On damp

by Barendina Smedley

‘Your house was the worst place I’d ever seen in my life’ our indispensable site supervisor reminisced to me, long after the fact. ‘None of us had ever seen anything as damp as this place. We all literally thought you were crazy to have bought it.’

‘I thought exactly the same’ agreed our urbane, unflappable dry rot consultant. ‘It stank. It was disgusting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse place either.’

Let us put this in context. Our site supervisor has worked for many years for a family firm of builders who have worked on some of the most interesting Grade I and II* buildings in East Anglia, sacred and secular. Our dry rot consultant is not only an experienced surveyor and scourge of serpula lacrymans, but one of our nation’s most profound thinkers on issues of building pathology and conservation — and a very diplomatic, tactful man at that.

So when I say that our house was once damp, I don’t mean that unaired linen felt just the tiniest bit damp to the fingers on cold autumn mornings. I mean that we had mushrooms growing beneath the butler’s sink in the kitchen. I mean that we had lovely moss growing on many of our outside walls, contrasting prettily with the badly-blocked lead downpipes nearby. I meant that clothing brought to the house overnight, left in a closed suitcase unworn and then taken back to London again, had to be washed once or twice, preferably with rather unsubtly-scented fabric softener, in order to eradicate the stench. In the mornings, condensation rained down the inside of the glazing, imparting a magical unfocus to the views, pooling on the cubically-rotted sills. In the beginning, we used to have site meetings in the pasture, standing up, because it was so much more wholesome than the kitchen. Our house, in other words, was really damp.

To be fair, it wasn’t the fault of the house that it had got into this state.

First came the roof.

I learned recently that the wonderful Freda, heiress to an enormous agri-chemical fortune — at least in theory — and radiantly conscientious woman, had hoped to ‘do’ the roof c. 1935, but other things got in the way. To be fair, her husband commanded some of the East Anglian air defences in the Second World War, which, along with housing Jewish refugees, taking care of a large and needy household and following her Christian conscience was probably more important than fixing a roof. In 1963, when her eldest son inherited the house, the emphasis was on entertaining his friends, being ‘lord of the manor’ and looking after local waifs and strays in precisely the messy, unconventional, faintly discreditable and entirely human way that would, I think, have appealed most directly to Christ himself.

When this kind, weak, unworldly man eventually sold his property to a commercial developer, serious work on the roof had to wait once again. This time, ‘repairs’ of a leaking section constituted pouring a batch of concrete over the relevant area. The workman who actually executed these ‘repairs’, by the way, truly loved the house. He visited it for years after the sale, just to check on its progress. What went wrong wasn’t his fault, either. He was doing the best that he could.

By the time we first visited our eventual home, in the words of the proverbial expression, the rot had set in. The house had already acquired its distinctive odour — part mushroom, part festering kit-bag, part crypt. On our second visit, when it was raining, we stood in the main hall — a room with exposed roof timbers c. 1518, and an oak screen of similar date — watching rain-water cascading through the 1930s skylight, through the floorboards and down over the walls, still clad in original distemper-printed William Morris ‘Blackthorn’, onto the stone flags beneath.

I put my hands to the paper. The water ran over them, sweet and clean. It was by far the cleanest, best-smelling thing in the house. In the east corridor, the floor sagged underfoot with an ominous, resentful subservience. I soon learned to detour through what would eventually become the yellow bedroom in order to avoid it. Right by the back door, a large black plastic rubbish bin filled to the brim with stagnant water blocked the enfilade. When more water poured in from the collapsed ceiling above, a little pond would form around the bottom of the bin, reflecting the light.

Of course our site supervisor was right. We were mad, or at least under-informed. If my husband had understood the implications of all that damp, he would never have bought the house.

As it was, however, we continued to move forward, cosseted in the downy, comforting wings of protective angels. ‘How beautiful this corridor will be when it is properly lit and painted’ I‘d exclaim, carefully avoiding yet another bit of floor that squelched and sagged underfoot. ‘Perhaps we should move this bin’ said my husband, as if the problem was the bin itself, rather than the infinity of fungal horrors lurking somewhere above it.

And then there was John, our builder. By chance, I have a photograph of him, in which he is examining an outbreak of dry rot in the inner butler’s pantry. Fortunately, photos don’t record speech. As he points with a torch at the dry rot fruiting body, I expect he is saying something wise, tactful yet also blunt. All the softwood in that part of the room was infested with dry rot. It would have to go. We could have it re-made like-for-like, but we simply could not keep it. Whereas, I expect I am arguing with him — ‘surely it just needs a bit of airing out?’

We had many such arguments. The roof, because no one ever got round to mending it, retained larch battens that certainly pre-dated the Battle of Trafalgar, possibly Yorktown as well, maybe even Dettingen. At first I didn’t really want it cleaned, let alone taken apart and rebuilt. I didn’t want any of our timber lintels replaced, even when our site supervisor, in exasperation, stuck his hand into one and pulled out a fistful of soft brown humus, as if he had been reaching into a grow-bag. And I certainly didn’t think there was anything wrong with the dining room floor, which had been made of oak on softwood supports c. 1900. Surely that gentle, rolling quality was just old age — charming, not sinister —and didn’t say anything of the least importance about the state of the softwood underneath?

Of course John was right. A lifetime of relevant experience allowed him to see what we could not. Thanks to decades of damp, there was dry rot in a lot of the softwood. It would have to be removed and the relevant details remade, if only to save the bulk of the house that, built of flint and oak, was perfectly sound. The roof would need to be taken apart and carefully rebuilt, to make sure that the dampness never gained a foothold again.

The turning point came during a conversation in July 2010, in our chthonic and unlit dining room, standing on that undulating oak floor, where I was almost in tears while John was obviously maddened with frustration at my intransigence. Admittedly, this being John, a man blessed with the sort of old-fashioned good manners that largely died off with our grandparents’ generation, the only outward and visible signs of this welling fury were a slightly steely tint to his eyes, the tiniest inflexion of the voice, but even so. Again and again, he insisted that the floor really had to come up, we simply had to take it up, but that his people would be able to put it back so perfectly that no one would ever be able to tell it had been up in the first place. Of course I didn’t believe him at all. Eventually, however, tired out from arguing and with a sort of fatalistic despair, I gave in.

It is strange to think back on those days now.

Our house is no longer damp. Like most interesting houses, it smells of an ever-shifting array of things — apples, wood smoke, lilacs, clean washing, frying Norfolk bacon, beeswax and turps, old books, even (when the wind is blowing from the north) the sea itself — but never, these days, dry rot.

The solution to our damp problem wasn’t fancy or complex. It simply consisted, as John had suggested, of stopping the water from coming in, then fixing the damage the water had done. A first-rate heating system, a four-oven Aga, open fires and plenty of natural ventilation did the rest. Badly-fitting old windows are a great boon for ventilation — I never fail to be surprised by how many people make their houses draught-proof with double-glazing and so forth, then wonder why everything feels so damp.

So in this respect, anyway, it is pleasant to bask in compliments on how very much the house has changed. ‘It’s a different place now,’ our dry rot consultant told our site supervisor, who nodded his head in grave agreement — although I suspect he still thinks, whatever he may say, that we are all crazy.

And as for the dining room floor, John had his moment of vindication one Christmas when two neighbours came calling. They had been away sailing for a year, so hadn’t been privy to the fairly long phase in which the dining room floor had been pulled up, some tarmac-type stuff gunned out, a skip full of rubble removed exposing the early sixteenth century packed earth floor on which, with enormous attention to detail, a new, carefully-designed, properly-ventilated structure was erected as a support for those old oak boards that, having been numbered as they were removed, were then reassembled like an enormous jigsaw puzzle. The process had taken months, cost many thousands of pounds and meant that for much of a year we had to jump down three feet or so in order to enter the room, negotiate the intervening building materials then scramble up the same distance to leave it at the other end.

We were telling the neighbours about how much work we had done, and lamenting in a weary sort of way how much work still lay ahead.

‘Ah well,’ said one of the neighbours, looking around the dining room. ‘It’s already come on a lot — but at least from the look of it you didn’t have to do much in here?’