Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: Boomtime for workmen

The painter, sitting on the floor and eating his lunchtime sandwiches, was shaking his head. ‘That’s wrong, that is,’ he muttered to himself. I couldn’t help noticing as I walked past that was he was staring at a magazine that was open at a lurid spread. The glossy photograph revealed in every detail a pouting, glistening, enormous fish. A carp, I’d guess.

Our painter explained to me huffily that the fish was the new British record-breaking specimen. He didn’t dispute that it had been caught fairly, but the angler who landed it had apparently had a sex change recently so was it fair for him/her to compete with other blokes? ‘It is obvious when you think about it. Female pheromones gave him the edge,’ grumbled the painter.

There was more at stake for him than simple pride. It turns out he is not only a decorator, but also a professional coarse angler, heavily sponsored by tackle and rod makers. So he joins the impressive honour roll of those who have worked on site here including a postman cum turf-layer, a jockey decorator, and a computer engineer-roofer who make Walter Mitty seem dully predictable. The younger workmen sometimes arrive on site (at 8am sharp) looking raddled, half-shaven, faces sheet-white.

One, in his early twenties, who was helping with carpentry until a few weeks ago, liked to collapse into a slumber at lunchtime in the back of this van with his legs and feet poking out of the rear doors, like a corpse. These young guys, many of them self-employed, work hard, but I imagined they must also lead lives outside working hours of wild and sleepless debauchery, or they wouldn’t be so exhausted.

Today, I learnt the true reason. Benny, the self-employed painter/decorator, tells me business is so unbelievably good that he has been working seven days a week non-stop for months and months. Derek, who came by to install some alarm sensors, said he is having to work at twice his usual pace to fit in all the jobs. ‘There’re so many people doing up their houses; I’ve never known anything like it, and I have been doing this for 20 years,’ added Steve, the charming carpet layer, who looks equally worn out, and even so is squeezing our job into his evenings to meet our deadline.

If anyone ever questions the British work ethic, they should meet this gang. After chatting to them, I slink back to my study in the house for a little light writing, feeling like a sloth.

Although the builders are still hard at work on the dovecote and they have yet to finish the long list of ‘snags’ in the main house, my wife and I have sent out a raft of invitations to our house-warming party. Now the rains have come and the wheels of the builders’ trucks are turning the drive into a river of mud, already feet deep in places. I joked to my wife yesterday that, if the liquid morass gets any deeper, we are going to need gondoliers to ferry guests to our door.

Today, the heavens are continuing to pour the flood is growing and very soon I shall have to ask the builders to erect bells on the dovecote roof to summon guests over the water. Then, if our house sinks entirely beneath the waves at the bottom of its deep combe, there will at least be a ghostly tolling to mark where it once stood.