our breath on this one either. * Update:  we do now have water!

  • We think we now understand who to ring for an electricity supply (you might imagine this is a simple matter as there is only one supplier in France – EDF, but let me tell you, you'd be mistaken) and what to ask for (a temporary Chantier connection apparently). We expect the lead time on this to be at least 3 weeks. * Update: Although we have managed to get the supply connected and have a meter we have not actually managed to obtain any electricity from it. This, apparently, is controlled by a different part of EDF...

Basically the above meant that the only useful work that could be done fell into the bracket of demolition and that is exactly how we started.

Jeff's first task was to remove the only internal partition wall at the property which is on the first floor of the gite. Now if this had been down to me I would have done it considerably quicker and would have merrily whacked it with the sledgehammer we had just bought and hoicked out the rubble with a crow bar. But not Jeff. He looked up and pondered the possibility that this flimsy bit of stone and plaster was, in fact, supporting the floor above. He then gingerly tickled out individual pieces of stone, muttering the whole time about the inadequacy of the ancient twisted timbers (they could be 16th century).

Meanwhile... I was let loose with a hammer and chisel and the result was mayhem. I notice several things pretty quickly (that is when I'm not distracted by the sparkling view of the lake through the window)

    * these tools are quite heavy after a while and its a good job I'm wearing gloves which give a small degree of protection to my knuckles which I've managed to hit repeatedly with the hammer instead of the chisel.
    * the chaux is in 2 distinctly different layers. The top coat is a finer plaster type mix which has been painted and is hard and brittle. The lower coat is coarser and in places is in excess of 4 inches thick. This is softer, crumbly and contains small stones. On the whole it was easier to remove.
    * I reveal what I can only describe as huge chasms in areas where the quite alarming, and apparently random, mix of earth, straw and smaller stones fall out from between the stones when I remove the thick chaux.
    * Some of the stones are quite beautiful. They are the colour of Bath stone, a luminous golden colour. Some of the stones are not beautiful. Some of the stones are not stones at all but bits of smashed brick, twig, straw, loose dirt, and a generous helping of the sticky yellow soil that is all around us. These walls appear to have been constructed from anything that was available at the time.

Before: the lime plaster still shows the vestiges of a sponged paint effect and borders. You can clearly see the intials R.A. in the shelved alcove which incorporates the simple basin made from 2 flat stones and one central sloping stone mounted in the exterior wall. There is a drainage hole directly underneath (almost at floor level).

After: a close up of a section of stone wall with the 2 layers of chaux partially removed. As well as stones you can see mud and straw... I also encountered patches of small layered stones, black soil (interesting as I haven't seen any around here) and tree branches (still with bark attached)

I used a range of techniques to remove the chaux varying from the aforementioned hammer and chisel, to levering it off with a claw hammer, to simply whacking it and standing back.
Try this”, suggested the builder, brandishing a small drill with chisel bit. Jeff dutifully connected the drill to the compressor (which was outside the gite) and connected the compressor to the generator (inside the gite).
And oh boy, did I love this tool. After getting used to how to apply the necessary pressure, I was merrily removing large chunks of chaux with very little effort. I felt so much like a real builder that I was soon imagining sitting outside the pub with a foaming pint of beer in my dusty old clothes slaking the thirst of honest toil. The only slight problem with this fantasy was it's Wednesday and the pub doesn't open again until Friday night. Oh well, there are many more days of toil ahead.

In the meantime Jeff had finished his painstaking dismantling of the wall and was pondering what to do with the mountain of debris we have created.

I'll remove some floorboards then we can chuck it down there and we can pull it out with the digger”, he says.
Good plan”, I say, taking aim at a patch of chaux immediately under a beam.
eh?”, I enquire as my hammer lands on the wall. I look up just in time to observe the entire beam moving sideways and downwards towards my head.
I have various thoughts at this point, such as “is this whole place held up by the chaux?” and “why have we started work on the middle floor of this decrepid barn and not at the top?”.

Jeff-y-fix. A too short salvaged timber (note the tenon at the top) is propped up on two flat rocks. The tenon is nailed to the beam to provide support. Well that's alright then, isn't it? Of course its not going to fall down.

* * * * * * * * *

We agreed that our next task was to purchase hard hats and to check our insurance. Oh yes and I've agreed not to aim my hammer at any corners.

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