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A story of stones and clementines

Wednesday 31 March 2004, by Patricia

New Year’s Day 2004. At 9 o’clock in the morning, a work party of friends strolled up our drive in their oldest clothes. "Where do you want us to start?" they said. We blinked at them, put on the kettle and produced a list.

By lunchtime, ancient lino had been ripped off a staircase, old cupboards had been demolished and 60 square metres of 17th century terracotta tiles were being levered off the floor and chuted down to the garden to be stacked and eventually cleaned.

Lizzie and I live in an old convent in Roujan. The newer half of the house has been converted into a chambre d’hote but the older part has always been daunting. It includes two big rooms separated by a ceiling that bounced like a trampoline, supported by five huge wooden beams, one of which looked like a massive Cadbury’s Flake, having been the a la carte menu for termites for heaven knows how long.

With limited access through two high windows we were presented with an obvious problem. At least one beam needed to go and be replaced. But how could that be done, and who could possibly do it?

Endless discussions later, a French architect friend of ours stepped in with the answer. "Take all the beams down," he said. "Replace them with steels and build a concrete staircase. Here is the plan and these are my builders."

One week later they appeared with huge, bright yellow Tonka toys - JCBs, cranes, hoists, mini-diggers. The drive just didn’t seem wide enough. But somehow they buttered the sides of the lorries and squeezed them up.

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Clementine tree

"Shall we move the little fruit trees in the pots?" we asked the builders. "No need," they replied. And for two days we held our collective breath as huge steels weighing 345kg apiece were swung delicately to and fro and not a clementine was touched.

The old beams were chain-sawed out, lowered onto heavy lifting gear and inched through the windows. The new steels were encouraged into place, cemented into their new beds and a staircase started to take shape.

The ceiling now feels as sturdy as a car park and while there’s still a ton of work to be done, a gallery-space is in the process of being born. We have our first exhibition on the 1st of May.

Faith O’Reilly is a painter whose abstract canvases sing with colour and light. She’s spent much of the last 16 years living in the hills near Lamalou-les-Bains taking her inspiration from the colour, landscape and people of the region. Her work is rich and textured and cries out to be touched.

That New Year’s Day morning jump-started this whole project and we can’t even begin to mention the number of friends who have turned up clean and left filthy after chipping away plaster, hammering unyielding concrete and scrubbing tiles.

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One friend said it was like carving a church out of stone. He was right. A statue of the Madonna stands on our roof looking down on what has been a wonderfully co-operative project.

Our thanks go to everyone who has been involved.

Forum posts

  • Dear Ali and Lizzie

    I love Roujan. I have been coming there now for 7 years, often several times a year (even in the winter it is lovely). My friend stayed at your Couvent I believe (hopefully it is the one with the swimming pool??) her name is Viv and she stayed with her mother when she had to leave Eric’s (across the road?). I envied her then as she got to stay in a beautiful room there, I think in 2005.

    Are you still letting the rooms as a Hotel?

    The reason I ask is that I heard it is now not only for women? I rather liked the fact that it was purely female, but never mind; life, like the seasons, must constantly change in order to evolve and grow!

    What you have done though, both of you (with help of course!) is create a beautiful space from a ruin; adding love as a necessary ingredient to bind its walls.

    Well done and I hope to hear from you, if you get the time!


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