We would count to three as we ushered first-time visitors across the hall. Then it would usually happen just before we opened the door into the main living area:
“Ooh! That looks interesting! What’s down there?”
What they had invariably noticed was the low-level brick arch at the base of a tall, narrow section of honey-coloured brick wall opposite the front door, with a flight of broad, deep stairs descending into the darkness below.
“It looks intriguing. Is it some kind of cellar?”
“Yes, kind of,” one of us would respond. “Let’s take your things up to your room, then we can show you around if you want.”
Some time later, nursing a mug of coffee or glass of wine (depending on their arrival time) our visitors would complete their brief tour of the house by following us back to the hall and down the steep brick-edged stairs into the musty gloom of the cellar. Or grotto. Or cantina. Or dungeon. For some reason, we’ve never decided what to call it this surprisingly generous, cruciform space that actually gives the impression of a tiny, subterranean chapel. I suspect we are unsure what to call it because we have never been able to use it properly, despite its modern, concrete floor and high, vaulted ceilings. For like all the best dungeons, I suppose, it leaks like a sieve, with moisture continually trickling and dripping from almost every mortar line and forming tiny glistening beads on the lattice of cobwebs that permanently garland the damp brickwork. And while all this might add to the distinctly gothic aesthetic, it renders the chilly space almost useless except for storing things made of plastic, glass or stainless steel. So it is really only a collection buckets and plant pots that lives down there along with our big olive oil flagon, a few beer crates and a couple of wine racks – although patches of grey-white mildew soon leave the labels unreadable if any bottles are left down there for longer than three or four weeks.
But all that is about to change. For Mr Blue-Shirt has recently got his next project, the restoration and repair (ie waterproofing) of the cellar, well underway. However, this has to be done from outside rather than inside because the whole structure extends north beyond the footprint of the house, and the moisture is in fact coming in through the tons of soil that are sitting on top of it. It has long puzzled us why anyone would have built a cellar in this way, since it seems obvious that, in the absence of modern tanking materials, it would be bound to leak. Giovanni, the chap who is handling our solar energy installation, solved the puzzle for us, though: since the house almost certainly dates from the late nineteenth century, the cellar will have been built not as a store, but as an ice house; it will have been filled with blocks of ice and used as a rudimentary refrigerator, with the thick layer of compacted soil on top of it helping keep the temperature down, and the almost inevitable moisture ingress a complete irrelevance. In the early twenty-first century, however, that moisture ingress is very definitely of relevance. Firstly, its effects deprive us of some much-needed storage space, and secondly, they are now spreading to the body of the house-proper.
To be fair, this cannot be blamed on the cellar itself, or even its original builders. No, the immediate source of the problem is the much more recent landscaping works carried out when the building was converted to a two-storey residential dwelling. As far as we can gather from the drawings and plans we inherited when we bought the place, the land to the rear of the building must originally have sloped right down to the house. But as part of the conversion works, much of this was excavated down to the interior floor level in order to create the three-metre wide strip of flat space along the house’s north-eastern side that Mr Blue-Shirt has since turned into a proper terrace. The trouble was (and is), the cellar is not completely below ground: the four arms of its arched roof protrude some sixty centimetres above floor level at the north-western end of the building. So after the soil had been removed to allow for the impressively solid anti-seismic concrete bracing to be installed, the whole area was filled back in, covered with a further twenty centimetres of soil and topped with a layer of concrete to create an elevated flat area on top of the cellar. But crucially, no tanking works were carried out at all, meaning that a mass of heavy clay soil a metre deep was packed directly up against the outside wall of the house. And then to make matters worse, the poor-quality concrete surface on this elevated area was not that flat after all, but sloped towards the house. This all too efficiently funnelled ever more moisture into that compacted clay – and eventually through the sixty-centimetre-thick outside wall and into the house, leaving the inside surface permanently mottled with khaki-coloured mould.
So the upshot of all this is that the rough concrete outer surface has had to be scraped away and the tonnes of soggy soil dug out – but at least this has given Mr Blue-Shirt the opportunity to hire his beloved digger again. Clouds and silver linings, and all that. The only thing is, the complicated outline of the cellar and the depth to which it is necessary to dig have meant that he has had to do a depressing proportion of the work by hand, with pick axe, mattock, shovel, wheelbarrow – and a very great deal of sheer brute force. And thanks to the density and weight of what is actually more wet mud than soil, Mr Blue-Shirt has had to apply his trademark engineering ingenuity to rig up a makeshift mini-crane, electric winch and sling to lift the full barrows out of the alarmingly deep crater that has appeared around the hump-backed brick structure of the cellar. All of which gives the area more the look of an archaeological dig than a building site.
Of course, this is only phase one of the project. Once Mr Blue-Shirt has reached floor level of the cellar, he can then set about adding some foundations and cladding everything in a layer of reinforced concrete before wrapping it all in a waterproof membrane. And while he is doing all this, we can think about how best to re-landscape the whole area given that, while the cellar will need to be re-buried, we will want to minimise the amount of soil that will still need to be in contact with the outer wall of the house – even with the necessary tanking in place this time. And that will just leave re-pointing all the brickwork, waterproofing the floor and sorting out all the electrics and plumbing for the washing machine and a second freezer.
Well, it’s one way to get through lockdown.