9 – 14th February: Up on the Roof


(Mark Sampson) #1

Shame about the inevitable rain on Saturday, great sheets of it, because it was an extraordinarily beautiful week. One of those cold, crisp and luminous weeks that make you appreciate the rare joys of winter. When it's as dry as that, it's not difficult to keep warm. The cold doesn't penetrate your bones.


I let the fire go out overnight on Monday for the first time in about a fortnight. I'd viewed the overnight log that I put on with suspicion. Sure enough, the next morning, there was no life in it whatsoever and the stove metal was cold to the touch. So I seized the opportunity to sweep the flue, from below and above. Up on the roof, working the hedgehog and rods down the still-shiny chrome steel of the chimney, with the landscape beneath me bathed in the first intense sunlight of the day, I felt a little like one of the old Viscounts of Turenne must have felt. Up in his now abandoned tower that dominates the northern horizon, surveying the same undulating basin that in days of yore constituted the old viscomté.


It was about this time of year, with the same glorious winter weather, that I spent several weeks sublimating my fear of heights, helping the couvreur put the roof on this house. A methodical man in a beret called Michel. A quiet, sober man with a distinct air of sadness. During our time on the roof together, I discovered that the sadness derived from child deprivation. He was a member of an organisation that called itself SOS Papa and he'd spent a chunk of the previous decade fighting his former wife for the right to see more of his children. Over lunch one day, he showed me some newspaper cuttings that described the legal battles that led his appearance at the European Court of Human Rights (or some such august body).


I hope he won his struggle for equal viewing rights, because I remember particularly the way his face lit up with love and pride when he brought his young son and daughter one day to the construction site to meet me and say hello and see where their dad was working. He was a changed man and I saw nothing on the faces of the children to suggest anything but affection for their mild-mannered father.


While the girls have been poring over pictures of deserving dogs that need a good home, I have been much preoccupied this last week with roofs. I saw quite a bit of my latest roofer of choice. He's a funny little taciturn man called Mario – though, ridiculously, we still call each other by the formal Monsieur. He's taciturn and a mumbler, which makes intelligible communications problematic. Nevertheless, over recent years, we've developed a kind of understanding and a mutually beneficial professional relationship. Mario does jobs for the co-proprietors at the chateau I look after, and in return he does me a price for any private roofing jobs I need doing. These days he even gives me his version of a sheepish smile when we shake hands.


Now that the Tenant of Wildfell Hall has quit the apartment above my wife's clinic, I've been able to engage Mario to fix a hole in the roof where the rain gets in. To stop my mind from wandering while he was outside addressing the fissures in the mortar, I went off into town to buy some posh tea for the girls at the Café Bogota. On my return, I caught sight of him on the roof at the back of the house, standing back to regard his handiwork. We waved sheepishly at each other.


It didn't make me queasy, because the roof above the tenant's sitting room is a flat one. At the chateau, however, Mario does a walk of death each time he goes out to inspect the latest problem with the wafer-thin guttering. It renders me almost physically sick. This week, the problem lay at the back of the building, so he walked all the way around the cornice of the chateau. I help him out via one of the Velux windows in the middle of the top three flats, then retreat to pace around the parquet floor, trying not to imagine a cry of distress followed by a sickening thud as a human body hits solid ground below.


This time, I found the courage from deep within to wander downstairs and out onto the back lawn to check that he had reached his destination without incident. He was already up there at the angle of the cornice and when he saw me looking anxiously up at him, he pretended to topple forward. His idea of a joke. It didn't amuse me.


I left him to it with instructions to lock up and hide the key. Back home, though, I had to calculate roughly how long it would take to do the necessary before I could safely phone him on the mobile. I have this disaster scenario whereby I phone him and, distracted momentarily by his ringtone, Mario loses concentration for a split second and topples forward for real.


'Bonjour Monsieur,' I called eventually. 'You're not up on the roof, are you?'
'No no. It's all done.'
'Ah good. It went off all right then?'
'Im-pecc-able.'


So all was quiet at the Big House and I was able to go back to retrieve the key and check that everything was locked up securely. From a Velux in the adjoining flat I could see a shiny pristine length of zinc guttering laid in the part of the cornice where the old gutter had perished. Mario had lived to walk the walk of death another day and, thanks to his remarkable sang-froid, he had managed to fix two holes in two different roofs to stop the leaks before the rain came on Saturday.


I like to think that I choose my roofers, as we must choose our next dog, with care.


(Jane Williamson) #2

Brian, I find this attitude from artisans who shout loudly about smaller companies taking their work appalling. They seem to have no pride in their work or care about their reputation. We have experienced this with the companies who did the plumbing and the rough cast on the outside walls.
We wanted the walls done smoothly to match the rest of the house and the workmen wanted to do it differently. Then the machine broke down and it had to be done by hand and they showed their displeasure in the quality of the work.
Trying to get things put right has got us nowhere.


(Brian Milne) #3

In the recent heavy winds one ridge tile came off and the combination of rain with freezing nights has cracked the mortar on the ridge so that large chunks are tumbling. Our roofer is still bound by the 10 year warranty, however when called he said that with the amount of work he has it might be as long as two years before he could get anybody to deal with it. We asked our insurance agent who told us that insurance companies prefer it if the original roofer does the work (so that they do not necessarily have to pay out, of course).

Anyway, we have been having artisans in for the devis for insulating our roof and converting the attic, eventually replacing the asbestos roof and doing that conversion. Two of them have been fantastic. The carpenter who is going to repair rather than replace two floor joists also has a reliable builder he uses. The builder came to see the work that involves removing a redundant chimney stack. It is a 1960s, nasty brick and cowl thing anyway. However it means roof work. He went up and whilst up he took a look at the ridge. It told us that they had used a soft mix for bricklaying such as for garden walls where a bit of 'movement' is important but no good for ridging a roof. Rather than grab the opportunity for extra work, he told us to get on to the roofer who did the work. We did, he did a very 'sympathetic act' put the phone down a moment to have a look at his files and then told us that the two men who did the work have since been sacked and that he has no idea where they are now. When told that they were his employees anyway he bears responsibility, he coughed and spluttered, anyway he turned up a while later to have a look. He used one of my ladders to go up, thus no ridge ladder or its like, and walked up the roof to the ridge. He confirmed what the builder had said, came down breaking two tiles on the way. He told us not to worry because we have the roof lined so it won't leak. The up to two years because of work commitments stood as before. When asked about falling mortar and eventually more ridge tiles, he told us to just be very careful if there was adverse weather!

Yes, choosing roofers... A dilemma, given that this is supposedly the best local company!


(Jane Williamson) #4

Have a look at the Breed Societies for both Otter Hounds and Airedales and it will give you all the info you need.

Levens Bridge is in the south if now Cumbria, between Milnthorpe and Kendal.


(Mark Sampson) #5

Are they indeed, Jane? Maybe I should encourage a shift of focus to a breed that's not so big. We did say that we wanted a dog that wouldn't be too heavy to be helped into the car when he or she gets as old as we hope to be. An average-sized mutt is what I want. My mother-in-law, by the way, lives near Appleby-in-Westmoreland, but I don't know of Levens Bridge.


(Jane Williamson) #6

Otter Hounds are big dogs, as are Airedales.
There was an Otter Hound pack not far from us at Levens Bridge in Westmorland.


(Mark Sampson) #7

I'd never heard of Otter hounds before, Catharine, but they're gorgeous looking dogs. Real characterful faces.


(Catharine Higginson) #8

It is a really good job that it is so far away Mark as I have always wanted an Otter hound ( I didn't think there were any in France?) and love Airedales too....


(Mark Sampson) #9

That's nice news, Jane. The girls have just located an Airedale/Otter Hound cross needing a new home. The trouble is the rescue centre is somewhere north of Paris. I think I'll vote to carry on the search nearer to home.


(Jane Williamson) #10

We used to gaze in amazement at the antics of our roofers and their dare-devil disregard of any safety precautions.

We are very happy with our new dog, which we saved from being shot by our neighbour. She is a border collie cross, super intelligent and has gone from being tied up outside to a housedog with no problem at all.

Good luck with your new one.