Renovation tale – Part 5

This is the tale of my first major renovation project some years ago…

Rob and I have been digging for hours; it feels like it anyway. Actually it’s only 9.30am, and we’ve already had one tea break, a sandwich and some biscuits, but my arms and back feel as if they’ve seized up for ever. What’s more, even though we’ve been pushing wheelbarrows full of soil out to the skip in the road as if our life depends upon it, there’s little more than a small hollow in the ground to show for our efforts.

Dave, the builder, has decreed that the footings for the extension must be dug while the weather is fine. After using an aerosol to spray neat white lines on the ground, he suggested that we should dig a trench at least a metre deep between them before bothering him again. I get the distinct impression that he feels this is a test for his younger brother and me to see if we can be trusted after the fiasco of yesterday’s timber delivery.

He was out when we unloaded the floorboards for my attic study and, since the lengths of timber were too long to be manoeuvred up the stairs, we decided to cut them down to size. Somehow, between tape measure and saw, an error was made and each one is three inches short. Although Rob wouldn’t let me take all the blame I am quite certain that it had something to do with my total inability to contend with metric measurements.


Looking flushed, Rob has just returned from taking another load to the skip. “Are you going to empty that barrow?” he asks. “Only I think I’ll go and have a bit of a sweep up.” Puzzled I throw a few more shovel-fulls of earth into the wheelbarrow and push it out to the road with an agitated Rob following behind.

Strewn across the pavement is a pile of soil, the plank leading up to the skip is at a crazy angle and, at the corner of the street, a gaggle of schoolgirls are smoking and, on seeing Rob, start calling out. Reluctantly, mumbling under his breath, he admits he fell off the plank with the barrow as they passed. He is the colour of beetroot but I compound the situation by saying his name loud enough for the girls to hear.

Now, every schoolgirl that passes is shouting out to him and he won’t go to the skip unless he is chaperoned. Despite this minor irritation we are making good progress and even Dave has joined the digging because tomorrow the building inspector comes.


During the night the weather has broken – I was so exhausted that I didn’t even hear the storm – and now we’re standing with the inspector in a scene reminiscent of the Somme. The wall of one of the trenches has partly collapsed, the rain is stirring the puddles and Dave and Rob are soaked and splattered in mud from their efforts to bail out the water.

Mr McKinley, the inspector, is like a general displeased with the troops and makes unpleasant sucking noises with his mouth that are not dissimilar to those made by our boots as we squelch hopelessly around. He prods the puddles at the bottom of the trench with a stick, makes a note on his clipboard and orders us to dig six hundred deeper. “That’s two foot,” mutters Dave in my direction.


Two days have passed, the sun has come out, the extra earth has been excavated and it’s only taken a couple of hours to fill the trenches with concrete. I stand staring at its grey surface, pondering our efforts, and realise that Rob is chatting to a schoolgirl.

One Response to Renovation tale – Part 5

  1. Beautifully written. And I did laugh at Rob’s mishap and need to be chaperoned. I also identified closely with the measurement error due to inability to grasp metric measures. How I identify with that. My wife and I have gone back to doing everything in imperial. Yards, feet and inches are fine!

    As for the footings, I think you were lucky with your inspector. Our extension footings were to be one metre deep until the building inspector looked at the 300 year old hawthorn hedge. It hadn’t affected our 1732 cottage yet he declared it to be thirsty and insisted the foundation go down to 2 metres, at least in the corner nearest to the hedge.

    Like yours, the sides collapsed (it was January 2006 and very wet) and the footings ended up 2 metres wide as well as deep and took two massive 10-wheelers of ready-mix to fill.

    The cottage itself has no foundations; its stone walls go down 18 inches and just stop, sitting on some larger flat stones. The hedge is the same distance from the extension as it was from the cottage (we took out some of the plants).

    The joys of building work!

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Renovation tale – Part 1

Renovation tale – Part 1

This is the tale of my first major renovation project some years ago…

On the table is the surveyor’s report; yellow Post-it notes stick from its pages in such profusion that they no longer have any relevance. Phrases like “needs attention”, “must be thoroughly overhauled” and “a fair amount of dampness” are highlighted by marker pen with a frequency that ensures the eye goes instead to the few innocuous words left in the white spaces in-between.

This, I suppose, is what buying a 1900 terraced house is all about especially when its been lived in by an elderly tenant who has had to make do with an outside loo, a lethal looking gas fire and ceilings which may collapse at any moment. I’m thinking that no sane person would have parted with a considerable sum of money to buy such a place but then I know I’m not alone – others have succumbed to the temptation of crumbling plaster and damp.

“Look at the mould on this wall… the windows are rotten… you know it’s going to cost a bomb to do up.” This was the commentary the young and inexperienced estate agent gave as he first showed me round having clearly never been in the house before.

“Oh, aggh, help!” was the cry of my friend Linda some months later when her not very high heel punctured one of the floorboards in the hall and became stuck amongst the powdery gnawings of the woodworm.

My goal is not just to put right the wrongs of years but to subtly pull the house into the present so that it can work as a home yet retain the fabric of the past. I know it’s a difficult balancing act and that’s why I’ve decided to consult an architect. When we meet I feel I’m being psychoanalysed as he seems keen to know the most intimate details of my life but he assures me “It’s all about making the house and the person work together.”

The architect has been and gone. I am now waiting for a structural engineer and for a few moments I admire my striped deckchair and decide it looks rather smart amongst the general decay. As is the case with so many homeowners my mortgage company is insisting on damp proof courses and chemical treatments. I believe, like a lot of the experts, that this is unnecessary and that there is a much more holistic approach: cure the cause – be it soil banked up against a wall or a leaking downpipe – and the problem will go away. What’s more a great deal of money will have been saved and damage to the building avoided.

Frenzied raps of the doorknocker reverberate through the empty rooms. In an anorak that looks as though it has been in worse places than this, the engineer arrives and begins a slow process of prodding walls and sucking teeth in a way that quite clearly says all is not well. He draws expensive looking designs in his notebook. His main concern is that the flank wall – mine is an end of terrace – will not fall out and that a corner, where I intend taking out a chimney breast, does not collapse at the first hammer blow. As he leaves he promises to discuss “the problems” with the architect.

I return to the surveyor’s report and notice that in one of the white spaces are the words “the house is built in solid brickwork”. It is a strangely reassuring statement.

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