St Denis des Murs

Chateau Duffy is located in the centre of a small village – St Denis des Murs – which can be found around half an hour’s drive east of Limoges. Wikipedia lists it as having a population of just over 500, meaning that when the Chateua Duffy crew descends, we increase the local population by nearly 5%. For some reason, I’d never thought to work out the origin of the village’s name – until last week.

Gare. St Denis des Murs.La Gare. It’s actually a good 20mins walk from the main village, thanks to the hills… 

Towards the end of the trip, I had a sudden epiphany. ‘Murs’ meant ‘walls’ – how had I forgotten that?! After all, one of my GCSE French oral speeches was a description of my 15 year old self’s bedroom, which obviously included: “Mes murs des affiches de Blur et Keanu Reeves sur eux.” [“My walls have posters of Blur and Keanu Reeves on them.”] Why was the village named for St Denis and some walls? Wikipedia again came to my rescue. Turns out the Gauls built a large fortification in the region, and remains of the walls are thought to be near the village. And St Denis? He’s the patron saint of Paris, was beheaded on the hill that’s now Montmartre, and walked 10km holding his head in his hands…

Once all this had been figured out, it made perfect sense and became incredibly apt. What had I spent a considerable amount of time staring at last week? Walls. One wall – on the back of the house – specifically. In fact, even more specifically, the uppermost point of that wall. It was the seemingly never-ending mission to point it. We’re still not finished in fact.

The wallMy view for a considerable length of time. Words can barely describe the ache in my arms after a day of chipping mortar out from between those bricks.

I’d like to think that St Denis and his cut-off head was watching over us, ensuring that none of us lost our heads, or any other part of our anatomy for that matter. With every trip that passes, I’m growing more accustomed to scaling the heights of the scaffold, and this trip saw me spend the best part of three days atop of a 20 foot rig. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel safe enough to dance up there (unlike my scaffold building team-mate), but I was fairly happy once I’d donned a harness and tied myself on to a metal pole.

I'm on top of the world...On top of the world, safely attached to the scaffold. Incidentally, there’s no ladder to get up there. I’ve developed a incredible (given past life experiences) knack of scampering up the scaffold poles.

I think the locals are finally coming to terms with our sporadic visits. The next door neighbour is happier with our antics. The Mayor is very glad the historic house and barn are being repaired. We’ve even discovered a couple of ex-pat Brits. It’s a good job they like us, as I’m very much looking forward to the holidays I can have there once the building’s finally, finally finished. [In case you’re wondering, we reckon it’s only another 2 trips till the barn’s habitable. Then there’s just the house…]


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…

A tale of tile, trowels and travail…

Exactly a year after the first Chateau Duffy adventure commenced, trip number 3 got under way. Now that the barn had a roof, it was time to get the tiles back on. For those not keen on being roof monkeys, there was almost unlimited pointing to be done.

On the last trip, I’d been one of three Pointer Sisters. This time, only I returned (that’s no reflection on my company, honest) and by virtue of knowledge and experience became the leader of Team Pointing and Chief Cement Mixer. [My right shoulder thanks the cement for its workout…]

Team Pointing

Amazingly, this time I didn’t learn any new skills – I simply built upon the ones I’d already acquired. I didn’t get to spend as much time on the scaffold as I’d have liked; nor did I get to point that much (spent a lot of time mixing up that cement); and I spent less than 10 minutes on the top of the roof. But at least I made it up there.

Photo courtesy of Andy M

I did learn some things…

My love of erecting & dismantling scaffolding knows no bounds. However, spending two hours in a team of 3 (only 2 of which were on the scaffold) taking down and putting back up a two storey rig did teach me that there’s only so much time my body can handle having adrenalin pumping.

Precariously aboard the second storey, but with rather good silhouettes.

It is possible to do many things while a baby is strapped to one’s back. This includes pointing (the putting cement into holes bit rather than the more dangerous/dirty chiselling), cooking, sorting out tiles and generally being useful. I’m still impressed with my own baby carrying skills – over a 2 hour period I got J to sleep, he slept, then awoke cheerful and happy simply to play with the back of my bra. Talented boy.

I can fall asleep virtually anywhere. On the first night I fell asleep sitting on some steps leading down to the river and slumbered for a good 45mins. People apparently noticed my absence but didn’t manage to find me. I’m sure I am loved, really. I also managed 2 hours kip on the kitchen floor, but the less said about that the better.

I give excellent pointing masterclasses.

4000 tiles look like a lot when stacked in a room together, but amazingly won’t go all the way to re-tiling a roof. You can also fit more tiles (and mortar) than you’d think in the back of a Fiat 500 (something my sister should take note of – she uses her ownership of a Fiat 500 as a reason why she doesn’t pick up large DIY materials at B&Q…).

Left: The tile room in April 2012 (Courtesy of Shannon H)
Right: The tile room post-roofing

No matter how confident one gets at scampering up and down scaffold poles, you are always susceptible to sudden fits of vertigo which can leave one feeling like a bit of a fool.

Chateau Duffy crew Aug 2012

The Chateau Duffy August 2012 crew, post completion.

So that’s that for Chateau Duffy 2012. The troops will return in the spring and fingers crossed the tiles will still be in place…

Our names are now embedded in mortar on the ridge line.

[In the mean time, if you’re keen to see more photos, there’s my own Flickr set as well as the Chateau Duffy Flickr Pool. I’ve been told my albums have an inordinate number of photos of people’s bums in them. This is utterly unintentional.]

You did what?!

When people find out that I’ve recently been on holiday, their response to the “I went to France with some friends” bit is usually along the lines of “Oh, how lovely!”. When I add that we went to work on a house they look confused and ask “You did what?!”.

I presume it’s particularly surprising as I don’t really look like the type to work on a building site for fun. Plus, those that know me well (especially my family) seem to find it utterly unbelievable that I could actually be useful in such a context. So, for their benefit and yours, and because I’ve been playing with some other peoples’ photos, here’s a photographic representation of the functions I can fulfil…

1. Leader of team warm-up. The pilates classes may have ended, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still practice the art of control – it’s exceptionally useful when stretching rarely used muscles in peculiar ways.

Note that initially the men were totally oblivious to my antics. 
They were busy with wood.

Now, I appreciate that it doesn’t look like any one else in the team is joining me, but I insist that at least one other person was stretching – they’re just obscured by the chap in the red jacket. Honest.

2. Holder of rope. Manouvering ridge beams into place would be impossible without my strength…

…ok, so this is the only one I assisted with and the others went up fine. But I can dream, surely?

3. Drinker of tea. This is a very important job on a building site.

I’m also rather adept at transporting tea to difficult locations – like the top of scaffolding rigs [proud moment: climbing up a pole with a mug in one hand] and the roof. In fact, it was thanks to tea delivery that I finally made it on to the roof itself. Also, in case you’d ever wondered what makes builders’ tea ‘builders’, it’s because of all the added ingredients. No, not sugar and extra tannine – dirt.

Thing is, by the time it arrives you’re so desperate for it that you really don’t care.

4. Destroyer of walls. (Ok, just the one wall.) It took three of us a little under an hour to remove the wattle & daub-ness from an interior wall with the aid of hammers and a crow-bar – I took the crow-bar in order to vent some frustration. It got messy…

…Very messy:

It also turns out that when you destroy a wattle & daub wall, it seeks out ways in which to get its revenge upon its attackers. An hour after we’d finished the job, I was up a scaffold, handing out tea and generally being useful, when I felt my nose running. Given as I was in messy clothes, I did the hugely unlady-like thing of wiping it on my sleeve. I looked down and to my horror discovered a streak of brown. Hesitantly, I touched my nose and found more of it, in fact, the more I wiped, the more it appeared. I was mortified and begged someone to find me a tissue. For another two hours, every time I blew my nose, more brown gunk appeared. The wall was having the last laugh – I may have smashed it to smithereens, but it ensured that by inhaling its dust, I wouldn’t forget it for a while.

5. Holder of wood. Self-explanatory:

6. Occasionally ostracised to the naughty corner:

I was busy chiselling, that’s all… 

7. Sitter upon scaffolding.

Sitter upon the scaffoldSometimes, it’s easier to stay on the scaffold even though nothing’s happening. 

See, I’m exceptionally useful! If you think you could be useful too, what are you up to between August 4th-11th? Would you like to chisel mortar or scamper across a roof? A return visit to Chateau Duffy is being made, but places are limited!

A recipe for pointedness


1 part cement
1 part lime
6 parts soft sand
+ enough washing-up liquid infused water to make a thick paste

1. Colour match your cement to ensure a good fit with the stone’s colour and previous mortar.
2. Using chisels and hammers, chip out the old mortar from between bricks to a depth of approximately 1.5 inches. Brush away excess dust to leave a dry, clean surface.
3. In a large wheelbarrow, mix the dry ingredients together using a spade.
4. Gradually add the liquid (via a watering can), combining it thoroughly with the dry mixture. Be careful not to over water it – like making icing, this is a fine art.
5. The resulting mixture can then be placed upon palettes and inserted into cracks between the masonry using a trowel, gloved hand, or (in extreme circumstances) bare fingers. [Devices for piping your mixture into fancy patterns and awkward angles are available, but this is only for advanced bakers.]
6. Results can be mixed and techniques for application do vary. Find your own technique and (in the words of Mary Poppins) snap! The job’s a game!

Don’t forget to fully equip yourself with safety materials.
(And it helps if you can find a comfy nook from which to chisel.)

Can you tell the difference between the newly repointed and old mortar?

And thus, Cathers, Lindsey and I became known as The Pointer Sisters. (A joke made by three different men; independently of each other; to each own’s great amusement.) We were so excited, we just couldn’t hide it…