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.
However, winters in central France are a whole ’nother can of worms altogether.
That’s when these weather systems really like to come and stay, and you get soaking wet weather, or damp, cold weather, for weeks on end. And when these low-pressure systems dissolve at last, to everyone’s joy, the temperature plummets to well below freezing. I have personally known winters when the temperature in the shade did not get above minus five Celsius for six or eight weeks, and that was on the warm days. In between the freezing cold it piddles down.
This combination of heat in summer with lots of water is what makes France the lush and verdant country that it is; compare it with the spectacular yet arid landscape of Spain, and you’ll see what I mean.
It also makes old French houses damp.
The thing that the new purchaser of the wonderful pile at practically giveaway price, that is the perennial attraction of the Anglo-Saxon buyer, has to remember, is that the people who built these houses were a lot tougher than we are. They didn’t mind a bit of draught. In fact they needed it; the standard country fireplace, even in the most humble of fermettes, is over four feet square. You get a lot of air up one of those. Pile that full of logs and you squirt even more up the flue. Add the fact that the windows and doors fit where they touch and you can see that these old buildings were distinctly airy.
Sometime in the early 19th century, coal began to supplant wood as the principal fuel in both urban, and to a lesser extent rural France, as it did in Britain. But whereas in Britain this resulted in the popularisation of the coal open hearth, typically much smaller than the old wood ones, in France the new-fangled age of coal brought with it the poêle fermé or closed stove. Originally these were individually constructed of fire-bricks and covered in tiles called faïence, and were beautiful pieces of permanent furniture. But those creative little Frenchmen quickly realised the benefits of casting up the stoves in iron, and soon huge old fireplaces all over France were being blocked up and replaced with them.
Now the whole point of a poêle fermé is that it is closed and so does not send hundreds of cubic feet of hot air squirting up the chimney; instead, the fire is lit and then damped right down to slow the passage of air and retain as much heat as possible within the house. And believe me, those French stoves are seriously efficient devices.
To go along with the arrival of this innovation, the clever French joiners started making windows that really did fit the holes they were supposed to occlude. Anyone brought up with the Anglo-Saxon sash window, a device cunningly designed so that is quite impossible to draught-proof, will be very impressed with the channels and gutters and mouldings that make a traditional French window so efficient at keeping the weather out.
The trouble is that when there was a big open fire roaring in the hearth and windows and doors that really didn’t fit very well, the walls and floor were kept dry and fresh by the constant passage of air. Once the fireplace and the windows were blocked up, there was nowhere for the water to go. This was only made worse by the advent of modern central heating systems and double-glazing.
What everyone has to realise is that water has to go somewhere.
If it’s already in the house you have to get it out, and you have to stop as much getting in as you can, and that’s not easy when it’s been blattering down enough to keep a Welshman happy for weeks.
Minor failures in roofing, drainage and water evacuation were more than catered for by a system that provided for many air changes per hour; in a modern sealed home, the result is dampness.
Most of this dampness enters the home through the roof, through the walls, or by the simple process of living. Which, after all, is the point, so we shall have to allow that.
We’ll discuss exactly how to deal with the damp in the next article in this series. (to be continued)