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In praise of getting my hands dirty

I recently spent a few days with friends in the southwest of France. They needed to consult the mayor of the village about some proposed alterations to their house, and she said, come and see me at the eco-house I am building.

I recently spent a few days with friends in the southwest of France. They needed to consult the mayor of the village about some proposed alterations to their house, and she said, come and see me at the eco-house I am building. So we went and, to cut a long story short, ended up spending an afternoon helping with the construction. The house is of straw bale construction, and the interior is being coated with a mix of clay (dug from the foundations) straw and lime. These were mixed in giant baths and then we slapped handfuls on the walls, trying to smooth them out to the correct level.

I didn’t take any photos, but the process looked a bit like this

except that I was wearing a shirt and was much dirtier. Everybody was absolutely filthy, with clothes and faces and hair caked with mud. I learnt a lot – not I hasten to add much about the technique of construction at which I was pretty poor, but about what goes into building such a house. And not just the materials but the dedication and the effort. And, since we were in France, the camaraderie. The neighbours had come to help these people, who had full-time demanding work and were doing it in their spare time. There had been some professional help but not a lot. Basically this was a self-build project, assisted by friends and anybody who happened to drop in.

That day we all had drinks together, sitting in the sun, and the next night we had drinks at the neighbours’ house, who had completed a similar structure for themselves and were living in it happily, with tiny winter heating bills. And the point is… in addition to having a fun if grubby afternoon, a whole series of words had a new meaning and resonance for me – straw bales, eco-house, mud walls, self-build. As a journalist, my main tool is the keyboard, and it is really fascinating and enlightening to do something different.

So, if you ever have the opportunity to do something like this, I can’t recommend it too highly. Just don’t pack too lightly, in the belief that you won’t need to change your clothes while you are away. Oh yes, and after some clay construction, soak your clothes in a bucket before putting them in the washing machine. Otherwise the clay can set beautifully in the filters apparently. You see, it was a real learning experience.

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