The Auf Wiedersehen Builders
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.
There is a building attached to the house which we had always called ‘the barn’. It was a large, valuable storage area and pretty much all the equipment we needed for building and gardening only filled one small corner. Books and furniture had been gradually relocated and another area was packed with outdoor furniture and barbecue equipment. There were also the tools and furnishings that we had ‘inherited’ – some of which, given time, may be worthy of cleaning up for use, sale, or as museum pieces. These included some venerable brass instruments which appeared to be of military origin. I had already dusted off the telescope and it appeared to work admirably.
For us ‘Let’s put it in the barn’ had become a way of doing things that was not so much a rationale as a necessity. Only when everything else was finished could we perhaps think of other plans for this area. Our priority in the short term was to do something about the roof, part of which had been blown off in a winter gale a few years earlier.
The problem was that the more we used the barn as a store the more we lost things. This was at least partly because everything had, of necessity, to be covered with tarpaulins. Even the boxes of roofing slates which had been delivered at some point remained anonymous under their waterproof coat. We asked Kevin to get on the job a number of times and certainly he had been paid for his efforts at least twice. The fact remained, though, that the only possible benefit of the roof in its present condition was that if I set up the telescope on its tripod, the barn would make an excellent celestial observatory.
We thought about asking Ricky. He was certainly willing enough, but roofing is a specialist team job and Ricky was primarily a joiner. Besides which we were already throwing more at him than he could keep up with.
Local friends suggested that we used their builders for this project.
‘They are both reasonable and hard working,’ claimed Angela.
‘Then let’s have the phone number,’ said Doris.
So I called Bob the builder.
‘Tuesday,’ he said, ‘and I’ll bring the lads with me.’
The ‘lads’ were ringers for the Auf Wiedersehen mob. Bob was the stocky, balding foreman-type through whom all meaningful conversation was routed, Ossie was a tall and wiry Geordie with a nose that had obviously had several uncomfortable collisions, and Pete – who seemed to be constructed of concentric circles – had an unfathomable Wolverhampton twang. Pete admitted – or at least Bob translated – that after two years in France he had learned almost nothing of the language; worse still, the natives seemed to have problems understanding his dialect which they perhaps assumed to be more Black Sea than Black Country.
‘We have to get the work done quickly,’ I explained, ‘we have children and grandchildren visiting soon.’
‘I understand,’ said Bob.
‘Aye Hinny,’ said Ossie.
‘Awlright von oirkid,’ said Pete.
‘And so when can you start?’ I asked.
‘Right away,’ said Bob.
‘Noo Hinny,’ said Ossie.
‘Stray Taway,’ said Pete.
And that was it. They stripped off their shirts, ran out their ladders, and by tea time had removed the last vestiges of old tiling.
‘Well done lads,’ I said, ‘tomorrow?’
‘Sorry Gaffer,’ said Bob, ‘it will have to be Saturday.’
‘But the forecast is for storms,’ I protested.
‘Saturday,’ said Bob.
‘First thing?’ I asked hopefully.
Saturday came, but by ten o’clock there were no builders. I telephoned Bob.
‘You promised first thing,’ I said.
‘Not me,’ he said, ‘just Ossie and Peter.’
‘But they’re not here.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Unless they’re working silently and invisibly.’
‘But they should be there. I’ll ring you back in 20 minutes.’
Two hours later he telephoned.
They’ll be there first thing tomorrow. Five o’clock start.’
‘I won’t be awake.’
‘You will be when they start drilling tiles.’
Next morning by the time I staggered out of the house with a coffee the lads were already at work. In the half light I thought I was seeing double – Ossie and Peter were up on the roof on one side with two near clones working opposite.
First they wanted coffee, then a spirit level, then a pencil.
‘A pencil?’ I asked.
‘Aye, a pencil Hinny,’ said Ossie.
Doris had come out to join Ricky and me on the lawn.
‘It’s almost unbelievable,’ she said, ‘four builders and not a pencil between them.’
‘That’s not the half of it,’ said Ricky, ‘they have already borrowed my scaffolding and drill.’
The job was straightforward, but time consuming. Roofing construction can vary considerably in the Charente and, as the La Maison D’Etre was an older property with a traditional slate roof, the beams had to be carefully embedded first and then covered with layers of wooden ‘slates’ which were then coated with a waterproof layer – we used a product called Spanflex – before the outer tiling could begin.
We had costed another possible method using ‘uppers’ and ‘overs’ – tiles which can be used for both the inner and outer layer. This, however, would have meant the pile of tiles we already had were useless, which seemed to us a terrible waste.
We later learnt of a third method: to lay down corrugated metal strips over the beams and then use a single layer of outer tiles which would have saved us money and had the long term advantage of having the corrugated structure in place for rapid tile replacement if the winter wind caused some mischief. The main disadvantage of this method is a relative lack of insulation, although this would hardly have mattered in the barn. If this had been part of the living accommodation, we could have used an isolent mince – a fine gauge insulation. This is around 25 mm in thickness and is most frequently used behind tongue and groove, plasterboard, or the tricky areas you find around dormer windows. Plasterboard backed with insulating material, or polystyrene panels (which can be made to clip into position) are further options. If these materials are used it is important to have roof vents for ventilation. It is also possible to integrate an insulator such as laine de roche or laine de verre (rockwool or glasswool) into a finished surface. These materials, which come as semi-rigid panels, can also be tacked under the rafters. Whatever approach is taken it is important to treat the timbers in advance.
The job took a week. At the end of it they disassembled Ricky’s scaffolding and offered to put it in his van. He was so dumbstruck that he helped them to do it.
After they had left I found a ring in the bathroom. Obviously one of the men had taken it off to scrub his hands so I made enquiries.
It was Ossie who turned up the next day and I handed him the ring as we stood in the street gazing up at the roof. He seemed almost surprised at what he was seeing.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘so it’s still there then.’