Saturday, January 8, 2011

Terrace Cement

For unknown hundreds of years the farmers who worked on our hill, and the cows who did other things on the hill, used a small footpath to get around the front of the barn.

Aged path runs down the centre of this photo.
The cows had been using this path for so long that they have polished the stone at the corner of the barn to a nice smooth finish. It is very satisfying just to stroke it…

This state of affairs could not be allowed to continue as we had other plans which did not invlove cattle  wearing out our house. We got Sandy, our local Scottish digger-man, in to do some terrassement (pronounced terrace-cement) and move the path a bit to make room for the ‘afternoon' terrace.

Here is the proposed site being 'breakfast tested' by (clockwise from left) Patrick, Tricia, Jane, Charlotte and Monty.

After breakfast (OK, about two and a half years after breakfast) we are ready to start.

Once again we get Sandy in to dig some footings and do the finished levelling so that we do not roll off the terrace into the garden, and incorporate a very slight gradient (posh word for slope) so that the rain does.

Sandy does the digging, Marie checks the laser level, the labrador, whose name I forget, watches and Butch guards the spoil heap as he thinks that Sandy is trying to steal it - he's a lovely dog, but not very bright.

A few hours later the site is ready for some block laying.

As soon as you have property in France you must have a bettoniere - it's the rules.

Tricia bought me this shiny mixer for my birthday when we first arrived. We had no plans to do any cementing at the time, but having a cement mixer is a right-of-passage and we observed it with all the gravitas of a state funeral.

Several years later it has mixed a lot of stuff. Tonnes of cement, sand and gravel have fed its insatiable appetite. It now looks like most domestic mixers, that is to say ‘crusty’. I have fitted bolts to the blades so they can be removed for periodic cleaning which is necessary as it is practically impossible to ‘get round the back’ of the things. Sooner or later the dried crusty stuff will build up and they will stop being useful blades which slice through the mix and beat it to a useful consistency and start to look like the ribs inside a tumble drier. I do not have to try mixing concrete in the tumble drier to know that that would not do at all.

Meanwhile, back at the terrace site, the footings for the retaining wall are in but the sand, gravel and cement have run out...

...and the terrace needs a retaining wall before we can pour the concrete slab. We will get a load of ready mixed concrete for the slab itself, but the cement for retaining wall must be mixed in what I have started to think of as the 'glopita glopita machine'.

This is the onomatopoeically named machine that Jack Lemmon refers to in the film How to Murder Your Wife. I think it should be a cement mixer, but suspect it is actually a bark shredder which would not really make a glop-type sound but an altogether drier sort of noise. Also if one were to dispose of one's wife using industrial machinery, surely one would select a machine that would bury her in the concrete footings of the New Jersey Turnpkie rather than stuffing her into a machine which would grind her up and spray her all over the neighbourhood. I mean someone is bound to notice – but I digress.

Just in case you are picturing me up to my elbows in concrete, I suppose I should mention that Geoff is actually doing most of the work. I could have done it (see the forthcoming blog about the workshop) but he’s better at it - and he is in the right country at the right time. 

As the job progresses it simply refuses to stop raining so Geoff has built a cover for the block work so he can continue. It looks like a squatter camp but it won't be there for long (we hope). 

Being a builder and plumber, Geoff has a van. But he does not have a tow-bar on it so I have to use my car and trailer to get the blocks and bulk ingredients for concrete - and that is not as easy as it sounds.

I usually get the cement from Brico Depot. As mentioned before this is a sort of DIY Lidl and you have to be careful what you buy there. I’m not sure about some of their timber which I am convinced will warp when it dries. But the way I see it, if the cement ‘goes off’ it is OK, and Brico cement goes off. And it is about 20% cheaper than the single bag price of our local builders merchant and 40% cheaper than our neighbour Mr Garrigue.

The sand and gravel come from a quarry about 5 km away. I get a tonne at a time in the trailer which is able to take about 3 tonnes, but the car does not like getting much more than a tonne up the hill.

On my previous visit the weighbridge at the quarry showed that the empty car and trailer weighed 2300kg. When I went into the office to tell them what I want I noticed the display reading 2150kg. 'Strange' I thought and it slowly dawned on me that the only difference was that I was now in the office, and not on the weighbridge. The slow dawning continues, this machine thought I weigh 150kg. Bloody cheek! I know I am not exactly lithe and slender but I am NOT 17 stone.  I spend the rest of my time at the quarry trying to work out if this inability to weigh things correctly is to my advantage vis-a-vis the price of ballast, and then forget all about it till now...

Anyway, on this particular day the quarry is closed for a pont (a bridging day between a public holiday, e.g. on a Thursday, and a weekend when they do not open anyway). I have to go to the aforementioned Mr Garrigue who runs the wolrd's neatest builders merchant. I have never seen anyone else use it, and everything is neat and stacked and piled and sorted and orderly (you get the idea). Trouble is he charges about twice as much as most people for everything which is probably why I never see anyone there. This includes the sand and gravel mix known as ballast in UK and ‘grave à beton’ ici. Also Mr G does not have a bascule (weighbridge) and will only sell a cubic metre of the stuff as he knows how much this is because his digger has a cube bucket. I do not discover this until it is too late.

A cube weighs about 2 tonnes and I know it is going to be a problem, but much as I prefer not to stress the car out, I have managed it before so I trust to luck

Luck is also taking a pont. I neglect to take into account the last time I moved two tonnes up the lane it was dry, it is now wet and at the last and steepest section the car just says ‘you’re bloody joking mate!’ and will not go any further. I manage to reverse the trailer off the road so that I can get alongside with the tractor and trailer. 

The car I am blocking belongs to our neighbour, Alain, who has just arrived with his wife, dog and new granddaughter who is sick and must be scurried indoors before she becomes even more sick – so he does not stay to help. 

Neither does Geoff who arrives a moment later. This is because I suggest he goes and puts the kettle on. After 90 minutes of extensive shovelling I have transferred the ballast and can move the trailer out of the lane and the tea is cold.

Sod’s law has obvioulsy come to stay for a while and I have been well and truly ponted.

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