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

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.

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. 


We went. We dug. We moved some earth. We moved some rocks. We raked earth. We dug again. We played with string. We dug. We moved more earth. We raked earth. We installed pipes. We moved earth. We raked earth. We poured in wet concrete and waited for it to dry…

Measuring More rubble Wheelbarrows of earth Digger Digging trenches Pouring cement

…and now Chateau Duffy has a floor.

Chateau Duffy crew, April 2013

There is plenty more to say, but I’ll drag it out a bit. [I had a presentation deadline today, so the mass photo editing/uploading has had to wait.] The rather massive Flickr set is now uploaded, and I’m pleased to say that it features fewer backsides than in previous years. It was an interesting week in many ways…

Nous sommes de retour. Encore.

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when my drawer full of ‘clothes not suitable for general public consumption’ gets opened and emptied; when I start keenly watching the weather forecast for Limoges; and begin to fantasise about baguettes and cheese. Yep, it’s Chateau Duffy time again.

Currently, my major issue involves tea. Yes, tea.
It’s a very important commodity en France. I don’t function without it, neither do many of my companions. It’s essential on a building site and during the cooler, wetter spring season it’s a lifeline. For some unknown reason I’ve become chief supplier of tea bags to the Chateau Duffy crew and this time last year, I didn’t quite bring enough. It’s difficult to know exactly how much tea might be needed…

Builders' TeaBuilders’ Tea

This time, there are 21 individuals. Of these, 4 are children and 5 are Americans. I am making the following assumptions:
1. The children generally won’t drink tea (particularly the 2 American ones).
2. The Americans will generally drink coffee rather than tea in the mornings.
3. We will be using a tea pot.

Would the 320 tea bags I bought yesterday be enough? Twitter, resoundingly, said no. [It seems they’re far more mathematically inclined than I am and quickly worked out the average number of bags available to each person each day.] I resolved to buy another 80 and ensure I had a stash of Earl Grey for my own purposes.

Then I realised, while in Sainsbury’s this afternoon buying additional tea, that I’d only bought 160 bags yesterday. That would have been an unpleasant discovery come Saturday morning. So, now I have 400 bags and an assurance that we have tea left over from the last trip that’s been safely stored in the Chateau’s caravan. We should be ok. I’m sure you’re relieved.

Work-wise, I only have a vague idea of what we’ll be doing. More pointing, no doubt, plus some scaffolding. A floor will be poured in (I’ll have very little to do with that) and we’ll attempt to stay dry. Oh, and there’s a plumber coming with us. I’m sure it’ll be great. Here’s hoping it’ll be relatively angst-free…

Chateau Duffy, August 2012It looked like this the day we left last August. Here’s hoping it still looks the same now.
(The blue skies and sun would be especially appreciated.)

Moi, j’y vais en TGV

It’s funny the things you remember from school. The title of this blogpost is the first line in a song about the French rail network (well, specifically, a journey from Paris to Geneva) – until I googled it, I could only remember the first two lines:
Moi, j’y vais en TGV
J’ai mon billet, faut le composter

If your French is lacking, all you need to know is that it’s a curiously informative song from the classic French textbook Tricolore – beloved of most British secondary schools. The singer is delighted to be travelling on a TGV; they have their ticket; and they have had it checked by a machine on the platform. If you’d like to sing the whole delightful tale, simply follow this link… [Tricolore did a good line in educational songs – such as ‘une, deux, trois – salut, c’est moi; quatre, cinq, six – j’abite à Nice…’ Catchy, non? To be honest, I was always jealous of top-set French – they got to learn French Celine Dion songs.]

That TGV song had taught me practically everything I knew about travel on the French rail network, prior to my inaugural journey from Paris to Limoges en route to Chateau Duffy III. It wasn’t hugely helpful, largely owing to the fact that the character in Tricolore who travelled from Paris to Geneva didn’t have a 1st Class ticket…

Oh yes, this was European train travel in style – kinda. I’d passed on responsibility of ticket buying to my travel companion, which turned out to be an excellent move as they noticed that 1st Class was only a little more pricey than standard. [To clarify, on Eurostar there’s actually two divisions of 1st – Business and ‘Standard Premiere’ – we had the latter.]

What they’d also manage to do was forget to tell me of this purchasing achievement. (Though, to be fair, I had a copy of the email so if I’d read it properly, I might have known.) This meant that I managed to look a little bit of a twit once on board the Eurostar as I gazed around in awe and wonder wondering why it looked so different than on my previous three trips. I then immediately began to wonder what the complimentary breakfast would be like.

Eurostar BreakfastBreakfast. Rather nice actually. Passengers had a choice of pain au chocolat or apple – who would choose fruit over pastry??

Because we are actually both idiots, neither of us realised that we’d also be in 1st on our SNCF TGV service from Paris Austerlitz to Limoges Benedict. Rather sheepishly, we climbed into our 1st class carriage leaving three Texan friends to enjoy standard further down the train. (Fear not, we had our come-uppance – our seats faced backwards meaning that travel nausea was inevitable.)

Ever wondered what an SNCF 1st class carriage looks like? It’s a bit like this:

Ok, so not that exciting. Also, there didn’t seem to be the freebies you’d usually get on a British train – we weren’t offered anything, but there may have been a French system we were unaware of. Certainly, train gin & tonics were not forthcoming. However, the seats had an array of features that could be played with, which kept one amused for all of ten minutes – they reclined, had foot rests, tables, bins, plug sockets, magazine racks and, most importantly, a beverage holder.

Brilliantly, because we’re really that idiotic, we didn’t realise that our return leg was 1st class until we boarded the train back to Paris. It turns out that evening Eurostar journeys are even more exciting than early morning ones – there’s booze…

Only downside is that all meals are served cold.

 Not only is there booze, but there is a decent choice. We were offered white, red or rosé  – but choose red (as my neighbour did) and you then get further choices. Wonderful. Oh, and the seats reclined beautifully too and were wonderful for napping in – I know this because I napped all the way home once I’d finished playing with my food.

One thing’s for sure, the Vicar School jaunt to Lille on board Eurostar in November is going to be very tame in comparison.