When, in 1990, we decide to buy our cottage, the surveyor’s report lists its many flaws and the extensive repairs that are required to put them right. The list not only fills up the standard form but several makeshift continuation sheets.
But we are blindly in love: the cottage must be ours, no matter what, and we vow to take it for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.
It’s a condition of our mortgage that we must resolve all of these problems as quickly as we can. Top of the list comes the damp. A damp-proof course is “recommended to be introduced at the earliest convenience”.
That the cottage is damp is no surprise. It has been unoccupied for eighteen months. Prior to that, it was inhabited by an elderly lady who, having lost the strength to lift coal and without access to mains gas (which has still not arrived in this village over twenty years later), had given up on solid fuel. In her final months here, she heated the whole place by paraffin. The house must have smelt like a vast 50s bathroom. With paraffin reputed to emit a pint of water for every gallon of fuel burned, water must have been permanently running down the walls.
There is still no central heating, nor is there any double glazing. We quickly learn that Cotswold stone soaks up water like a sponge. We also discover that, left to itself, water has an evangelical nature: it roams about gathering followers with a zeal. Woodwork, carpet, and any other material that is capable of doing so simply soaks it up.
Viewing a damp house in the height of summer, when there are wild strawberries flourishing in the garden and the apple tree is loaded miniature promises of bright green fruit to come, we find it very easy to disregard a spot of indoor damp. But when we finally take up reside in the depths of winter (4th January, to be precise), it is rather harder to ignore.
The day we move in, it rains. But, when we enter the house, instead of being able to stomp the excess water off our shoes on the floor, we encounter more. The carpet squelches as we cross it, and we are soon building up a substantial collection of dank splashes up the backs of our legs, as if we’ve just cycled the twenty miles from Bristol on racing bikes without mudguards.
The smell of the chilly house is almost tangible. A cement-like, musty scent assaults our nostrils. With naive optimism, we light the only heating in the house: a single electric bar fire in the downstairs bathroom. We marvel at the former resident’s hardiness.
But not to worry, we tell ourselves. Here come the removal men. They’ll soon take our minds off the damp as they unload our possessions from the van.
Carrying orange boxes through the kitchen to the scullery, they step straight through the floorboards. Fluffily rotting wood gives way beneath their weighted tread. Within a short time, the only way to traverse the kitchen safely is by hopscotch, each leap calculated to avoid the numerous potholes that by have by now formed across the room.
Like all suburbanites, we believe damp is something to fear. We whisper news of the problem to our friends in the breathless tones with which we might confess a social disease. We phone damp course specialists to describe, squirming with embarrassment, the extent of our symptoms.
We gasp at the prices on their estimates. We salve our consciences regarding the mortgage company by investing £20 in lead flashing for the porch roof. The previous strip has gone unaccountably missing, and we’re blaming its absence for the sodden carpet by the doorway.
We read horror stories of damp problems aggravated by repairs made with the wrong materials. Cotswold stone, of which our house is built, apparently dissolves like Disprin when repointed with the wrong kind of mortar. Only local advice and local knowledge can save our cottage from disintegration. So we talk to our neighbours. They know local firms, they understand the vernacular fabric. Can they rid us of this turbulent damp?
We put our trust in the retired builder who lives opposite us. He shakes his head indulgently at the foolishness of former city-dwellers. His kindly manner and soft Cotswold burr reassure us sufficiently to take his advice.
By the time the warmer weather comes, we are in sufficiently good order to complete our protracted unpacking. We even import my grandmother’s old piano from my aunt’s house in Yorkshire and ease it into its new position. Then it’s time to call in the piano tuner.
The piano tuner is full of praise for the old instrument. Over eighty years old, this so-called cottage piano provides a physical link with my beloved grandmother and the tiny terraced house in London where I spent so much of my childhood. Yet it’s looked at home here since the minute it arrived. The piano tuner agrees with me. Oh yes, he says, only too often he sees pianos in places where they don’t belong.
“Why, only the other day I had to write off a beautiful piano – a crying shame, it was,” he confides. “It was in a big posh flat in Clifton, terribly fancy, with no expense spared. Centrally heated to tropical temperatures, double-glazed to keep out any whisper of a draught. Your cottage is a much better home for a piano. It’s humid, draughty and cool. Everything you need to keep it in top playing order.”
My husband and I exchange conspiratorial smiles, trying to look we’d planned it that way all along. In fact, we both know that it is the builder we have to thank for this fine piece of planning. When choosing where to put the piano, we took his invaluable advice.
“If you’ve got a damp patch, do what I do,” he told us. “Just put the piano in front of it.”