Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Cottage

I've been playing with floor planning software for the last few days.

Our plans for the house have not moved forward, so we've turned our attention to our derelict cottage (also know as the guest accommodation) which lies at the bottom of the garden, beyond a mess of brambles where nightingales sing in spring.

The cottage has no roof and at some point there was a fire, so many of the fallen beams are blackened and crumbling. The chimney is still standing but it is bowing out and the adjoining wall has cracks you can get your hand in. (Mind you, there are people living in houses up in the village with cracks bigger than ours - no one seems to worry that much.) But we do have four walls and the chimney still has the TV aerial on top.

Our first task has been to get a "certificat d'urbanisme" which gives us the right to restore the cottage. Without that, it has to stay a ruin. A delicate conversation with the local mayor along the lines of "would we possibly be thinking of using the cottage as a chambre d'hôte" and "well, we would not rule out that possibility" may well have helped the process. This is a region where there is little accommodation for tourists .

So now we are on to the next stage of getting planning permission to do the building work - especially putting the roof back before winter rains penetrate further into the walls. The cottage is not large - it will be less than 150 square meters over its two floors - and therefore the plans do not have to be drawn up by an architect. Hence the planning software.

Clutching tape-measure, pad and pencil, we crunch our way across the debris of bricks, tiles and wood that litters the earth floors and gingerly ease ourselves under half-supported beams. We peer into small rooms where young saplings are growing through broken pallets. I wait while Tod gets a ladder and in the stillness I can hear the sound of wasps gnawing on rotten wood. This is hard hat territory.

Thin wires trail everywhere and catch our feet. They were strung from the long-gone ceilings and used for drying tobacco. Broken light switches hang off walls and I nervously eye the meter still there in the hall. The power is off - I hope. There is no running water or sanitation, but a thin electricity wire stretches down from the pole by our house. This is the wire that the swallows are gathering on this week. They'll soon be gone. We measure pitted window cavities and doorways and try to decide what are the "right" lengths to put on the plan as the gaps vary by centimetres.

We begin to notice things: a doorway has been narrowed; an added window is bigger than the others; here was the hole where the water from the sink came through; the step into the hayloft is worn down by years of use; the angle of the missing roof can still be seen on the chimney; there is an outline on the back wall where the stairs went up to the loft.

Gradually the cottage speaks to us of what it used to be and what it could become.

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