Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: Angering the Gods

Afew weeks ago, I made a dire mistake. I boasted in this column that the restoration of our house in the country seemed nearly done. The gods have poured instant boiling revenge upon my head.

First thing on Monday morning, a workman waded across our garden to see if he could scoop some flowerbeds out of the bottomless mud, alternately churned and compacted by months of building work. He was soon on the phone to me in London with a question that sounded innocent: ‘How big a flower bed do you want between your conservatory and the garden wall?’

Sniffily, I told him he should try making the bed the exact size shown on the garden plan he had in hand. ‘Wish I could,’ he replied with a smack of satisfaction. ‘But your garden wall is in the wrong place.’

When you buy a listed house that is in a seriously bad way and start to repair it, you quickly get used to taking blows to the solar plexus. One minute, a structural engineer tells you the house needs complete underpinning wham! The next, the local planning authority announces it will see you in courtbam! But being told at this advanced stage in our project that part of this wall needed moving, I was left gasping like a stranded goldfish. How could the wall possibly end in the wrong place, when my wife and I commissioned a laser assisted survey of the whole darn garden before a single sod was turned?

The smug workman in the garden was right, however: the wall comes a yard and a half too close to the house. The whole garden plan will be thrown off its axis unless we shunt the wall back. Although that is a relatively small job in itself, the wall hides a brand new and immensely solid concrete slab, in which a 1,000-gallon oil tank is embedded. So, when the wall moves, the slab must move with it, along with all the underground oil piping. Those immortals on Mount Olympus must be laughing them selves silly.

They have also been up to mischief inside the house. Snippets of fresh plaster have begun tumbling like sleet from the ceiling of the drawing room, and the white paint on the floorboards in the children’s bathroom is flaking so badly the carpet outside looks like a yeti has been charging along it.

Our lovely new appliances the washing machine, refrigerator, range, and boiler have all started making strange wheezing noises, or ceased to work properly. However, the bitterest twist is the staircase. It took months to have it built as our architect intended. When it eventually arrived on site, it was made of soft wood, so it had to be scrapped and rebuilt from hard wood. It looked terrific for a while. And now? The balusters no longer quite connect with the steps below, and dangle free.

Colin, our project manager, suggests I should make a list of all the problems, as we are getting close to the day when the builders return for snagging. I will do as he says. But first, I must make a small sacrifice to appease Zeus. Now, where is that workman hiding?

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on March 2, 2006.

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