Monday, 29 March 2010

Piles of rocks - materials for nothing

Piles of rocks.
Looking back I am amazed at how little I knew about French building when I arrived twenty odd years ago. One of my neighbours in a farm close by was a crusty characters, who never appeared outside without a chainsaw or shotgun. He was from a long line of farmers on the land surrounding his collection of ancient barns, which contained machinery dating back to the invention of the wheel. He had innumerable grandchildren which probably explains why he was so tolerant of my endless naive questions.
He paused from ploughing nearby and strolled over to pass the time of day and place a rock he had just turned up with the plough. He carefully arranged it on a pile of similar stones at the side of the field. What I asked was the purpose of keeping the stones. He gave me one of those grandfatherly knowing smiles and explained that in the country they were kept for building. All his farm buildings and house had been constructed from materials gleaned from the land.
In our region houses are frequently built as ‘une longère’ over a period of many years. The dimensions are fairly universal, being about 6 metres front to back, that seems to be the limit of span for the oak beams used in the area. They are single story with a loft accessed by ladder from a dormer window for storage of hay, grain etc. Often they were just one or two rooms on the ground floor and served as the living space for one family unit. Additional parts were added by the side, over the years, for more family or animals or storage. They were constructed from collected materials which were saved as they became available. The stones from the fields had the advantage of being already weathered against the frost and the timber was often well seasoned naturally and had little movement left in them. Material was often scavenged from other sources, for example my first farmhouse had the roof timbers constructed from the acacia framework of an old freight sail boat that probably plied the river Cher from the coast to the Berry, using the west winds to go up stream and the current to return.
So it was that the habit of collecting the rocks from the fields persisted, although I have to say I see less of it now. . All the other materials came from the surrounding land, lime for render, mortar and paint was hewn direct from the river valley sides and fired in ovens in the rock face. Clay came from the fields to cement the wall stones together and with straw for constructing the internal walls and ceilings using willow sticks as support.
I can show you longères build like this by local people that, well maintained, are in first class condition after centuries of use.
I am writing this in Paris, where I have just seen my wife off on the train, for a day away working, from Gare D’Austerlitz. It is going through a huge redevelopment and it cannot be a greater contrast to the longéres of Touraine. The beautiful iron and glass station from the industrial revolution being integrated, sympathetically I hope as some Paris modernisation can be, into gardens, parkland and modern glass buildings.
More later, à plus.

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living in France