The House - Then and Now
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   Logo L'Echiquier — au coeur de la Puisaye 
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L'Echiquier is an old farmhouse . . .

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“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who.”
 


(from The Elephant’s Child
Rudyard Kipling
).

 

  • So …
    • What L’Echiquier  is an old 'longère', a long farm building that once housed both people and animals.
    • WhereL’Echiquier  is in the Yonne department of Burgundy, France. It lies at the heart of a region known as La Puisaye — on a par with 'the Downs' or 'the Broads'.
    • WhoL’Echiquier  is home to Seth and Pauline, their pets and assorted wildlife.
    • WhenL’Echiquier  was probably built in the mid-1800s. Seth and Pauline moved there on 12th November 2002.
    • WhyL’Echiquier  stands in undulating, wooded countryside, about two hours' drive south of Paris and half an hour from the Loire valley.
    • How L’Echiquier  is being renovated by Seth and Pauline, with local help, whilst they live and work there.

 

  • This is the story of L’Echiquier, or at least part of it.

    Ø — indicates a photo somewhere on this site.

 

History

L'Echiquier is a group of three houses which once shared a well and pond. The L'Echiquier referred to here is our house, not the other two. This tiny collection of houses is known in French as a lieu-dit [place name].

L'Echiquier  can be translated as The Exchequer or The Chessboard or perhaps more literally Chequers, although the French prime minister has never stayed here yet.

The house was built some time after 1842. No actual records survive, but some old land surveys we discovered at the village Mairie [town hall mairie de Saint-Privé Mairie Saint-Privé 89] shows no house in 1842, although the house to the south is there, with access via what is now our drive — a point I was keen to make to the notaire [conveyancer / solicitor] before purchase. The earlier map also shows that the road currently running along the northern boundary of the property did not exist then. At some stage a new, straighter road was put in from Les Creux to Blandy.

When we bought the house in 2002 it had probably not been lived in for over 25 years. The previous owner had done some engineering work on strengthening the walls, adding steel beams to hold them in place and stop them buckling. Enhanced roof timbers and new roof tiles had also been put in, and the internal walls completely re-rendered. Some rudimentary and not very safe electrical wiring had been done. There was no internal plumbing at all.

L'Echiquier  was basically sound and dry, with only one internal wall showing any signs of damp. So we bought it — the whole house, not just the damp wall... There was plenty of scope to put our mark on it within a limited budget.

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Past and Present

We arrived on 12th November 2002. I came direct from Milton Keynes, Bucks, UK, travelling overnight with the removers (from Bletchley, Bucks, UK). P drove from Paris in the Renault KangooØ we had bought in anticipation of moving people and building and gardening materials, including horse manure, around. It didn't take long to unload the 7 tonnes (approx 6 tons 18 cwt UK) of collectables from the UK, even though the removal van could not get right up to the house because of the soft drive and wet clay.

The first job was installing a cat-flap to allow P's catsØ, Sesame, Calico, Dali and Vashtar, access to the house, although we restricted them to certain areas at first. After all, they were city apartment dwellers, not at all used to the wide open spaces of the country. The next requirement was a temporary office for P. Having set this up quite quickly, we needed to prepare for the fast-approaching winter. I had no idea how cold it would become in January. We had no hot water, no heating and very little electricity: 3kW maximum.

We established that we could live and work in the area we had decided would be the kitchen and living room. This became known as 'the apartment' and is still used as such in the depths of winter to avoid heating the whole house.

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A new double bed and some electric convector heaters were found in the garage. That was when we found out we could only use 3kW of electricity before the supply tripped out at the main circuit breaker. A phone call to the EDF (Electricité de France) secured an upgrade to 9kW within a couple of days. A few weeks later a new meter gave us our present maximum of 15kW (65 amps). Two electric showers would still trip it out...

P's kitchen units from her apartment in Paris were modified and installed. A 27-litre (6-gallon) Burco boiler (used earlier and subsequently for home-brewing) heated water every morning. It's amazing how little water you really need to keep clean. We heard on a very crackly long-wave BBC Radio 4 broadcast that submariners only had 1 litre of water per day for ablutions, so we felt well pleased with 14 litres (3 gallons) each. Neither live internet streaming nor the BBC iPlayer™/ Listen Again nor satellite radio transmission had reached L'Echiquier  yet. (2002).

Cooking was done using an electric hotplate, a kettle and a microwave oven. I did not bring a cooker (stove) from the UK and P's was still in use in the Paris apartment. Heating was provided by the electric convector heaters and cats.

I started work on electrical wiring and plumbing, after extensive reading of the French regulations in a series of books called 'Pas Pas' (step-by-step) and 'Collection Concevoir et Construire' (Design and Build Collection). There is no electrical ring-main in France, no twin and earth cable, and no PVC-covered cabling is allowed inside. 'Yorkshire' or push fittings were not available for plumbing in France (though they did arrive a few years later). All soldering had to be done using end-feed techniques, a skill that I was not fully effective with. During our first winter, with temperatures down to -12°C (10°F), many of the soldered joints came apart ('blown') and one pipe actually split. So I gave up. I could not do everything alone. I decided to use a local plumber to do the heating and hot water. Monsieur Peautre and his expert Dominique Milot proved their worth and hot water, closely followed by an oil-fired central heating system, arrived in April 2003.

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Meanwhile I continued putting in new electrical, computer (CAT5e) and video co-ax wiring. Where the existing wiring — even if recent — was not acceptable, it was replaced. Many circuits had no earth wires and a non-standard colour code. Worse, many light fittings were live all the while because the neutral wire had been wired to the switch. In fact there was no actual earth for the whole of the house, an omission I quickly remedied.

Insulating walls, fitting lights and sockets were the main tasks. Once the 'apartment' was reasonably sound, thoughts turned to the master bedroom and bathroom. This was to be immediately above the 'apartment' to utilise the heat from below in winter. Next in line for attention were the office and a small guest bedroom.

The concept of small bedrooms became a policy. Keeping them small would provide a larger common area, rather than leaving the space unused most of the time.

The office took precedence and was used as an experiment in using French decorating materials. An account was opened at the nearby builder's merchant, S.M.B.B., in Bléneau (subsequently S.M.B.B. became Tout Faire™ and then Point P™).

While the inside of the house was taking shape, the garden also needed attention and P had her professional workload.

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Progress seemed slow but there was a huge amount to do. We wanted new windows in the office and bedroom, which meant applying for planning permission. After a short trip to the mairie de Saint-Privé Mairie Saint-Privé 89, we were given the go-ahead within the week. A local builder, Serge Moreau, was employed to put in six windows (two standard, two round and two Velux), make a new doorway, construct the mezzanine floor and tile the entrance hall. He told us he did not do windows, but could handle the brickwork and masonry, then someone else would have to provide the carpentry. We used Lapeyre™. Serge, Stéphane, Maurice and Aurélien set to work on time as promised.

With the windows completed, the office, main bedroom and bathroom were now useable but we still had only a makeshift shower. The guest bedroom took priority because people were coming to stay. Working unaided now, I installed a WC, basin and 90cm wide shower; although the bathroom was small, you need space to turn round in a shower. Above the guest bedroom a small loft was constructed.

Slowly but surely, the main bedroom acquired a wooden floor, wardrobes, chests of drawers, a purpose-made, floor-level bed and a new mattress. Philippe, a local tiler, and his son Julien levelled and tiled the bathroom floor and shower. P then took over and decorated first the bedroom, then the bathroom.

We used Philippe and sons later to tile other parts of the house: the pantry, utility room, vestibule and downstairs shower room.

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The next stage of renovation focused on the main entrance and mezzanine. I found the ceilings particularly high, and we wanted some interest upstairs rather than a flat surface. One of the original plans had been to flood it with bedrooms and use them for B&B, but in the end I decided against this. As the inside of the house evolved, a new staircase was designed with the help of a local joiner, Monsieur Poupelard. The bulk of the assembly took place in the joinery workshop and the staircase arrived at the house in three sections. Pascal and his colleagues installed it, connecting the front hall (which had been tiled by Aurélien) to the mezzanine (put in by Stéphane and Maurice). We were very pleased with it: a classic escalier français, solid beech with open treads.

Another job for a local person was the drains. Some of these had been found and repaired earlier by myself and Graham Fitt, a friend from the UK. Although the soakaway drains worked well in the summer and autumn, they proved ineffective in the spring when the clay was really wet. Monsieur Duport of S.T.P.P. was asked to handle this task. Arthur and his digger arrived and put in new drains, even digging a small fish pond as part of the same job (see garden pages).

The mezzanine is divided into two areas, the upper and lower mezzanines.

The lower mezzanine contains a sitting area with sofas, coffee tables and bookshelves. A stage can quickly be erected for small events.

The centrepiece of the upper mezzanine is 'The Bullerjan'™, a striking, Canadian-designed wood burner, which was delivered direct from Latvia. Surrounding it are sofas, hammocks and tables. The furniture can be rearranged to provide theatre- or café-style seating for events. The upper mezzanine can also be used as a home cimema, exercise space or dormitory.

Insulating the mezzanine ceiling was a priority as heat escaped quickly from the 80m2 directly under the roof. After consultation with the Fritton builder (an old school pal, Stanley Youngman), Triso-Laine (which is not cheap) was used. It was covered with matchboard, giving the whole area a Scandinavian feel.

Two more bedrooms were created at the west end of the house with the aid of Graham. The philosophy remained the same: small bedrooms, giving a larger multi-functional area. One of the rooms has twin beds and an en-suite shower and WC; the other has a bunk bed with basin only. A separate WC and shower are available downstairs.

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Future

When the mezzanine is finished I shall turn to the garage. My neighbour to the west, Eric Gilbert, has given me the skeleton (carpentry / timbers) of an oak lean-to shed, some 4m wide and 8m long (13' 1½" by 26' 3"). This will make a new garage / workshop on the west end of the house and allow me to convert the existing garage into a living room / self-contained flat. The construction of this lean-to has now started.

In front of the garage we have planned a conservatory. Unfortunately, all the companies contacted just wanted to sell us an off-the-shelf solution, despite the fact that they advertise bespoke design and fitting. So I have decided to build the structure myself from Douglas fir as opposed to oak. Douglas is more stable, does not warp or shake (fissure) like oak, making it a better basis for double glazing. It is also naturally resistant to rot and insects.

That should complete the major construction of the main building.

See also what's happening in the garden.

 

The house uses X-10 controls for electrical systems, powered by Heyu software on an openSUSE Linux computer.

A centralised vacuum system (from VacuDuct™, UK) has been installed as part of the construction. We did contact some French suppliers but got no response. It is much quieter than a conventional vacuum cleaner as the motor unit is remote, in our case in the boiler room. There is no return of hot or recycled air inside the house as this is exhausted outdoors.

French TV is provided by TNT Télévision Numérique Terrestre (FreeView™ in English).

TNT

UK TV and radio are provided by FreeSat™, from the Astra 2 bunch at 28.2°E.

FreeSat

The TV, both TNT and Satellite is distributed throughout the house by Triax™ equipment provided by Satellite Superstore UK™, thanks David.

Our ISP (Internet Service Provider) is France Telecom™ under the name of Orange™. Originally we used Tiscali™ but that was dial-up (56k) and they could not provide broadband so we changed to Wanadoo™ to get 512k (a huge step up at the time). Wanadoo was bought by Orange and we still have only 512k (technically broadband, but only just). Increased to 1M in June 2010. Broadband arrived after a local council [mairie] survey showed that enough people in the village were interested to make it worthwhile for France Telecom(WikipediA entry) to provide the equipment in the telephone exchange and the fibre optics.

Our domain name and website was originally hosted by our ISP. We have now switched to OVH™ France, an ICANN-registered host.


Maybe one day we'll get a higher bit-rate and maybe one day BBC iPlayer for TV will be accessible outside the UK, as BBC radio is already. The internet bit-rate was increased to 1M in June 2010, that's twice the speed.

 

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  Chronology

  • 12th November 2002 — New owners Pauline and Seth move in with their cats, Calico, Dali, Sesame and Vashtar. Pauline moved from Paris, France, and Seth from Milton Keynes, UK.
     
  • 2003 — Hot water and heating for the next winter. Lean-to greenhouse. Fish pond and start of Japanese garden. Square Foot Gardening. Living area walls and ceiling cleaned. Walls insulated and primed. Kitchen fitted. Area made generally 'livable'. Searching for and finding the brown water and grey water waste systems, including the septic tank, then repairing them.
     
  • 2004 — New windows upstairs, new mezzanine. Water softener and filters. Main hall tiled, utility room constructed. New internal double doors to dining room and garage.
     
  • 2005 — Plastic greenhouse, new guest bedroom. First tent pitches levelled. Rearranged Square Foot Garden. More work on Japanese garden. Fencing, levelling, edging, pathmaking and a terrace (patio). Kitchen tiling completed.
     
  • 2006 — Large pond dug to collect rainwater for use on the garden. The pièce de resistance: the beech staircase.
     
  • 2007 — New polytunnel replacing the plastic greenhouse. Two new visitors' bedrooms. Pantry, utility room, vestibule and downstairs toilet floors tiled. Main and downstairs bath / shower room walls tiled and fitted out. Small moveable stage constructed on lower mezzanine.
     
  • 2008 — Underfloor heating on the lower mezzanine. New floor and Bullerjan™ wood-burner on the upper mezzanine. Two new bedrooms at the west end.
    • one en-suite twin.
    • one smaller room with a bunk bed.
       
  • 2009 — More insulation applied to the mezzanine ceilings. Path around back of house and garden terracing. More work on Japanese garden, with new filter for fish pond. Main bathroom nearing completion. WiFi fitted.
     
  • 2010— Sat TV installed so that each TV can select its own station independant of the others. Back garden now fenced to avoid 800 sheep eating all the veg. New tabby kitten called Cressida arrived. New lean-to shed at west end under construction.
     
  • Next project: empty the garage. Hmmmm.

 

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