All Posts · Cats and dogs · French Life · Renovation work · The farm

We have a cellar

After a very heady youth in the 1980’s spent in the City of London between working as a banker and sliding at most lunchtimes into the local pub, by the time I was in my late twenties I had somehow obtained a complete necessity to avoid alcohol in any form. Had I pickled my liver? Had I lost significant brain cells? All I Know is that the slight sighting of a vodka bottle made me flee.

Thirty years on I am the proud owner of a cellar. My husband loves a beer. I like beer. Somehow it’s not has violent to the system as wine or spirits. Back in England beer has become very popular in restaurants as it complements our simple food very well. Roast beef, toad in the hole, chicken pie, all washed down with a cool local brew, it’s a nice afternoon and you have no hangover to dampen the enjoyment. But I can still only drink half a pint.

On one holiday in France, near the Loire, we visited a small chateaux that had its own small vineyard, but also a lavender and herb garden for their homemade soap. But it was their cellar or cave I loved. It was accessed via a small cobbled stone slope from the garden, through wrought iron gates into a beautifully lit brick room fitted with oak shelving and a small bar to sample the vintage. There was a magic of being below ground, as much as it’s lovely when you have a room you reach by a spiral stair or ladder. Childhood dens and treehouses. As adults we become grounded and these magic places are not always within our reach. But at the farmhouse we had a surprise waiting for us.

Finding the kitchen

The side of the farmhouse had a lean-to. A dumping ground for old farm implements, green bottles and fork heads with long lost handles [why doesn’t anyone fix these things? I found three buried under a tree and are now fixed to lovely second hand handles, all waxed and well-thumbed]. Originally we had thought about leaving the kitchen as it is, at the front of the property next to future snug and dining area. But it was small and led to another room at the back which we liked as a bedroom. That room looks out onto the garden. It’s large and in the morning we like an hour to wake, drink our tea and coffee and catch up on social network etc, or simply plan the day ahead. The little kitchen would make a perfect morning room, and a cosy space just before bed. Away from the madness of cats and dogs, and with full sun in the morning, this space gave us a sort of self-contained apartment. There is already a sink and toilet there. We would open up the window in the bedroom to make French doors to our future terrace and the morning room in the front would have its own little balcony.


The morning room was badly decorated. Tiles badly installed and lots of different finishes, wood, plaster, odd windows. All this was easier to deal with if we stripped it out and retiled with a pretty blue tile found at our other house which I had removed from the walls, and a yellow and blue lemons fabric found at a brocante. Lots of colour, couple of armchairs, lamps and a big rug to complete. We bought a small wood-burner cast iron stove, enough to keep both that room and the bedroom cosy in winter and begun to see where best to install. Poking around we realized one wall was a false wall! How exciting.

False walls where you least expect

The house must have been refashioned in the 1980’s with a lot of the original mouldings covered by tongued and groove, and in the case of these rooms, the whole of the fireplace wall covered with plasterboard. We cut a big hole in one end and climbing up a ladder, hung over the hole with a torch to pierce the gloom. Wow….a stone fireplace and a lovely big green cupboard. I had found my Narnia! We still don’t understand why our mother’s generation covered up and destroyed so many beautiful architectural pieces. For us this is sheer magic. The wall is coming down, the fireplace being restored and we decided that the cupboard will be our new doorway into that lean-to. A little bit of measuring and it appears the wall is thin enough to cut an access through, while retaining the cupboard, which is wide, as a doorway – our wardrobe to the outside garden.

Kitchen moved – renovation plan

The lean-to space is huge. It would make a very large, grand kitchen with enough space for a raised dias for the other cast iron stove, petite sofas for all the dogs and cats to share and a galley layout kitchen with a huge long table. The whole front faces the garden and the future coop, so we can wave at the chickens. When they free range, which is most days, they can come and bok-bok round the door for treats. The renovation is quite simple. The wall needs repointing and the roof insulating. We found a huge pile of dumped terracotta tiles in the garden. What French house doesn’t have these! The front of the building is only about seven foot high. That’s high enough to take a set of windows across the front. French doors will be installed at the far end leading to the garden and outside terrace that will run the length of the rear of the building. The whole house had been orientated to the front with absolutely no exits to the bank. To get the rear garden was a long trek round the house. Our aim was to reconnect. The upper lounge above the snug will have French doors to the terrace, accessed via a small flight of steps. That terrace takes you from the exit in the kitchen all the way along the back to the garage and utility room and our hanger garden where all our old tables and chairs will be and evening entertaining.

Foundation issues – how to solve your water issues

There are no foundations. Same as many French farm buildings. The Stone is built straight on the hard bedrock about a meter below ground. The clay [terre] keeps much of the water flowing through is hard as nails, being used often used to build the actual building – clay between and them lime mortar to seal the whole against the weather. In the barn we had a tonne of water from the roads and ditches flowing straight beneath our bedroom. The walls were soaking. Digging round we found no foundations and the cost to dig out and lag and pour concrete, prohibitively costly and time consuming and often it fails. The damp still rises and you have no access to deal with the problem.


Tony had a long research into basements and dealing with damp proof courses and concrete flooring. The result was that it was best to leave as they had been built but with a few alterations. Firstly the soil was dug out to reveal the point where the house sits on the bedrock. A concrete edge was poured to support the edge with weep holes to prevent pressure build-up of water against the external wall and a small channel made in the concrete edge to allow that water to flow out and away. The water channels met at a wider one placed below the window and out to the drain. Concrete support columns for the floor were laid and a plastic dimpled membrane was laid over the top of the now dry soil and these supports and taken about three foot up the walls. This would prevent any condensation, if any, getting into the timber floor and wall panelling. Another this sheet of plastic membrane was laid on top to create an air insulation layer and on this the floor was laid and the panelling round the walls. The panelling was sealed with lime mortar as all our walls are left as stone. We hate plasterboard. Why buy a barn and cover all that beautiful natural stone?

After a very wet couple of winters, we have had no damp. The little water that flows into the building at ground level, flows quickly out through the channels. Removing the access panel last winter, we found all the soil beneath dry. Success. The masons of these buildings knew how to build and although they didn’t completely solve the damp issues, and French drains notoriously silt up, with the holes in the pipes getting blocked, generally its simple to fix once you ensure your wall foundations are sound or as we did, a complete rejoint and repoint.

So that’s the plan for the kitchen too.

Cellar – very wet

Another great thing about moving the kitchen is access to the cellar. We had been told there was a cellar but the agent couldn’t access it and French conveyancing doesn’t accommodate a ground plan. You never know what you have until you can actually see it and if you can’t see it, well you have to find it by a bit of sleuthing or hard graft. Most things we find are under mounds of earth, or behind overgrown hawthorns and nettles. The wall of the morning room was found after we drilled to install the new electrics and the wall felt hollow. We found a large key and it fitted the old door in the lean-to. With a shove the rotten door opened and there was our cellar. Wow. It was about 20 metre square in area and about three metres in height – great to have a space for all the preserved kitchen garden food, home-made cordial, wine, beer and cheese.


After a day of heaving out years of accumulated crap – honestly why don’t people take this stuff to the skip – we found a huge square space with a gorgeous terracotta ceiling. I mean, someone had taken a lot of trouble here laying those arches. In the gloom we also found four huge oak barrels. These would make a great table base. Tony started digging around in the very muddy floor while I started chasing the multitude of spiders and creepy crawlies out – sorry guy’s time to go. One big spider seemed to be doing a great job with the flies from the little window to the garden. He stayed and found a little hole in the wall where I didn’t see him doing much harm. Brushing down the walls, I found there required little pointing to do. The lime mortar was intact and well done. The large oak door needed a bit of work – a new bottom panel and a thorough paint removal. The stairs to the cellar were also good, just the retaining walls were bad and needed repairing at floor level and a repoint. We were given by a good friend who we bought our mountain house from, a lovely pair of metal balustrades. The drop from the kitchen to the cellar dangerously high, so these will fit the safety bill perfectly.

Tony and Bella our Jack Russel, had found an opening in the cellar where it appeared a pipe exited. There had been installed a French drain down the centre. That’s a trench with a pipe laid in pea shingle. The pipe has hole in it. The theory is water travels to the shingle and then miraculously into the pipe and flows away. The shingle protects the pipe from ground movement and is supposed to filter the mud. It doesn’t. The mud clogs the shingle and eventually the whole system fails. The pipe had cracked in a few places and all the water we found was pouring in from bad French guttering and outside drains, had pooled in the cellar. It was one big quagmire. Tony removed the offending pipe and Bella investigated. Sake our other Jack Russell also thought this muddy game was fun. Well what the heck – let’s all get dirty!!!


Cellar plans

Because we want the cellar to stay a little humid and the ground is below house man floor level and very wet, the solution here is to leave the soil in place, but dig the middle pipe out leaving a ditch, similar to those around our fields. So far over the last few weeks of rain the ditch has worked well without its pipe blocking the water flow. The ditch is low enough to capture any excess water and allow it to flow away. The only job to do is to repair the outlet pipe to the drain and the water in the ditch will flow out rather than as now simply filling up the cellar. We will sink some concrete columns into the earth to act as floor foundations and with a membrane to stop condensation, the cellar will be as dry as needed. The outside drains will be fixed too. At the moment the whole of the lean-to roof is flowing into the cellar and at the moment we are getting off that roof about 300 litres a night!


Privacy and stolen goose

A quick fit out with shelving, lights, fix up the barrel table and the cellar will be complete. It will add huge value to the house and a lot of much needed storage space. From a wet unloved and unused end to the house, we will have a welcoming set of spaces leading to what is turning out to be a sort of courtyard before you get to the gardens. The studio house on the right and the coop up ahead has closed in the lane side and honestly we need that. We had a very odd guy walking his dog a few weeks ago and at the moment finding him quite menacing. I will put up a full post on it, but suffice to say – I lost my Barley goose. Another reason it’s good to sometimes re-orientate your home to a different direction.


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