The strange world of Chateau Duffy

This depiction of Chateau Duffy in chalk graced the men’s toilets at Ian McKellan’s pub last summer. (No, I did not take the photo myself…) [Credit: Chris Austin]

First of all, it’s not a chateau. We’re aware of that, but it does confuse people. Our current Matryoshka Haus interns had to explain this fact to their rather excited American families. What can I say, we’re eccentric English people!

Six years ago, a group of people who were beginning to become very good friends began chatting about a curious trip to France to work on a house. I vividly recall an evening at Marie’s (the best Thai food in London, found on Lower Marsh) where Shannon encouraged me to come along. I believe her words were something like: “Come to France! There’ll be wine! A swimming pool! Lots of great food! It’ll be fun!”

In her defence, she was not wrong. She just left out the hours of back-breaking work that would take place before we had a moment to jump into the pool or open a bottle of red! Anyway, as long-term readers of this blog will know well, by the end of that trip I was fully committed to the project that was now known as Chateau Duffy and was on my way to developing a wide range of DIY skills.

Chateau Duffy in August 2011 before any work began.

This month marks Chateau Duffy trip number twelve. We’ll be gathering together another motley crew of Brits & Americans with a side order of baffled French locals. (When we’re in St Denis-des-Murs it’s like the circus has come to town.)

Across eleven trips, 62 adults have worked on the site. 27 of them have even been willing to come back. Thanks to their combined efforts, in six years we have:

  • Taken down the barn’s roof.
  • Rebuilt the barn’s beams; boarded the roof; waterproofed it & then put the tiles back.
  • Pointed walls.
  • Pointed more walls.
  • Demolished a hay loft.
  • Dug up and concreted the barn’s floor.
  • Pointed walls (again).
  • Dug up and concreted the house’s floor.
  • More pointing.
  • Built a mezzanine in the barn.
  • A bit more pointing.
  • Built another mezzanine & created frames for two bathrooms.
  • Added a staircase to the barn.
  • Slurried walls (though we get local Englishman Will to do this.)
  • Dug out and installed a septic tank.
  • Mortared the internal walls in the barn.
  • Painted window & door frames.
  • Installed (some) windows and doors.
  • Re-tiled the house roof (with some help from Romanians).
  • Connected the water supply to the bathrooms.
  • Plaster-boarded barn ceiling.
  • Installed toilets & shower trays.
  • Dug out trenches for laying pipes.
  • Tiled the downstairs bathroom.
  • Plastered barn’s ceiling.
  • Pointed some more (mostly inside).
  • Tiled upstairs bathroom.
  • Blocked in downstairs bathroom.

You’ll notice some recurring themes… My goodness pointing is a never-ending task! Despite that looking like an epic list, we’re still not done. Sure, you can use a toilet and potentially have a shower but you can’t yet cook a meal. But all that could change by the end of July!

I feel like this photo from April’s trip doesn’t quite do our work justice – you can’t see the inside and the endless pointing efforts are less obvious from a distance. Despite still being a bit of a way off finishing, the amount that’s been achieved in a little over 12 weeks is pretty impressive. Our local builder friend even suggested that we’d got more done in three months spread over 6 years than a team might have managed in 12 consecutive weeks. (Although I’d be inclined to suggest that it’s largely French bureaucracy that would hold things up!

My 11 weeks of work (yep, I’ve only missed one trip – one that clashed with my MA deadline) now equate to 22 weeks of being able to use the place when it’s done. I’m not sure it’ll be quite be the same without needing to mix mortar…

Should you find yourself at a loose end for the last week of July, there’s still time to book!

The lady cement mixer

“And amongst their number is a lady cement mixer…”

The Bishop of London’s deep tones rang out across the congregation gathered for ordinations at St Paul’s Cathedral, and as he did so, people sitting near me conferred quietly. “Who *is* this lady cement mixer??” they murmured – for, amongst those being ordained, this was the second reference to this mysterious woman in just two days. From the seat behind, my sister giggled, she had guessed the answer. My mother apparently hadn’t, for several hours later,  she asked me who it was – to which the response came from more than one person gathered there: “It’s Liz of course!!”

In my defence, I had been asked to complete a form that shared some information about myself with the Bishop. What did I enjoy doing in my spare time? What hobbies did I have? There was even an instruction to be a little bit different. So I shared my hobby of house renovation in France, complete with the acquisition of the skill of cement mixing. And thus, I became “the lady cement mixer”.

IMG_7282Lady cement mixer at work. The stuff gets EVERYWHERE.

It’s embarrassing. Not because I am in any ashamed of my Chateau Duffy skills, but because there are probably people who heard the Bishop’s words and thought to themselves: “How wonderful!! Not only was a woman working on a building site, but she then felt a call from God and is now ordained! Fantastic. London is such a diverse church!!” When in fact the truth is that a terribly middle class woman has some slightly odd hobbies – hobbies that actually, she shouldn’t tell churches too much about, because otherwise they’ll want her to start fixing things!

The Bishop’s words were uttered a year ago last week. [Confession: this post was sitting in drafts for ages! My ordination birthday is July 4th…] I’m officially a Reverend of one year’s standing! But they came back to me last month, as I not only mixed more cement (as apparently it’s believed I’m the only person who knows how to do – I am not!), but also learnt about plastering and how to tile a bathroom. Pretty soon I could start my own business…

Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so embarrassed by the Bishop’s fascination with the female ordinand who can mix cement. After all, how many people do you know who can mix cement? How many of them are women?? Do any of them do it for fun?

Liz the vicarThe lady cement mixer in her natural habitat…

One of the many things that Chateau Duffy has taught [and it’s categorically taught me A LOT], is that I love breaking gender stereotypes. I knew this already (hello lady vicar), but the world of building sites is so dominated by one gender that it feels more noticeable there. Am I as strong as other people? Not necessarily. Am I happy to scamper across the roof or to balance precariously upon things? Nope. But do either of these things have much to do with my gender? Not really. [I concede that the men are generally stronger, but that doesn’t have to be a gender thing. I am very anti the cries of “Can we have some men to help with…” that go up at events when some marginally heavy lifting needs to be done.]

On our most recent trip, there was a day on site when I was the only woman present. I actually didn’t realise this initially – I was ankle deep in mud, standing in a 1 metre deep trench and it was difficult to see anything that was going on that wasn’t to do with the removal of mud and rocks. I was proudly putting to use my brand new steel toe capped wellies [an emergency purchase the day before after an old Primark pair split – they were a massive bargain courtesy of my favourite ex-pat], while desperately trying to clear the last few inches of the trench. But when another woman popped by and pointed out my unique status

Trench WelliesCaught between a rock and a hard place. (Standing in 1st position – because of lack of space) 

My job wasn’t super hard. I was following behind a friend using a pick axe (and later a jack hammer) – they broke up the rock and I removed it. It was tedious and tricky. The trench was too narrow for feet to stand side by side, so there was some physical dexterity required, plus a little ingenuity when the spade became too wide for the trench. And thus I found myself putting skills acquired during pilates to excellent use: standing on one leg, the other hooked up on the ground above the trench; and one arm stretched out over the ground while the other clutched a trowel – in this position I was able to do an elegant and safe bend down to the bottom of the trench. (And looked ridiculous, but no matter, it worked.)

Trophy gloryMy efforts in the trench even earned me a trophy!  

The thing with Chateau Duffy is that it’s completely dependent upon team-work, and the willingness of individuals to pitch in at whatever level they’re capable of. Some people turn up who are trained architects, builders, plumbers or general DIY-y type people. Other people come with other important gifts – like cooking amazing meals for large groups of people. And yet others – myself included – turn up to learn new skills, pitch in wherever’s needed, and generally do their bit for the greater good of seeing the building finished. One day. One day…

I work hard because it’s fun. I love a challenge. I want a place to go on holiday to in the future. And, because I really like the novelty of being a female vicar who knows her way around a building site. It’s not so much “This girl can” as “this lady vicar can”. Can, does, will and LOVES it.

Progress at Chateau Duffy

The blogging silence of late was the result of trip number 5 to the fabulous Chateau Duffy – the building site on which I’ve learned many surprising skills – not least my love of and ability to build scaffolding. I have returned with my 2014 tan kicked off, a whole host of bruises and a renewed appreciation of French cuisine.

I’m simultaneously blogging about the trip here and on the Matryoshka Haus blog, so I may do some duplicate entries. But, for those of you who are mystified as to why I’d spend five weeks (so far) of my life renovating a French house, here’s a brief explanation and a demonstration of our progress so far.

Chateau Duffy belongs to Chris Duffy (of Duffy London furniture – check out his amazing swing table) – can you see how the name came about?? We’re a creative bunch! At one point he was thinking of selling the property because things hadn’t worked out, but having shared its story with the legendary Shannon ‘vortex’ Hopkins, she concocted a plan to renovate it through community. Cue builders and an architect from Texas getting involved and various Londoners lured to France with a promise of great food and endless wine. I naively said yes, with very little clue as to what I’d got myself into – my family wondered what on earth I could offer to a building project!

Turns out I bring a lot to the table. Strength, fearless (well, semi-fearless) scaling of scaffolding rigs, a willingness to get stuck into most things, a persistence in demonstrating that women *do* have a place on the building… I love scaffolding. I love that it terrifies me at moments. I love that I can see the result of my work. I love that, this year, we had a whole rig built solely by women. I love that at the end of the day, my body aches – but that at the end of the week, I can see the massive impact this group of people has had upon the site.

Now that we’ve completed trip number 5, there’s a huge amount of progress to reflect upon – especially when you compare it with where we started. Chateau Duffy has come a long way since our first venture in August 2011…

Chateau Duffy 2007The Chateau before it acquired its name – the earliest photo I’ve found, from when it was on sale in 2007.

The first three trips centred around the roof of the barn (on the right). See that dip on the far right of the ridgeline? Not a good look for a roof. So, all the tiles had to come down (to be saved for later) – that was the whole of the first trip and a bit of the second. Then the ridge needed replacing, along with any beams that were rotten. That, as well as the lining of the roof, completed trip number two – as this collage demonstrated:

April 2012 - Roof DevelopmentRoof progress, April 2012.

With the roof safely refurbished, summer 2012 was all about the tiling. On a roof in direct sunlight. In August. You can imagine what the heat was like!

Developing roof, Aug 2012August 2012

The roof’s probably the most dramatic transformation. Our last two trips involved pouring concrete floors, which make a very visible difference to the earth and rocks that was inside the building, but it’s a bit harder to demonstrate with just photos. But, in creating the floor of the barn, big changes had to happen. A hay loft had to come down and the walls of the chicken coop below it had to be demolished. On this trip, the transformation of this space from grotty, smelly animal pen to beautiful new bathroom, kitchen and bedroom began.

CD Barn developmentTransformation in progress.

How good does the new mezzanine look??

Mezzanine, April 2014

I could also talk about pointing, but I won’t. It’s been a long, painful, circular process that’s continued while the roof’s been fixed, and while floors have been poured. We may now be at a point where all the old cement has been chipped away by scores of dedicated workers, and is ready to be filled by a willing local.

This trip marked a transition in the project, I think. We moved away from destroying things and are now in the world of creating. Of making Carl’s plans for the buildings come to life. As the mezzanine went up, I was reminded of the first time I met Carl, on a hot August day in 2011. I had been sweeping away dirt, cobwebs and snake skins while he talked over his plans with Duffy. True, the plans have had many incarnations since then – but as of last week, we have begun to see them in reality. It’s terribly rewarding and makes it actually seem possible that we WILL finish, one day…

Chateau Duffy, April 26thUntil next time, dear Chateau. 

Living in a laboratory

It’s a rather a strange experience when a group of people from another country come to visit your friends and city, with a view to learning from you. The week before last saw Matryoshka Haus’ inaugural ‘Learning Lab’, sharing our community, the varied life of the church in London and our fabulous city itself. For a week, all of us were living in a laboratory, in the company of a team from Bent Tree church in Dallas.

Thankfully there were no bunsen burners or chemicals, but there were plenty of experiments – for both Americans and Brits.

DSC_0512Lindsay’s fabulous programmes for the week. (Credit.)

For the Americans, this was a full immersion into a culture that may have a language in common, but in many ways that’s where the similarities end. They came from a mega church; we’re a small missional community and the churches some of us attend are tiny compared to it. We live in an increasingly secular society; Texas is in the heart of the Bible Belt. Christians in London (and the UK in general) are increasingly experimenting with what being a Christian actually means in our context and what relevant worship looks like. There was a lot to learn, explore and consider.

Irony of ironies, I couldn’t play as big a role as I wanted to because I needed to work on an ecclesiology essay on the subject of ‘gathered congregations’ versus ‘informal networks of communication’ in contemporary British society. Thanks, Vicar School!

Bent Tree at St George'sBent Tree meets St George’s. At least they were able to come and visit me while I was working!

Despite not being able to get to know the team as well as I wanted to, I did end the week genuinely sad to be saying goodbye to a group of people with whom I’d shared life for a week and who I’d connected with on many levels. Gleefully, I left our final meal with many offers of accommodation in Dallas, so I’m sure this is not the last I’ll see of the team!

Learning Lab farewellsFond farewells on the final night. [FYI, that blue bag in front of me contained 4 bags of Peanut Butter M&M’s – score!] (Credit.

What it brought home to me is how much just living our lives with others can have an impact. Each night, members of the team ate with different members of our community. I shared an excellent pub meal one night; had a couple of women round for dinner at my flat another evening; in between, we all gathered at an Ethiopian restaurant where I was part of a panel sharing my experience of blogging. A group came to my church, where I was leading a service and was hugely encouraged by the smiling team of Texans sat on the front row. So, over  just a few hours, some of this team got to see me at work; heard personal stories about my life and calling; got to ask me questions about why I do what I do; and spent time with the group of people who are effectively my London support network.

UntitledOne of my non-Texan highlights – sitting next to Dave Tomlinson on our panel. (Credit.)

Obviously, it wasn’t all about me! In fact, it was just as much about me as it was about each of the individuals within the community – because the reason Matryoshka Haus is the way it is, is because of the individuals within it!

This was a brave trip for the Bent Tree team. Traditionally, church ‘mission trips’ involve constructing worthy buildings, or leading  a vacation Bible school – or something similar that has a tangible outcome. London is not a traditional mission trip destination. Tantalising city break? Yes. Gritty mission field? Not so much. These guys had to explain over and over why there were going while raising funds, dissuading people from assuming that this was just a jolly. They came knowing that they weren’t looking to change things or leave a visible mark, but to allow themselves to be changed.

[Incidentally, that latter point is an issue on which could be written an entirely separate article. An article that I may in fact be overdue in writing for a different publication…]

But London IS a gritty mission field, and I think the Texans went home realising that and appreciating what a different context we face.

DSC_0927Reflections turned into tablecloths… (Credit.)

And it wasn’t just the Texans that went un-touched by the experience. At our final meal together, one of the Texans told the room that their week with us had given them “a good idea of what humanity looks like at its best.”  I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure that I heard a gasp from the British person sat behind me. We aren’t really humanity at its best – far from it. We are broken, hurting, confused, healing, growing… I could go on.

We are humans and humans by their nature are some mixture of: broken, hurting, confused, healing, growing, etc… But we can do better. Our community can work harder at being just that – a community. We can be more hospitable. More sacrificial of our time and talents. We’re still figuring out how this life together works and may never work out the answer.

In fact, I rather hope that we don’t figure it out, because I think the excitement is all in the trying.
Life is one continual experiment in one rather large laboratory.

Learning Lab in front of St Paul'sA whole ranch of Texans on the Millennium Bridge. (Credit.)

The Learning Lab blog shares the preparation & the first part of the week.
The In Da Haus blog tells more, from a MH perspective.
We’ve Storify-d some of the tweets and photos.
There’s a Flickr pool full of photos.

Showing off London

When one has lived in one of the world’s most fabulous cities [not biased at all] for most of one’s life, its wonder can begin to fade and immunity to its charms grows. The best way to combat London fatigue is always to introduce it to someone with fresh eyes.

This week two Texans are visiting London (and the Matryoshka Haus community) with a view to moving here permanently at some point in the near future. We met them first during last year’s trip to France and it was great to reconnect on home ground – especially as they’ve never visited the UK before.

They arrived first thing Sunday morning (via a rigorous, on-plane, police search – welcome to London people!) and were immediately whisked off to Columbia Road in the heart of trendy Shoreditch for a community picnic. Succumbing to jet-lag wasn’t an option – the evening was spent introducing them to the eccentricities of the Brick Lane curry haggling process. All in all, it was a unconventional introduction to London, but typical of the things we as a group get up to.

I made up for it on Monday morning. What American, when in London for the first time, doesn’t have a tick list of tourist sites they secretly want to see? Red phone boxes, Big Ben, soldiers in furry hats, the Queen…I was fairly sure I could deliver on all but the last, even if it did require me to push aside my loathing of large gatherings of tourists.

We had just over an hour and in that time hit Big Ben (well, the tower as opposed to the bell and yes, that was one of the many ‘interesting’ facts I shared during my tour); Horse Guards; Downing Street; Westminster Abbey; Houses of Parliament; and the London Eye. Oh, and as a bonus, I took them to the best vantage point to get a glimpse of Buckingham Palace (the bridge over the pond in St James’ Park). We didn’t see the Queen, but I think that was a pretty thorough job in a short space of time.

Ok, I confess, I’m responsible for cropping Westminster Abbey. In my defence, taking photos with an iPad is very tricky…

What I forget, or become too accustomed to, is just how amazing the city is to people visiting for the first time. Simple things that we take for granted – like seriously old, beautiful buildings – are awe inspiring. Usually I’d cringe at taking photos of soldiers in furry hats, but when it brings joy to visitors, it would be wrong to be churlish! The exclamations heard when Tower Bridge was glimpsed while on a bus later in the afternoon would warm anyone’s heart. I must never forget just how lucky I am to live here.

As an aside, though I know many useless snippets of London information, it seems I’m lacking in some basic historical facts – like when Westminster Abbey was built. Clearly I need to buy a guide book and swallow it whole, then perhaps I could offer professional tours of the capital. All I’d need is a colourful umbrella…