Thursday, August 07, 2008


I'm pointing again. I've quite missed it, I realise, as I haven't done any for at least two years now, though it used to be one of my main spring to autumn activities. Completing the front of the house probably took me most of five years, which tells you something of the efficiency of my method. Now I'm working on the south-west facing gable end - pignon in French and pine-end in some dialects of English, I understand.

Professional pointers have big messy machines containing large quantities of quite liquid lime-based mortar which they extrude out like toothpaste through tubes into the cracks, and they do it in gangs, often with power chisels too. I took the job on having watched our uncle-and-nephew team of macons (can't seem to find a c-cedilla on the character map...) doing it round our doorways.

I have a couple of cold chisels, and a small club hammer which belonged to my mother, who used it on firewood. A curious distaff heirloom, you may think; but one that I'm most fond of, it's size and weight are perfect and comfortable for me. When I commented that it had been my mother's to our former neighbour, Jean, the idea rather tickled him, and he dubbed it le marteau de la mère. He used to watch and give me the odd tip, and sometimes asked 'how are your chisels?', and would whisk them off and sharpen them for me on a griding wheel. Now he's moved away, they mostly stay blunt, though Tom sometimes does them on the angle grinder, but I don't press for this since I'm terrified he'll amputate some vital part of himself in the action.

I use standard bricking cement based mortar, which I mix in small quantities in a bucket with some polyurethane-based stuff which plasticises it and makes it more waterproof. I mix it quite stiff, and, wearing diposable gloves, roll it into long thin sausages which I work in between the wetted stones like clay, then press in and smooth with a very thin trowel and an old paintbrush. On the front of the house I went over the lot with a very expensive, silken smooth, very workable repair mortar and a wet brush, but the end wall will not receive this cosmetic treatment.

We have little idea how old our house is, it pre-dates living memory at which point things get a bit vague (they're fairly vague where living memory's concerned too...). Someone told us that the peg-holes in the principle beams for thatch indicate it was built pre-Revolution, since they stopped using thatch then, because the Chouans, counter-revolutionary royalist and Catholic insurgents, many of whom, as is ever the way with insurgents, were as like as not opportunist brigands, were apt to set fire to thatched buildings. But I doubt this; the wood looks too well-planed to be that old, and I think thatch was used much longer for low-grade buildings that didn't merit proper roofs. At a guess, it's perhaps 150 years old.

It probably grew up as a fairly organic structure - which is to romanticise it. It was originally a longère, which also sounds too romantic, not one of the imposing, noble, substantial ones, but a two room hovel, one for people, one for the beasts, which at some point was lengthened, with the minimum of window openings and an unlined hayloft above,. Over eleven years, we have slowly, with much re-invention of the wheel and a certain amount of personal physical damage, brought it into a state closer to that normally expected of human habitation in the 20th century ( yes, I know it's now the 21st but you can't have everything...).

It was built mostly with materials readily to hand.The stone is micro-granite, not the very old, beautiful flecky blue stuff, of which there is a little, probably a couple of cartloads, used as dressing stone around the doors just to ensure the place didn't fall down,

but a geologically younger substance, the kind of amorphous lumps of rock which were turned up in the fields, probably put aside in stone heaps and dumps when land was cleared, found, not quarried, stone. It is mostly friable, dusty stuff, with spots of mica and veins of rustiness in it, which is what keeps the hydrangeas blue.

(That and ericaceous compost.)

All was held together with what seems to be little more than mud, though it must presumably have had some lime in it. In some places this has stood up quite well, in others it had all but disappeared and the wall was held together mostly with friction and its own weight.

The preparatory work involves digging out the old mortar, with an old file, then chipping round the stones to make larger gaps between them and to align their edges so they at least give the impression of having been laid in courses. In some parts, as here near the front door,

their placing was so random and higgledy-piggledy that much of my time was spent eying them up and marking them, trying to find a logical way to shape and replace them. I feel I only partially succeeded.

It rather feels as if I'm doing dental work. That part done, I brush out as much dust as I can, and put all the chips of stone back again!

This is to economise on mortar and to give it more strength and a better key, the stone chips are embedded in mortar matrix.

One of the reasons I've been a little disinclined to get out and continue the job is that it exposes me to the village and thus to conversation and comment. Especially as the gable end job means getting up on the corrugated iron roof of the lean-to.

Marie (two years ago): 'Ah, ma grande, I am afraid for you up there on your roof!'

Victor (who finds a pretext to work this end of his patch if anything whatsoever visible is happening at ours): ' You aren't afraid to fall, then?'

Claude (looking for his truant cat again): 'Oh lala, look at you up there!'

Dutch bulb-growing neighbour's Dutch mother (just visiting): 'Be careful you don't fall!'

Tom (appearing from the house to tell me the news about the England cricket captain, which obviously is of immediate importance): 'Are you OK? You look a bit frightened...'

In case anyone should be passing through our village and see me on the perfectly safe, gently sloping, very well supported (old Marcel fixed it about 30 years ago, he told me, and he never does anything sloppily) garage roof, NO, I AM NOT FRIGHTENED! At the point where I would fall, were I to fall, which I'm not going to, it's about seven feet off the ground, with a gutter I could grab hold of.

What I am frightened of is swallows. The ones nesting in the garage. The other day one was coming in the door as I was going out of it and I felt its wingtip brush my cheek. I love them dearly but this degree of proximity alarms me. They seem to have amazing realtime collision avoidance systems, but that was close. Fortunately, they don't seem to have caught on that when I'm on the roof I'm just inches and a thin layer of corrugated above their little ones, and they haven't taken to dive-bombing me. The babies are at that grotesque little monster stage (the one some human infants spend quite a lot of time at, you know?). They nested late, were rather disturbed by our earlier concrete mixing activities in the area, and perhaps struggled to find enough mud too, so the nest looks a bit shallow and half-finished, and I am afraid for them also, that the nestlings will tumble out before they're ready.

(Apologies for poor picture quality, it was taken with flash from some distance, so as not to disturb them too much)

The end of the house where I'm working used to be pitted with sparrows' nests too, which worried me, that they would be nesting while I tried to work. But they seem to have mostly deserted, though they still nest in chinks and odd angles in other parts of the building. In the first year we were here, a family of starlings were living in a hole in the back wall, I could hear their chatter from inside, just above the fridge. Mason bees and the occasional hornet still make explorations. I was in the loo one day when a swallow flew in, fluttered over my head, and left again. It felt as though the house was becoming porous, losing its grip on human life, sliding sleepily into slow ruination, being reclaimed by the earth from which it had been made. Rousing it from this state, pushing back the lethargy of nature that was overcoming it, has been a sometimes difficult and painful process, and the house has on occasion seemed surly and recalcitrant to the point of hostility, but we understand each other better now, and I hope we have offset the loss of the place to the wild by creating more variety and natural diversity around it, rather than the monocultured empty field that came up to the back wall before.

And, of course there were mice. Rats too, in the old hayloft which is now the room where we sleep, though none living in our time here, only their corpses. But the rapid skittering of mice overhead was commonplace, though never welcome. The walls, at least half a meter thick at their base, were honeycombed with the runs and homes of mice, who must have lived well on the grain that was stored in the loft. I often found these as I was working on them. I wrote this at the time, and just looked it out and revised it a bit.

Pointing the wall

Mice are archivists.

In the name of preservation, I dig out and destroy
their store rooms and chambers, break and replace
the friable stone and lichenous mud of mortar.
The curators themselves are long gone;
rarely their skeletons remain, flesh- and furless,
brittle and dried with time and warfarin.
Rarely too, their distant offspring now appear,
bringing a disproportionate anxiety into our lives,
so we commit new acts of souricide.
Yet, excavating their vacated rooms and tombs,
I've found small scraps of muslin, used perhaps
to wrap the butter from the cow or two that lived
in the end room of our house - butter was worth more
as money than as children's food; the children grew
quite strong on buttermilk, sawed wood, scythed grass,
rode gearless bikes to visit distant seaside cousins,
and sometimes live still to a good age -
and, in other cavities, hard pyramidal grains of buckwheat,
saracen grain, blé noir, now literally black with age.
This hasn't, I've been told, been grown round here for fifty years or more,
galettes are mostly made with flour from Canada.
Once, though, the scent of its white flowers hung heavy in the air,
bringing the bees and beekeepers from far afield,
to the farms and fields of inland Côtes du Nord.

Our hedges and trees have grown up and surround us cosily, our interior living space has become comfortable, pleasant, quite warm and well-equipped. We have wrapped ourselves in comfort and an indolent independence, become interior people. It does me no harm to scramble around on the outside again, expose myself to the birds and my neighbours, to take care of the outer surfaces for a while.

So if you don't see me round here, I'm probably out on the garage roof. And no, I'm not frightened.


Crafty Green Poet said...

I would be frightened as I don't have any kind of head for heights...

Nice to know you have the swallows nesting, though I can see why you don't want them around while you're working!

apprentice said...

What a great post Lucy, and what rewarding and satisfying work to be doing.

I love the poem and the photographs too. On sharpening try buying a sharpening stone, I got one for my hoe and other garden tools and it works a treat, and again is a satisfying job -although I've now mislaid the stone somewhere in my jungle!

Roderick Robinson said...

Well, here's your lost character - ç

Welcome to the world of Works Well! In fact, you've travelled much further since you can also consider yourself someone who bestrides the world of techniques (a sub-clavian branch of technology)and that of the plastic arts. Further still in that you've touched on yet another of my enthusiasms, l'alpinisme. And not just any alpinist but a British one with all the requisite modesty and under-statement, apologising so charmingly for the quality of the photograph. You prove an interesting point: having a real job to do quickly dissipates any sense of vertigo. I look forward to your experiences in coming to terms with a MIG welding torch.

Not quite as long as your original post but twice as long as any comment I've made in the past.

jzr said...

Wow, Lucy, nice work ... it's so interesting to see what people do in their spare time!! Have lots of fun on the roof. You won't find me up there!!

Zhoen said...

I love listening to people talk about their skilled work. Love your mom's tools.

herhimnbryn said...

I have taken notes, for when we have to do ours!

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

It really isn't high or scary, but it's true you can accustom yourself to heights and precariousness, I was initially far more wobbly up ladders etc.

Apprentice - we've got a stone somewhere too, and it's fine for scythes and garden tools, but might not make much difference to the chisels, as they are very hard and heavy, but it may be worth a try!

Barrett, I thought this one had a touch of WW. Thank you for your prolixity!

JZR - in my spare time I blog and take pictures, this is the kind of thing I'm supposed to do to justify my existence and to avoid paying someone else 1000s of Euros to do! As such my efforts are probably worth more than I get for paid work!

Unknown said...

At the risk of being literary in a context where craft, technology and a certain amount of history dominate, I was interested to read of the Chouans connection. I happened recently to come across Balzac's first important novel written in 1830 and called Les Chouans. It is set in 1799 in the last days of the Directorate. It, needless to say,takes place in Brittany and there are plenty of descriptions of the local country and architecture, but none which is not relevant to the plot. What surprised me was that it turned out to be a sort of spy story, with a beautiful, mysterious woman as it central character. Plenty of sex and violence made methink of Ian Flemming rather than the somewhat ponderous Balzac which I had come to be wary of. I should add that until I read this book I knew nothing of the Chouans and little of the period of history in which their rebellion and guerrilla warfare took place. You make pointing sound extremely satisfying.

meggie said...

Love everything about this post. What wonderful work you are doing to restore & maintain your cosy home.
I did giggle aloud about Tom's vital parts.
What satisfying work it must be.

Bee said...

You are very industrious and clever to attempt such a thing as pointing! And then to write so beautifully about it, too, both in your poem and this detailed description.

Lots of funny bits, too . . . you have so much of that kind of cleverness as well.

Dave King said...

What a fabulous post. I really enjoyed reading it. And I am full of admiration, both for your bravery in attempting so much and for your knowledge. And the hydrangeas alone were worth the visit. Really excellent throughout!

Lucy said...

Thank you.

Joe - that sounds interesting, I may look it up. I've read 'Pere Goriot' and found it quite heavy-going, though the story and its lessons stay with one. This is certainly Chouan country, our local tourist office is also la musee de la Chouannerie! I don't think I knew about them until coming here; they were quite strong in the Mayenne also I understand.

Meggie - well it was his hands I was really thnking of...!

Bee - it is a work of patience, as they say hereabouts! I suppose one of the drawbacks is the setting up and preparation, which seems to take as long as the amount of time on task...

Dave - glad to get approval for blue hydrangeas, about which there is a degree of Anglo horticultural snobbery, but an odd thing happesn when you come here:you grow to like them. Come to that, you like to grow them!

Pam said...

Goodness, I am definitely not patient enough to point. I would get grumpy. But good for you! I'm a bit sad for the souris, though. Souricide sounds rather mean... Having said that, I'm not keen on souris a la maison. (Sorry for the lack of accents and possibly tortured French!)

Lucy said...

Isabelle - you can't do accents in comments! Though you can read them with a French accent if you like. The last souris we had was clearly working alone, so I humanely trapped it and walked down to the bottom of the field to let it go. Souricide is what it says on the packets of mouse poison!

Roderick Robinson said...

Souricide is a rare example of French commerce having a bit of fun in public. It's run close by an American anti-cockroach device called Roach Motel. Qualified by the slogan: "The critters check in, but they don't check out."