I think it would be more than fair to say that this year has had more than its share of twists and turns for us, certainly keeping us on our toes and forcing us very firmly outside our comfort zone of being able to plan. And this week has been no different.
We actually thought we had a plan, that once Tom had recovered from his operation and was back at University then I would drive home to Provence for a month, before having to return to Devon to quarantine, ahead of picking him up at the end of term, so that we could all spend Christmas together. Unfortunately our original idea of having our first family Christmas in France for a few years had long since been consigned to history. So after dropping him back in Bristol on Monday evening I made plans to head back first thing on Wednesday morning, with the aim of stopping overnight in Troyes on my way home.
As I’m sure you can imagine, I was desperately happy to see him well again and equally excited about getting back to the house, being with Andy and finally seeing what he has managed to achieve over the last couple of weeks since I left. The boys were happy, we would be able to celebrate his birthday together just a few days late and could continue to get on with the renovations, enjoying the little walks that are permitted at the moment in, what is turning out to be, a glorious November in Provence (what better way to pass the confinement).
But I had the strangest feeling that 2020 wasn’t finished with us yet, and I was proved right when I woke on Wednesday morning to the announcement that universities would be finishing early to provide a travel corridor to get students home in time for Christmas. It became immediately clear that if I travelled back home, I would have perhaps 10 days there, before having to turn round again, drive back and quarantine for another 14 days in time to pick Tom up from Uni for the Christmas holidays. However much I wanted to see Andy and home, it would be an expensive folly and so with a heavy heart I unpacked the car, put everything away and resigned myself to being in Devon for a while longer yet.
In the meantime though Andy has been making huge inroads into the work on the house, keeping busy each day until he realises it’s getting dark – he certainly hasn’t had a moment’s break as he has ploughed on with the transformation.
When I wrote last week he was in the process of putting the plasterboard on the walls in the new kitchen, which he managed to finish before starting to build the stud partitioning to create a small utility cupboard that will hide all the white goods and junk that we inevitably have strewn around the house.
This cupboard will have a beautiful oak door on it, made by Pascal our ‘ebeniste’ to match the others that he has done in the house, but until the walls for it were in place, we couldn’t be sure of the exact size we would need. So as he was due to come out early this week to take final measurements for the porch/ lobby and porte-fenetre it seemed a good idea to get the cupboard built too so that we could be certain of what we were asking him to do.
The big issue with building the cupboard was that Andy had to remove the temporary ‘Heath Robinson’ style water supply to our current kitchen, which he had put in when we had all the plumbing changed a couple of years ago in anticipation of the conversion. Amazingly this ‘temporary’ fix had worked perfectly for much longer than we thought we may need it, but now had to be removed, meaning there was no longer any water downstairs in the house.
I have to say that this isn’t unusual for us and I spent my first pregnancy using a camping stove on a paste table in the living room as a kitchen, washing up in the sink upstairs as we were having the back of that house rebuilt, but of course it is far from ideal. So once he’d disconnected the water, he had no option but to really get on and knock out the current units and open up the new doorway – as the sooner we have a new kitchen, the sooner we will have a sink again.
When better to do a job like that, than on your 58th birthday? So after a morning coffee and present-opening over FaceTime with me and the boys, Andy spent the day doing what he enjoys most …. wielding a sledgehammer, jack hammer and generally destroying what needs to be destroyed.
First of all he had to remove the ancient old units, keeping them as in tact as possible as even though the kitchen was going, we would need something to cook on until the new room is finished. So before he could really get on he managed to salvage the hob and oven (which were already rusty and on their last legs when we bought the house nearly 5 years ago) and a couple of units to hold bits and pieces, setting them up along one wall together with the (waterless) sink, which only partially survived the removal process!
Once that was done he could finally get on and remove the old tiles from the wall, creating chaos and more dust, that despite his best efforts at sealing the area with large plastic sheets, immediately found its way onto every surface in the house.
By this time there was no going back and once the broken tiles were cleared he got onto the main task of starting to open the new doorway. This was going to be a very different task to the first one that he’d opened onto the terrace, as not only was it smaller, but the wall was much thinner, in fact only 15cm, so a lot narrower than we had imagined. The other difference was that in the kitchen we could see a beam in the wall, but weren’t certain whether it was structural, effectively supporting the entire depth of the wall or simply decorative. There was only one way to find out….
First job was to use the disc cutter to ‘score’ the walls, creating yet more dust, turning Andy and everything it touched, grey…
The ‘enduit’, (the coloured plaster) could then be stripped away to allow Andy to get to the wall itself to remove whatever was there, and what he found was very strange indeed. Sandwiched between the internal and external plaster coats was a slim wall of old stones that had been laid on their edge, with some large stones interspersed with a motley collection of small pieces crammed in to support them…
It was one of the strangest bits of construction we’ve ever come across, but the good news was that it wouldn’t be difficult to remove and even better news that the beam ran the thickness of the wall and the width of the house too…
So whereas the large door onto the terrace had had to be removed stone by stone and rebuilt with reinforced concrete supports, this one would need much less work to both open it and then secure it….
So the sledgehammer was lifted again and without too much work the thin stones were knocked out and the new door opened…
All of a sudden the old room was filled with light, and as the clouds of dust started to settle, our long-dreamed of plans finally came to life
As with the other door, we couldn’t be certain of how high it would be, nor how many steps we would need from the old kitchen to be able to walk through it, until it was fully opened. Once again we found ourselves pleasantly surprised at the height of the new doorway with no further beam needed and the small distance between the two that would only require one step to be built….
The opening sat comfortably in the corner of the room, looking as if it was meant to be there and reinforcing that we had made the right decision to go through there rather than anywhere else. The old kitchen would now be a perfect little second sitting room on the way through to the kitchen and bedrooms….
Andy may have spent his birthday on his own, but the house had been kind to him and as the sun started to set, he was able to appreciate that he had achieved something quite incredible.
Yes he was covered in dust….
Every surface in the house was covered in it too…
But all of a sudden he could walk through from the old kitchen into the new one and out onto the terrace where the sun was turning Caseneuve gold as it started to set behind us. This was what we had imagined being able to do and our dream was now reality and I can’t even start to describe how excited I was as he walked me through the rooms on FaceTime. It was even better than I had imagined it would be…
All that was left was for him to remove all the rubble, clear as much dust as possible and seal up the hole for the night…..
That, and feed the now very confused animals, who clearly found the changes very discombobulating indeed….
All done Andy was finally able to get rid of the layer of dust that was covering him and settle down in front of the fire with the cat on his lap and a glass of wine in his hand, a perfect end to a very productive birthday and it was still only Monday!
Tuesday started early with Pascal coming to take the final measurements and go through the detail of the pieces he was going to build. Being able to see what we had (until then) only been able to describe, really helped his understanding of what we were looking to achieve and he was amazed at how different the house felt (not just because it was now open to the elements in 2 places), but how its flow had changed.
Since then Andy has shuttered the sides of the new opening, tidied them up and finished them off with cement.
He’s used some of the larger stones that came out of the wall to create the step that is needed to bridge the gap between the old kitchen and the lobby area. Although the tiles on the floor are a modern ceramic terracotta colour at the moment, these too will be changed to the travertin that we have used in all the renovation work we’ve done so far.
So the work has continued at a pace and we’re incredibly happy and satisfied with the difference it has made… Andy now has somewhere new to sit when we have our morning coffee together by video before he gets stuck into his next job of the day….
The bulk of the heavy work is now done. The rooms are formed, the doorways are open and it will now be a case of continuing to tidy the bits that have been done, whilst we wait for Pascal’s joinery to be completed and fitted, which should be done in about 3 weeks time.
I hope that perhaps now Andy won’t feel he has to work until the sun sets each day and can just take a moment to sit in the glorious November sun and appreciate what he has achieved so far.
And, of course, make the most of his permitted hour of exercise, walking the paths around the house with Millie.
As for me I am just delighted to see what is done each day and will begin counting the days until I know for certain that I can return and see it all for myself….
All I can say is ‘Roll on 2021’