In the past walls were rendered and plastered with lime. Lime is a truly wonderful material that can be bent to a whole series of uses, but as a render on stone it is unsurpassed. It ‘breathes’, allowing moisture to escape and suppressing damp walls. This is because it is very porous. So why are there damp walls in so many old houses today?
France is divided, basically, into the north, where tuiles plats were traditional roof covering tiles, and the south, where tuiles romaines are found. There is a line just south of Chalon sur Saone where you can see this change quite clearly, and you know you have officially entered le sud, even though the Mediterranean is still hundreds of miles away. I always stop for a glass of wine in a café when I pass this point. Roofs in the north, with their flat tiles, tend to be steeply pitched, whereas in the south the pitch is much more gentle.
Everyone will be familiar with the beautiful poplar trees that make valleys in Burgundy and elsewhere so charming to the eye. Poplar produces straight-grained timber of prodigious length. The wood is soft and easy to cut, and it holds nails very well. It resists splitting firmly because is has an interwoven grain, so it is tricky to plane well; better to use a power plane. But poplar is in any case best kept for rough work.
It has two big disadvantages; it can to warp severely as it dries, so great care must be taken in stacking; and insects just love it. Poplar should never be used unless it is treated or painted, or else the woodworm will have a field day. However, it is reasonably resistant to rot, and as long as it is used with care, is a useful timber. It is cheap and plentiful, light and easy to handle.
Unfortunately, poplar is usually grown individually, in long thin avenues, or as windbreaks along the edges of fields, and more rarely in plantations. Its presence in the beautiful valleys of central France is a great asset visually. However, this causes a problem when it is cut for timber.
Wood is, along with stone and earth, one of the principal materials used in the construction of buildings, and particularly older buildings. The principal varieties used are oak, poplar and beech, known as hardwood in UK. Spruces and pines(softwood in UK) are also much used, especially in new-build. It is important to have some understanding of the nature of wood, its uses in the older house and some sympathy for its virtues as well as its limitations.
Wood is used in a wide variety of applications, and the most important of these are the support structure for floors; the roof timbers and associated work; and the interior finishing timber. Timber is also used in the construction of interior walls and in many areas in the construction of supporting walls.
There are three timbers commonly found in older buildings in France, namely oak, poplar and pine. Other timbers are often found as parts of outhouses and sheds.
Life certainly has an interesting tapestry here in P’tit Moulin. This morning I was awakened at some ungodly hour—well, just before ten actually, but I am semi-nocturnal—by an excessively enthusiastic clangour (good word that) of my front door bell, of which more later.
Well, I threw on a pair of jeans and a T and went to see who had disturbed the peace in this manner, and there on my doorstep was a rather scruffy individual, definitely of the traditional French horny-handed persuasion. Behind him was a truck that looked, to my bleary and unaided vision, even older and more dilapidated than my Isuzu, and that’s saying something.
He must have recognised my absence of recognition. ‘Sir,’ he said (in French of course, I’m just trying to make it easy for you. Do keep up.) ‘Sir, the last time I passed you said you had some scrap.’
Penetrating damp is the result of water coming through the walls.
Once you’re sure no water is coming through the roof by following the previous articles in this category—and the saving grace of that kind of leak is that it is very obvious and marks its presence clearly—the next issue is this one. Here’s an excellent overview of the problem.
I’ll take time for another of my provocative asides here. I’m pretty convinced—actually I am totally convinced—that there is no significant problem of rising damp in most traditionally built houses, at least as long as they have been left that way. Note that last bit. I’ll come back to this later.
Meantime, if we discount the possibility of rising damp in most cases, we must look elsewhere for the source of water and there are two issues to address here.
Damp in your old house and how to deal with it. Part Two in a series explaining where damp in old buildings comes from and what you can do to combat it. Most of the advice is applicable anywhere.
Before worrying about how to get rid of dampness that is already in the house, it makes sense to make sure no more can get it first. There are a number of important areas where unwanted moisture can make it into your house. The roof is the easiest to deal with so we’ll tackle it first.
Just about the first thing that everyone notices when they get their dream house in France, and I base this on an admittedly unscientific but extensive post-prandially-conducted survey, is the damp. Unless they have bought in the Midi, of course. For those further north or west, it is a big issue.
Ask anyone yourself. You’ll soon see that this is the case. You might be forgiven for thinking that parts of France were perpetually under water, from the stories you hear. They’re not; it just can seem that way.
In order to get some sense of perspective on this, let’s examine a few facts. Large areas of France are indeed very wet. A quick glance at the map will show that weather systems coming in from the Atlantic under the prevailing westerly wind have a choice; they can either swing up north and east and drench Wales, Ireland, the north west of England and of course Scotland, or they can slip in over the Bay of Biscay and take up residence in France, where they will be nicely bottled up due to the fact that from the Med to the Rhine Basin there is a rampart of mountains which prevents any further progress.
I understand that this is to do with the exact position of the jetstream, a system of ferocious winds at very high altitude.
Normally, summers in Central France are reasonably dry and very warm. Just what the holidaymaker likes, apparently, and perfect for ripening all that lovely plonk.
Not for the French the quaint Anglo-Saxon habit of neighbouring towns staggering their half-days—or even taking half-days in the first place.
On Monday, the whole of France is as dead as that chap they poisoned on St Helena. You know the one. In fact, I think he was responsible for it. And of course, the reason is quite fair; all the shops are open on Saturday so that the people who don’t work in shops can do their shopping, and why should the commercants and their staff not enjoy a proper two-day weekend?
“No,” I cried, and summoned up the best of my then limited French, “Cas d’urgence!”
But this made no impression on the battle-axe, who shook her head again, pointed to her watch and mouthed “Quattors heures et demi.” Whatever my emergency was, it would have to wait another 150 minutes.
Aghast as she began to turn away again, and now completely at a loss for words, I was once again reminded of the sheer brilliance of my wife in situations like this. Knowing that she could not hope to plead her case in French, she had slipped over to the car, unstrapped Calum, and now appeared with him in her arms; when she knew she had the dame’s attention, she lowered the towel wrapped around him to show the lad’s bare bottom, and just said one of the few French words she knew by heart, because she needed it so often. “Couches!”