Written in Stone

It’s been pretty quiet on the blog front for a while now, but on the home front it is all go!

After many years of planning, agonising, cogitating and set-backs, work has finally started on our project to transform the barn into a living space.  This is a bigger and more complex undertaking than anything we have attempted before and we are immensely indebted to François, our superbly competent project manager and to our friend Shasha, who has come up with brilliant ideas for the interior design.

First came the demolition.  Out went our wooden floor, laid in 2014.  It was a wrench to see it go but we have really made use of it for concerts in the barn since then and the plan is to reuse the boards as cladding for the new entry porch.  In came the heavies, who made light work of dismantling the beams in the stable.  Yes it will be great not to risk decapitating yourself going to get firewood from the store at the rear, but we couldn’t help but feel a pang as this magnificent chestnut beam – a single span of almost 10 metres was sawn up and removed in sections. 

However we cheered ourselves with the thought that as many beams as possible will be incorporated into the new structure, We also kept the almost petrified timber column which had been the beam’s only support for many hundreds of years – we will find it an honourable place in the stable later on. 

Work proceeded at a lightening pace with many technical consultations about levels, load and so on and after just ten days two ready-mix lorries parked up on Roger’s field, simultaneously and spectacularly pumping concrete through an impressive prehensile arm like the neck of a dinosaur.

That was all very high octane and macho, but now things have slowed to a more traditional pace as the masters of stone settle down to their work.  Gérard, whom you have met before is back, still saying “affreux” about anything and everything and now joined by a younger, but very competent stonemason.  Once the really skilled work got underway Bernard also joined the chantier from time to time.  Now retired, he set up his building business in the 70s, gradually growing it into a large multi faceted operation, which he has handed on to his son.  We feel so fortunate to be able to employ a family concern, based in the village, which can not only provide the high-tech structural resources of the initial phase but also expert craftsmen with a lifetime of experience of working with the local stone.

We have such deep respect and love for the history of our house and for its place in the local vernacular rural style that we were very anxious not to make changes that would destroy its innate character.  The plan involves creating two new openings on the main façade – a door onto the future balcony and a window, and we wanted, as far as possible to use stones retrieved from the house and re cut for their new purpose.  We have amassed a fair assortment of large stones, discovered in the cellars and stable, and we showed them to Gérard.  Some he rejected outright – the wrong type of stone, the wrong shape – others he put aside as possibles and a few were accepted with a “ça peut aller”. 

He attacked what had appeared to us as a fairly simple job – paving a small area at the foot of the future stairs from the balcony – with his usual exacting standards, mostly working alone and keeping up a critical monologue with the stones, berating those he found wanting and complimenting others. He is pleased with the result and, though we had asked for something a bit more informal, with an irregular edge, so are we. “C’etait plus fort que lui!” said François, when he saw the work – you can’t expect a person of Gérard’s experience to go “off piste” and create something too eccentric.

When it came to the windows, we had two suggestions which would, in the best possible use of the phrase, kill two birds with one stone. 

This lintel, over the door to the smallest cellar, is a positive death trap, as the opening is extremely low.  You need to bend double to pass through it, which is easy to remember as you go in, but inevitably slips your mind when you come out, resulting in some very nasty cracks on the head.  Gérard took it out, almost single handed and laid it in the courtyard.  It seemed even more massive out in the daylight and we all agreed that it was far too big for a window lintel so it was decided to cut it up and use it to frame the two new windows which overlook Roger’s field. 

We are happy that the stone, which has been a nuisance to us for all these years, has found a worthy new use and is still part of the house.

The second was to re deploy the lintel over the top of the well. I must say that I never liked it where it was. There is something mausoleum-like about the well structure which I have attempted to soften with the Albertine rose but the result is not very satisfactory.  So we decided to remove it and see if it could be put to better use.  (Markus has an ambitious plan to build a stone arch in its place, he has made measurements and drawings and is subtly picking up tips from Gérard).

So off it came too. It needed reducing in height by about 7 cm and then shaping to fit under three matching stones which we wanted to retain in the wall above it. Pernickety? You bet! To create the large opening onto the future balcony it had been necessary to demolish right up to the roof line, but here we were anxious to cause the absolute minimum disturbance possible to the original wall.

We had long discussions with Gérard and Bernard about the feasibility of the plan and there was much scratching of heads. We soon realised that they were up for the challenge but, as craftsmen with a lifetime’s experience, they were conscious of staking their honour on the successful outcome of a very demanding task.

The opening was prepared, shored up inside and supported by small acro props until all was ready, then, early the next morning the three stonemasons assembled. The lintel was manhandled onto a hoist, and raised (by jeune) to the correct height, where Gérard and Bernard stood poised precariously on some fairly rudimentary scaffolding. The atmosphere was calm but concentrated. We watched from a respectful distance, holding our breath. Inch by inch, guided by Bernard’s economical hand gestures, the stone was moved into its new home. Up a bit, down a fraction, turn, twist, push … the massive stone was nudged into place with not a millimetre to spare. “C’est bon!” declared Bernard laconically as he assessed the result.

We applauded and the two masters acknowledged our appreciation with a slight nod before descending to terra firma, Bernard to get on with preparing his veg patch and Gérard to his work on the other windows. What a privilege, we thought, to observe such skilled craftsmen at work! The result, as you can see, is exactly what we had hoped and we love the fact that the lovely old stones continue to tell the story of the house.

PS. In the same spirit of re using as much stone as possible, Markus is back at one of his favourite tasks – rebuilding a section of the lower garden wall which has suffered from the exuberance of the bay bush – I think he is making a very creditable job of it!

3 thoughts on “Written in Stone

  1. My goodness what a work! Thrilling and fascinating. I can’t quite get over cutting a 10 metre chestnut beam up into chunks, but I know you wouldn’t have done it without great concern.

    I do hope that I shall be able to get toy see it all one day. My world grows smaller, but train travel is still in my plans.

    1. Oh what a nice possibility to look forward to! We have all found our world so shrunken over the past 12 plus months, just the idea of resuming train travel eventually is refreshing!

  2. Oh my goodness I don’t think I will recognize the farm when I am able to return. What an undertaking. I am sure when you are done it will be magnificent. We sure miss our trips there. I can wait until we are able to visit again.

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