Hardcore And The Five Feeds
When you fall in love common sense flies out of the window. This is how it was for David and Doris Johnson when they found a down-at-heel mini chateau in the heartland of France. A three year restoration began - and with it a journey of discovery.
The first job of 2004 was fitting out the bedroom where Doris and I were to sleep; it had an en suite bathroom and would be very nice when finished. We had always liked the look of authentic French style furniture and a local store had a sale, so off we went.
They had two wardrobes in the style that we wanted and they were massive. We had not realised that they came as flat packs – they looked so solid. They fortunately arrived with a couple of big lads. Between us we struggled upstairs with them. All we had to do now was put them up.
Flat packs in France are no better and no worse than in England. We finally got them finished and into position – one at each end of our bedroom which measures nine metres by four without the en suite. We could never have afforded a house with rooms this size in the UK. Anything less than king-sized wardrobes would have been lost in there. It was quite wonderful.
The whites and yellow blooms of the early Spring were already giving way to a tapestry of colour. Monsieur Crochet had returned to his seat on the village green and we still did not have a kitchen.
Doris had been cooking in the caravan for eight months now – even managing to prepare meals for friends, but enough was enough. We had to begin the process by filling in the cellar. For some reason Kevin seemed reluctant to get the 30 tons of hardcore from the farm where it had long been stored.
We resorted first to threats and then blackmail. When he saw that the task was inevitable he arranged for the farmer to load his truck. The idea was that we’d shovel it in together.
He had a battered blue truck and on the appointed day he arrived and parked it alongside the kitchen window. I’d already taken the glass frames out as a precaution.
With the side of the truck down we stood side by side – one each side of the window. It took about half an hour to empty the load, and, because we were swinging alternatively, I had to keep pace with Kevin. He was exhausted and I was twice his age. I now knew why he had been reluctant to move the hardcore.
It took three days to get all 30 tons into the cellar. I then had to try and spread it out evenly. This is not like putting jam on bread. It’s more like trying to flatten off the top of a mountain. Kevin left me to it as he claimed there were greater demands on his expertise. He was putting the finishing touches to the kitchen electrics which basically amounted to putting in the electric feeds, which in turn would be buried under four inches of concrete.
The greatest pain of all this was not in my back but my wallet. The final cost of the work was closer to £2,000 than the ‘ballpark’ £500 he had estimated.
Kevin and I were now both working on the kitchen electrics. New arrivals in France often complain about the system being different but, on reflection, it’s the UK who are out of step as the rest of Europe do their wiring like the French. You could, of course, wire your house ‘English Style’, but you might have problems with an insurance claim in the event of a fire because the ring main system used in the UK is illegal in France. The French method is to have separate circuits running from the main electrical source to each socket group and back again. The standard (or norm) is defined by NFC 15 100 which is a precise specification for trip switch (ratings), cable sizes and power outlets (per circuit) for various kinds of appliances.
We also found out why installing a new supply is expensive. La Maison D’Etre had the kind of cotton-wrapped cable I’d not seen in England since the 1950s, and the lighting in our old shower room used ‘speaker’ wire.
If the French sometimes seem rather cavalier in this respect I think it is because they were brought up on the old 120 volt system which meant you could take more liberties with it. Indeed the rule remains that you can patch up an old system ad infinitum without permission but if you put in a new system you have to go through planning.
We have friends who bought three old houses for renovation, all without electricity. A little more surprising, perhaps, was that quite a few of the inhabited houses in the same village did not have a supply either. We were told that, in one house, an old lady, goes up to bed via outside steps. In winter she carries a candle lamp.
This is by no means unusual. There are still many people in France who manage, apparently quite happily, without electricity. Perhaps there is another reason for this; we know of a family who were recently quoted €3,000 just to be connected and this was in a hamlet where there was already a mains supply. The second problem they faced was that all the wiring in the house had to be completed and inspected before they were connected.
Finally the cellar was filled in. The pipes for water and electricity were installed. The next stage was cementing, but we had no cement.
‘It’s our top priority now,’ I told Kevin, ‘so please order the cement.’
‘I will,’ he said, but he did nothing.
A few days later I decided to phrase it more firmly.
‘If you don’t order the cement I cannot be responsible for what Doris might do to you.’
That did the trick.
‘OK, it will be here on Thursday,’ he said.
There was quite a lot of preparation to do before Thursday. The area of the cellar was 23 square yards which was to be filled to around four inches with cement. That was a lot of cement to put down quickly so we needed to mark the fill lines carefully.
Fortunately Kevin had a new toy – a laser levelling device which gave us a blue line right around the cellar. The next thing was to put down a plastic membrane and top this off with wire meshing for reinforcement. All that remained now was to work out how to get the cement into the cellar. The plan was to point the driver down the side of the house to the kitchen window which would have to be removed again, but putting the cement in there would mean we could work nicely from the middle of the floor outwards.
Thursday arrived. The cement was promised for 9.30am but at 10 there was still no cement. Kevin made a phone call.
‘Good news,’ he said, ‘the load would be here by 11. Don’t look so disbelieving. Look, I’m saying ‘Ready mix’ without my fingers crossed behind my back.’
The driver arrived at 11.15 and managed to manoeuvre the cement mixer to the kitchen window. But that was no good, the window was slightly up and the delivery chute had to go down. The only option now was to shove the cement straight in through the door – which meant starting at the corner of the room. This would make spreading it around with rakes more difficult.
Kevin explained our problem and asked for a nice smooth slow delivery. The driver responded with an insouciant smile and proceeded to dump the whole lot down the chute at once.
We fell all over the place as we raked. The wire mesh under the wellies did not help as they made each fall a lottery; you never knew quite how much damage to yourself you were doing. The longer we worked the heavier the cement became to work and the more it clung to every inch of our overalls and skin. In the end we must have looked like slow motion aliens working in a sea of grey sludge.
Towards the end of this I looked up and wiped my eyes. I had expected the driver to be long gone but he was looking down at us with barely concealed mirth. Kevin had seen him too. Later I imagined his conversation when he returned to the depot.
‘You know, Pierre, I delivered to the English this morning. A full mixer. The big mixer.’
‘And did you dump it all at once, Francois?’
‘Naturally, it was very funny. Better than the circus I think.’
Kevin wanted to be away. It seemed to me that the cement was not level but he said it would settle OK and off he went. By now I was exhausted and there were still tools to clean up. I consoled myself with the fact that we now had a kitchen floor, waste water disposal pipes and electrics.
The next day Kevin and I inspected the floor.
‘You know I’m sure I put five electric feeds down but I can only find four,’ he said.
So we inspected the floor again. One, two three, four. Not five, Positively not five.
‘I don’t make mistakes,’ he said, ‘there were definitely five. It must be down there somewhere,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but so is 30 tons of rubble, metal reinforcement and four inches of concrete.’
The regulations on the number of sockets per feed are very specific. Worse still, if you overload a feed and later try to claim on insurance, you could find the policy is invalid. We needed all five feeds for the kitchen to function as planned.
‘Well, I suppose the floor will have to come up,’ he said, ‘pity really, we’d made rather a good job of it.’
Doris had joined us by now and had quickly read the situation. She had gone ashen white and for a moment I thought she was going to pass out.
‘It’s not going to happen,’ I said, ‘we’ll just have to manage somehow.’
We made ourselves a coffee and began to work out a compromise that could still, legally, give us the minimum number of sockets we needed. It was less than ideal and it was also bitterly disappointing. In fact it was a total cock up.
‘Well,’ said Kevin, ‘maybe if you water the floor a few times the missing feed will come up.’
I believe that Doris and I are reasonable, even generous people. Certainly, with the possible exception of Adolf Hitler, we have never felt that murder is justified, but the pick axe was leaning against the wall and Doris was leaning on a shovel. Kevin will never know how close he came to being featured under the tabloid headline ‘Builder Brutally Slain by Pensioners’.