Let me tell you about the wet-weather woes of our leaky country cottage
Accumulated years of Irish winters mean crumbling plaster, sweaty floors and wilting newspapers
A wet day brings out the shortcomings of a damp cottage. Photograph: Getty Images
I woke up this morning and gave my wife an affectionate squeeze. She responded with a tut and a frown: had I been snoring again, or mumbling inappropriately? Then I saw she was glaring past me at a small patch of mould on the exterior wall behind the chest of drawers. I groaned. She has the eye of an eagle for such things and I’ve that of an ostrich, but even I can’t deny that the return of wet weather brings irrefutable evidence that many of the home ‘improvements’ to our old cottage eventually cause new problems.
Previous owners, presumably at great expense, installed central heating and double-glazing then covered the stone walls with a winter-proof layer of concrete. Unfortunately, this means we are sealed off from the elements in ways never intended by the people who built the cottage more than 100 years ago.
The walls would originally have been covered in a lime render just porous enough to let the place breathe and earlier, more rudimentary windows would also have accorded a free exchange of air. There are no real foundations to speak of and certainly no joists to support the downstairs flooring. The flagstones in the kitchen are probably laid directly onto the cold earth but this would not have been as much of an issue then as it is now. The cottage is built around a central, brick chimney stack. The large, open fireplace has an iron bar traversing the space behind the mantle about 5ft above where the grate used to be. It was used for smoking hams and suchlike and the fire would have been lit throughout the year for cooking as well as warmth. Damp was kept at bay by the chimney stack providing a central pillar of constant heat.
We lit this fire once and smoked ourselves out. The cold, disused flue and the double-glazed windows combined to prevent any real updraft. The thick, sluggish smoke, not warm enough to rise, rolled out in suffocating billows, leaving a noxious odour which lingered for days.
1970s’ bus depot
Now our only fire is in the living room. Situated in the single-storey, flat-roofed, breeze-block extension at the back of the cottage, it had the ambience of the waiting room in a 1970s’ bus depot when we moved in, and we didn’t live in it much. So we painted over the lurid walls to make a still, quiet space with a soothing view down the acre and across the valley to the old oak forest.
But if you sat there reading the paper, the pages started wilting after a few minutes. Something more had to be done, said my wife, looking at me. I surprised us both by dry-lining the walls and building a concrete plinth for a stove: now it’s the snuggest room in the house.
However, accumulated years of Irish winters mean the plaster around the back door looks a little furry and is beginning to crumble – evidence of encroaching damp which I can no longer successfully ignore. Meanwhile in the kitchen, the flagstones are subtly changing colour. Without the perpetual, conducted heat from the hearth to which they were once accustomed, they now suck up moisture when the water table is high and their tone darkens. After heavy rain, the ones inside the front door look black and sweaty.
We can’t readapt to the way of life for which the cottage was intended, therefore we need to adapt the cottage to suit us, preferably without destroying its character. We must rebuild and, ideally, extend.
So I often invest in a Lotto ticket. While we wait for this sound financial practice to pay dividends, my wife likes to discuss her hopes and plans. She has many and our sons have more – particularly a slide leading from their bedroom to the swimming pool.
My desires are simpler and consist largely of improved laundry facilities. I am responsible for this chore and with two sporty boys it is a Himalayan task in wet weather. In summer months, hanging out the washing can be a pleasure. I stand at the rotating washing line looking across the green valley at the yellow mountain on the blue horizon and snap a tea towel with satisfaction before pegging it on the line.
But for most of the year the dryer works overtime – which is ecologically and financially costly. Or else steam rises from washing drying on the clothes horse or radiator to pervade the double-glazed cottage – resulting in those small patches of mould which rile my wife. So we fantasise about a ventilated laundry/utility room; a boot room for muddy footwear, wet coats and sports gear; and even – most thrillingly – a laundry chute! What glory that would be – and not before time. Yesterday, while the sky was briefly dry but the ground wasn’t, the boys played football for an hour. When they appeared at the front door, caked from head to toe in muck, they grinned with a double delight, as if to say “Oh what fun we had” and “Deal with it dad!”
In Sight of Yellow Mountain by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books