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Converting Old Properties In Brittany, France.

Submitted by Maude Gates | RSS Feed | Add Comment | Bookmark Me! print

I’ve just spent the day removing the mud from between the stones of our house in Brittany. The mud stands in place of lime or cement mortar which were unavailable or unaffordable when the house was built.

The process gave ample time for reflection on what should be done when an old house is modernised.

Here in Brittany it is impossible to preserve a house in its original state if it is to be lived in. All the memories of those times – mostly the memories have died with the people who lived then – would be of bad weather, mud, cramped living space, the cold and privation. Today we can avoid these things but we risk losing the spirit of these old places.

Ironically one of the features that we, and others like us, proudly retain is the dated front door lintel. But our French neighbours tell us that many such dated artefacts were actually looted from the local manoirs at the time of the revolution.

The upper storey of old houses was always a grenier – never lived in except by mice who feasted on whatever was stored there. These days the grenier becomes several bedrooms. They can boxed in as normal rooms or left open right up to the ridge – 15 feet, which is what we have done in part.

Next the walls would be as rough as the stone that made them, but possibly lime washed indoors every spring to control the population of bed bugs which spent part of their life in the walls. Nowadays we insulate them and cover them with plasterboard on the inside, and “point” them on the outside so that the whole house looks like a wedding cake. We’ve avoided the wedding cake appearance on the outside – leaving the “belles pierres” to speak for themselves. On the inside we try to preserve some of the unevenness of the walls and leave party walls with adjoining houses as they are - the rest covered in plasterboard that follows the contours of the walls.

The rooves were nearly always slated in Brittany, but the old slates have almost disappeared. They were of poor quality for the most part, but even the smallest were used (near the ridge of the roof). Like nearly everybody else we replace with Spanish slates. French slates from the Monts d’Arree or Trelaze in Anjou are only for the very rich.

As far as the floors are concerned we capitulate to modern practice, so tiled concrete replaces “terre battue” (=beaten earth) which was the traditional floor material. This lives on, by the way, in dances called “pile menu” which originally accompanied the actual process of consolidating the “terre”.

So it is with water, gas, electricity and telephone: we have them all but we often think about the last farming family which lived here. All four daughters “bettered themselves” and the only remaining sign of farming is a plough and a harrow at the bottom of our garden..

How can you reasonably honour such people who lived such hard lives ?

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