In which I talk rot
My husband and I were strolling through the ballroom the other day, as you do, when – no, I should just stop there. It’s all sounding so marvelous, dahling.
Truth will out, however. My husband and I were, I should say, clearing up the ballroom after a function the other day – stacking up coffee cups, hauling tables about and so on – when one of us noticed a peculiar white patch high up on the velvet covering the walls.
‘What do you suppose that is? I don’t remember it.’
It was too high up to see clearly. We speculated for a minute or so, then went blithely on our way. Ah, the innocence of youth.
Last week, older and wiser eyes recognised that white patch for what it was. Dry rot. These two words strike terror into the heart of every owner of an old house. Dry rot grows in damp wood and has the ability to spread through bricks and mortar, destroying timbers as it goes. It is hugely destructive, fiendishly difficult to eradicate and horribly expensive to deal with. And we have a serious outbreak in some of the most historic rooms in the castle.
Listening to the grim-faced gathering of assessors, factors and builders this morning, I had one of those moments when you question what you are doing with your life. When I heard the estimate for the cost of treatment I actually had to sit down, mentally crossing things off our family lifestyle. When the senior factor rubbed his cold hands and said, ‘So, we need a plan of campaign. What’s the first thing we need to do?’, it was all I could do not to shout ‘Sell up and run away to the Bahamas!’
In a damp climate, almost any house can fall victim to this fungal plague. Historic buildings do have their additional complications, however. The oldest part of this castle dates back to the mid-fifteenth century, but wings and towers have been added on in every century since, building up a rambling mish-mash of corridors and roofs. It is in the join of a tower to a later wing that the dry rot seems to have started, with water somehow getting in through a gap. Exactly how that water was able to gain entrance in the first place is the crux of the matter, on which hangs all hope of an insurance payout. A few days ago, therefore, I was up in a little room in the afflicted tower with one of the factors, having a first look at the extent of the rot. To see it, we had to squeeze past stacked up furniture and step over a pile of fallen plaster. The factor looked down at the plaster, and up at the ceiling, which is crudely patched with chip-board.
‘What happened there?’ he enquired.
‘Oh, the ceiling collapsed a couple of years ago,’ I replied nonchalantly. ‘It wasn’t long after we’d had to move this furniture in here from the store-room next door. We just never got round to clearing up the mess.’
‘Why did you have to move all the furniture out of the store room?’
‘Can’t remember…there was some reason…oh yes, that was because the chimney in that room collapsed and split open. We had to empty the room for the builders and plasterers to do the repairs. Come on, it’s Baltic in here, there’s no heating in this tower. Actually there’s no heating anywhere in the house this week: the boiler’s broken down again.’
At that point I started to chuckle. The factor started to laugh too. What else could you do? So we stepped back down the spiral staircase to carry on with the day: he to the office, me to the kitchen and the blessed warmth of the Aga. As Winston Churchill used to say in infinitely more trying circumstances, ‘Keep Buggering On’. (Sorry mum.)