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.

Septic spanking

It was a happy day, nearly a year ago, when a crew of innuendo loving Brits & Americans discovered that the French acronym for the approval process for septic tanks was SPANC. Pronounced “spank”, obviously. As if a septic tank didn’t already have enough potential for toilet humour…

Chateau Duffy Aug 2014Chateau Duffy at the end of the August 2014 trip.

Last week Chateau Duffy VII took place and the primary aim was to get the approval of “the SPANC man” for the chateau’s septic system. The groundwork for this had been laid – or rather, dug up – by our team’s local member, who lives just a few metres up the road. His wife’s Facebook posts chronicled the digging of a hole of such proportions that seemingly everyone in the region knew about it.

Chateau Duffy April 2015Upon our return in April 2015 (after the advance party had already been at work, plus Will’s efforts). 

“Mike’s hole” (as it inevitably became known, once our long-suffering plumber took up residence at its bottom) was the primary focus of the trip. It couldn’t have been anything but that, given that it basically took up the whole of the site! Most of us were involved in work on/in it at some point – even our smallest team member helped add gravel to it at one point.

Mike & the SPANC man dans le holeOnly in France would a septic tank inspector turn up in a white hoodie.

The hole brought with it many trials and tribulations. It turned out very few of us had any real idea of what a septic tank involved, and that the SPANC man had some very specific ideas about what was needed! Much joy was exhibited on Wednesday afternoon when he made his third visit and finally proclaimed it acceptable.

Mini ForemanA mini foreman onsite.

In the mean time, progress was being made inside. While we were away, Will had slurried the back wall of the barn. In the couple of days the ‘professionals’ had on site prior to the amateurs getting involved, they put in stairs – fancy, Duffy designed stairs no less! As the hole took shape, last summer’s second mezzanine was completed and floored. Those of us in “Team Caz” (we had huddles, a motivational song & an over-developed sense of team pride) took charge of mortaring. Internal walls were topped with cement smoothed level enough for a coffee cup to sit upon (our very specific brief). The local residents had a rude awakening at 9.30am on a holiday as the sound of a cement mixer being towed down a hill disturbed an otherwise peaceful morning!

Lindsay demonstrates the stairsl’escalier!

By the end of the week, we were priming windows (to be installed at a later date) as the hole was filled in and levelled over. It’s almost as if the end of the project is in sight! (Although there’s still a huge amount to be done in the house, and quite a lot more work needed in the barn.) On our day off we explored Lac de Vasiviére – a lake with an island, beaches, art gallery, sculptures and a submarine – continuing the process of discovering places in the region that we can explore once we’re visiting St Denis des Murs for actual holidays, rather than building work. (Apparently, not everyone considers a site of mass genocide an attractive prospect for holiday activities…)

At the lake

Originally, we’d planned to only make one trip to the Chateau this year, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to build upon the momentum we’ve gathered this month. Those primed windows are currently laid out in the barn’s loft practically begging to have colour painted upon them. There are doors ready to be primed, painted and installed. There’s a ton of small, comparatively quick jobs in the barn that could be done in the space of a week. So, if you’re interested in joining in the adventure, keep an eye on www.chateauduffy.com

Also, if you want to see some truly beautiful photos from the week, my pal Phil has documented the trip in his rather wonderful photographic style on his blog. I particularly liked this shot of the window painting day:

Liz Reflected What can I say? There’s reflection & a cross! 

Perhaps we won’t return until next Easter, but hopefully, now that the hole’s been filled in and we’ve scattered grass & wild flower seeds across the ground, the inhabitants of St Denis won’t consider the site to be as much of an eyesore as it has been over the last couple of months!

Chateau Duffy end of the tripChateau Duffy, end of trip VII.

Construction and confection

Cake making is something I know a fair amount about. Not a lot. Not in comparison with Berry or Hollywood, but I have a reasonable grasp of the subject. Enough to use it for illustrative purposes in every day life…

…well, when I say ‘every day life’, I mean life on a construction site. Specifically, the small patch of French land a group of dysfunctional wannabe builders like to refer to as Chateau Duffy.

I’ve made the analogy before, but I think only in retrospect. On this trip, it genuinely became the logical way for me to pass on the knowledge I’d been given regarding cement mixing in a cement mixer.

The beauty of cake making is that it’s a shared knowledge. Most people understand the principles of icing, mixing in dry ingredients, ensuring everything is combined etc – thanking you GBBO. Will, a professional builder, taught me everything I needed to know about cement mixing (which I handily filmed on my phone for future reference – do shout if you have pointing needs), but it was then up to me to ensure that anyone the task was delegated to knew the ropes too. And this was where the universal language of cake making proved its worth…

For a start, there’s not a lot of difference between a cement mixer and a Kenwood. Well, aside from the 63.5 litre difference in mix capacity. And the fact that one requires you to shovel the ingredients into it, while the other needs only a delicate spoon or a shaking of packet. Plus the important issue of cement mix not being edible (it really, really isn’t – trust me). Also, unless you have an allergy to icing sugar, I don’t think you’d need to wear a face mask to prevent the inhalation of dangerous components. But there are similarities, trust me!

Mixing

You need to regularly pause the machine in order to scrape the dry ingredients away from the sides of the bowl and into the wet mix. As is the case with icing, it’s important to not add too much water. Doing it gradually, in between the addition of bucketfuls of sand, helps ensure that the mixture isn’t overly wet. As in the world of baking, working with overly wet cement is a flipping nightmare – won’t stay where it’s meant to, runs off your implements, dribbles down the sides. Dreadful calamity. You also have to make sure the bowl’s at the right angle so that the batter/cement doesn’t splatter the kitchen or your face. Like this: 

Splattered FaceAs with kitchen mixers, it can be tricky to clean a cement mixer. Ever tried to remove firmly set royal icing from the blades of a mixer? Dried cement is very similar in consistency and adherence. The difference? I’m pretty sure Mary Berry would throttle me if I attempted to clean a Kenwood using large rocks. (Although, it is an interesting principle – that the action of the rocks hitting the bowl, with some water added, helps to break down the dried on stuff. I am wondering what could be used in a domestic context…) Oh, and as with washing up a mixer, beware splatters – again!

Splattered. Again. The front of my t-shirt reads ‘time to play dirt or tan’ – it’s my 2014 Chateau Duffy themed shirt – and was a very apt choice for that day! 

However, do you know where baking analogies fall down? When you’re trying to educate teenage boys in the ways of cement mixing.

Men MixingAs observed from atop of a scaffold. 

And the point of all this cement? Pointing. Obviously.

We did good. In fact, we did very good. What had taken our builder friend Will a couple of weeks to do on a similar project took us about three days. It helps when you have an enthusiastic team! We’ve done some pointing before on previous trips, but some of it wasn’t quite up to scratch and had to be gone over; other parts hadn’t been touched at all. By the day we left, the whole of the front of the house is now re-pointed (the less said about the back, the better) and honestly, it looks like somewhere you might actually want to live!

Before:

Chateau Duffy 2007Very much ‘before’. This was 4 years before our first trip.

After:

Re-pointed, 2014Doesn’t it look lovely? (Just imagine that dismantled scaffold rig isn’t there. And that the window was back to being a window. And you didn’t need to wear a hard hat indoors…)

It should also be mentioned that a second mezzanine level has (partly) been constructed inside the house and the level that was built last year now has permanent support. Plus, the bathrooms have started to take shape, which is a massive deal. All of a sudden there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel!

Departing Chateau Duffy, 2014Departing Chateau Duffy. [NB: that un-pointed bit at the top of the house is deliberate – there’s going to be a window there too.] 

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. 

Pretty (and safe) in pink.

It says a lot about life at the moment that I’m aware of exactly how long it is until my next holiday – our 5th trip to Chateau Duffy. It’s 2 months and ten days, which is a long time, especially when I think of the deadlines that have to be passed in order to get there.

However, it’s never too soon to plan and this morning’s sermon from the vicar got me thinking about something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. He used a hard-hat as a visual aid, which reminded me that I’ve been meaning to buy my own for ages, but hadn’t quite got round to it before last year’s trip.

When one is working with a tumble-down house, one does not want bits of it tumbling down upon an unprotected head, so hard-hats are essential Chateau Duffy work gear. We have many (though never quite enough) and I get particularly particular about which ones I want to wear – usually because once you’ve got one that you’ve fitted to your head (and hairstyle of the day) it’s annoying to lose it to someone else. So, what I need is my own, personalised in some way to make it clear that it’s mine – I’m thinking stickers, or a particular colour, or both…

Girls in pink hatsPretty in pink, Chateau Duffy 2011.

On our very first foray into French house building, we had temporary possession of a bright pink hard-hat that became very popular amongst certain circles. Pink may be a bit of a gender stereotyped colour, but I figure that if you’re already breaking stereotypes by building scaffolding, scaling the scaffolding and pointing walls, you’re probably ok. Thus, this evening I’ve done a brief search of such hats and have found the following attractive item:

pinkhardhat

Available from here for quite a reasonable price.

I’m genuinely intending to purchase this item – I figure that a baby pink number should be fairly safe from several members of the team. But in my searching I also discovered two things that intrigued me:

1. You can also buy novelty pink hard-hats and hi-ves jackets for hen nights. I honestly didn’t know this was a thing. I’ve been to plenty of hen days/nights/weekends with pink sashes; fairy wings; and general humiliation – but never builder themed. Weird.

2. There is a whole range of pink-themed safety equipment out there. On the page for the above hard-hat, there were a series of links to other pink objects including (but not exclusive to): hi-vis vests; safety shoes & boots; safety gloves; ear plugs; and rose-tinted safety specs. We’ve joked in the past about ‘Chateau Duffy style’ but I think if a few of the women turned up in an entirely pink ensemble, we’d get laughed off the site!

The world is a strange place sometimes. Still, I’ll place an order for a hard-hat and source some normal, dull as dishwater gloves from elsewhere. And then I can proceed to decorate them as I see fit ready for April. Who says safe needs to be boring?