Beware Refurbishing 14

25 November

Bartek and Sabastian are back, uninjured, from last night's apparently very good game. Things are being hammered, or smashed or something downstairs. I will go and look when they've gone home, which - it being Saturday - they soon should. But being Poles, might not.

Meanwhile, as all my books are in store along with everything else, I have been to the local library to borrow a copy of Gillian Tindall's The Fields Beneath, which is a history of Kentish Town. I found one paragraph which didn't surprise me in the least. An anonymous writer to the Gazette (which Gazette?) was remarking on the speculative builders who were throwing up buildings all over the Christ Church Estate in 1859.

He said that a run of houses in Gaisford Street (where my flat is) collapsed before they were up. '...the stacks of chimneys were so far completed as to have the ceremony performed of hoisting the flags, made by workmen's as to entitle the men to the usual regalement of beer on such occasions.' After which the chimneys all fell down, squishing the scaffolding and workmen still on it, sending a large number of them to hospital. No doubt, in those days, they had to pay for the privilege of being treated.

It does make me think that my builder was right when he said that perhaps his English colleagues of 150 odd years ago, who were responsible for the wonky beam that holds up the entrance hall to our building, were drunk when they installed it. Too much celebrating the flag hoisting on a neighbouring roof.


26 November

While I try to find out more about why Christ Church College Oxford sold its estate of houses in 1955 to the local authority, and why the authority bought it all up, and how, it has also occurred to me to ask who built it all. I read today that there was a total of 739 speculative builders in nineteenth century London, of whom 3 employed over 350 people; 9 employed over 200; 57 had around 50 employees and the rest were evidently minnows. Who built my house? I want to find him and shout at his memory, though it's unlikely I'll manage. I have an idea where to start looking but they seem to have kept low profiles. But in the 1889 Christmas issue of the magazine, The Builder, an anonymous one of their number had a Rattner moment. 'I think,' he wrote gleefully, I may venture to style myself one of the wise men who build houses for fools to live in.' Ouch.


Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 10:19AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 13

24 November

I have forwarded the builder’s written objection to the unnecessary steel beam (plus photos) to the Italian engineer. Meanwhile, downstairs there is a constant rhythmic heavy hammering. Yesterday evening Bartek and Sebastian were on their knees (from exhaustion will come later, I feel sure) laying a visual template for the first level of the new floor right at the bottom. Level 1: hardcore; level 2: concrete slab; level 3: insulation; level four: wood.

Crucial to get the floor flat – what a novelty! To this end they had sunk a series of iron pins into the ground, and from a chosen wooden upright sent a red beam of light across from pin to pin, marking each point, fixing them with red string, criss-crossing the floor.  

The point the hardcore should reach having been set, level 1 has to be made of smashed up bricks…smashed by hand, that is. I am appalled. It’s what convicts had to do, isn’t it, in old prison films. I emailed the builder. Is there no other way for them to create the hardcore? No machine they can use? Back came the reply. ‘No. This is how we do it.’ We. Hm.

I offered them tea and commiserations. They cheerfully declined both.

I have now had instructions for the first time not to go to the lower ground floor at all. It’s no longer safe. I know builders who would have forbidden entry weeks ago. So now, to get to the garden to sweep the remaining two leaves and see to the feeding of the worms, I will go down from the top, from the balcony steps.


It looks like the Italian engineer has won this round. No steel, no new window. Do we care? We do not. Unlike Cameron, May, Gove and you name them, we always had a plan B. Instead of double doors there will be a single door and a full height window next to it without altering the space.

Meanwhile, Bartek and Sebastian have laid all the hardcore, hand-smashing bricks all day long. They must be totally knackered. What are they going to do this evening? They're going to play football with the boss, Bartek's first outing since he wrecked his elbow five weeks ago. I suggest that maybe yoga might be less dangerous and more relaxing. You should see their faces, and hear the derisive chuckles. I have their best interests at heart. Of course I do. But I'd also quite like them not to be injured...again.

Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 10:17AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 12

21 November

The kind archivist from Christ Church College has written back: “the reason for selling off the residential estate was, perhaps, less mercenary than I made it sound!” she says. “The purpose of the South Trust, established by the will of Robert South, was mainly to augment the incomes of our poorer clergy (Christ Church had the advowsons and/or rectories of numerous parishes across England and Wales as part of its sixteenth century endowment).  The income from our estates in Kentish Town and Caversham funded this Trust.  No doubt, the expense of upgrading and repairing all the properties to modern standards was not felt to be a good use of the Fund and so it was sold and some of the proceeds went to buy 800+ acres of good farmland in Lincolnshire which, I presume, generated more income for less outlay!  The rules governing the administration of charitable trusts are quite strict.”

Meanwhile there have been caveats from the Italian structural engineer. I had the intention of putting in a small window next to the double doors in the rear bedroom. I can’t understand why people go for French doors in bedrooms that lead into gardens. You can’t get any air into the room without opening the door, allowing foxes to come trotting purposefully in. The intended window has been just a small part of a planning application that the local authority should have ruled on a few days ago – but didn’t. The engineer has pointed out that if we put in the window the rear wall of the house won’t be sufficiently supported…too many holes in it. His solution is yet another steel beam above the doors and the putative window. So much steel everywhere! I’m thinking that the flat will become bionic, or imagine itself so, and leap off its non-existent foundations to rampage around the community biffing people. Can’t have that.


23 November

Oh me of little faith! I said, didn’t I, that I wasn’t expecting to hear back from the senior secretary of the property company JLL, whose predecessor had been the auctioneers in charge of the sale of entire streets of houses once belonging to Christ Church College, Oxford – bought in 1955 by The Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras. Well, she rang. She had done some asking around. She gave me a name and a company whose (by now extremely elderly manager/CEO) had been either in charge or in some way connected with that auctioneer. I rang them. They were baffled. No one keeps records of auctions for longer than 7 years (or they don’t), although the friendly George said he too would ask around. Who might keep such records, I asked. Well, he said. There is Estates Gazette. It sounds like something for Have I got News For You. It’s been going since 1858 and details all manner of property deals. Of course, the British Library has it, although not all of it. I have ordered up the 1956 edition.

Meanwhile, minor spat between the builder and the Italian engineer. The builder is scoffing at the engineer’s requirement for yet another steel beam merely to support a small extra window. He drags a ladder to the back wall and waves his arms at the hapless Bartek to hand him various implements so that he can hack off the plaster above the double doors. What level of support is there already at the moment and how far does it stretch? Pah! (or its Polish equivalent). A concrete lintel will be quite enough. ‘Did the engineer cut anything off to see underneath? I am sure he didn’t!’ Well, evidently not since the surface was un-hacked before this onslaught on it. But also (though the builder is not to know this, having never set eyes on the Italian engineer), no one in matching black jacket, trousers, hair, beard and black suede shoes would climb on a ladder to hack away at anything.

Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 10:16AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 11

19 November

A friend visited this afternoon to have a look round and professed himself shocked by what he saw. He is the third person to react like that, which frankly, I find upsetting. I thought I had described what was going on, but if people keep coming and looking and saying, oh God, and How awful, and so on and so forth I shall lose all confidence in my powers of description. I am also almost inclined to leap to the defence of my not-quite-falling-down flat. I mean, if your flat/house/bungalow/mansion/tent were to be stripped back to its bones it too might look a tad down in the mouth….Although, come to think of it, your flat/house/bungalow/mansion/tent’s mouth might have a more complete set of teeth than this place has. Patience, I counsel: teeth shall be provided. I profoundly hope.


20 November

Stasis. The Italian engineer has sent in his drawings and specifications but all of a sudden red tape is winding its way out of the depths with the intent of choking off all progress. I have an agreement with my neighbours on the side most likely to be affected that I will pay for making good any damage my builders might cause to our joint wall but I hadn’t taken into account that although they own their flat, Camden Council owns are the freehold so its planning bods needs to sign off on the project too. My experience of dealing with the local authority over this flat hasn’t been encouraging. It took them four weeks even to register a planning application I had put in along with my co-freeholders and the deadline for a decision has been and gone – and before you ask, yes, I have done the required yelling at them.

So while I wait I have been running round the internet to try and find out more about the history of this road, and how come Christ Church College Oxford used to own so much of this area. When it comes to the actual house I will go back to the local studies archive in Holborn on another day, maybe when (if) the builders return and the noise is too much. Census records, rate books, war records…they should all throw something up.

Meanwhile I have read, in a blog by a couple who now live in Canada but used to live in the next road up, Caversham Road, that “In 1955 the freehold of our house, along with 300 other residential properties, 18 main road shops, 2 banks, 2 blocks of post-war flats and 3 pubs is auctioned by Jones, Lang, Wootton and Sons. The freehold is transferred from Christ Church College Oxford to the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras.”

The obvious next step is to talk to Jones, Lang, Wootton and Sons Auctioneers. They have changed their name, it turns out, to JLL. I ring them. They have extremely irritating electronic putting-you-on-hold music, and their phone line is ghastly. In the end, my question about the wholesale auctioning of entire streets in Kentish Town in the 1950s having flummoxed serial young women, I leave a message on the voicemail of the senior secretary from whom I do not expect to hear.

Next up is the archivist at Christ College Oxford. Now she is nice. And forthcoming. This what she tells me…first time round. “Christ Church’s land in Kentish Town was bequeathed by Robert South (who has an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography) in the early part of the 18the century when it was still open farmland.  The development of the estate began in earnest in the 1830s, and the streets were given names which reflected Christ Church’s and South’s history.  Islip is a local parish where South was a vicar; Caversham was another estate which South left to Christ Church; Peckwater is the name of one of the quads here; Gaisford was dean when the development began; Wolsey, of course, was the founder of Cardinal College, Christ Church’s predecessor.  The majority of the residential estate was sold in 1955, with the commercial estate following in the early 1970s.”

(I had already discovered a bit about these names, and that the Peckwater quad  - Kentish Towners will know this as a post-war council estate -  has, ironically, been a favourite for Bullingdon Clubbers to go to do a bit of trashing.)

But what the archivist hasn’t told me is why the streets were all suddenly sold off. I email her again. Back she comes, still nice. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the committee papers which explain the reasoning behind the sale of Kentish Town specifically… I suspect that most of the houses had been constructed by independent builders who took out leases on plots of land which required them to build to a certain quality.  The builders would then have the benefit of the rent from the properties until the leases terminated when the properties would revert to Christ Church.  This was quite normal for Victorian developments.  However, when the leases fell back in, some or all of the properties would have been in dire need of upgrading and, in London, probably needed a lot of repairs from bomb damage.  And so a decision would have to have been made whether or not to invest heavily for future returns or to sell off the estate entirely.  Evidently, if I am right in this supposition, this was the choice made!   I can dig a bit deeper and see if I can confirm this.”

Poor lady. I have asked her if she wouldn’t mind awfully….

Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 10:15AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 11

17 November

While we wait for the Italian structural engineer and his Irish boss to send us the specifications that will allow work to start again it is maybe time for a little reflection. Nothing remains in my flat that was there before apart from the front wall, the back wall, the ‘spine’ wall and the stairs. Except… In the brief months that I lived there I quite enjoyed the fairly clever, extremely chilly, ensuite shower room that sat partly in what had been a corridor and partly under the stairs outside that lead to the raised ground floor entrance. It had a wet room (gone) and basin (set to one side for future use) various cupboards and mirrors and bits of glass (some gone, some kept) and a loo.

Now raised on a regal plywood pedestal I shall call this last Ozymandias. It is plumbed out but not in, meaning that the builders have to keep a bucket of water by its side that they re-fill from the garden tap outside to which the hose is usually fixed for when I water leaves. It also means that when I go downstairs I ‘ahem’ somewhat to give whomever it might be some warning because Ozymandias is open to all.

And by the way, I have a new favourite word. It’s noggins  - recent addition to my stock of builder terminology. I like it because I didn’t know it before, unlike padstones, and RSJs (rolled steel joists) and Acrow props, all of which are fairly self-explanatory. But noggins give no clue to their purpose and they sound cute. They are cute. Floor joists are the wooden beams that in my house run from front to back, evenly spaced (sort of) and given added bracing (in theory) by wooden Xs fixed between them. These are the noggins, of which there are rather fewer in my flat than solidity would require. This will of course be remedied by the Poles – when they get back.

When the last bit was uncovered yesterday I looked up and saw something interesting. The entrance hall to the building as a whole (raised ground floor front door) slopes badly from the wall to the house next door down towards the body of our building. Rubbish floors, maybe? No. What we saw was a good strong beam supporting that hall area - nay, a double strong beam, not rotten or worm-eaten - just wonky, skew whiff, at an choose. Perhaps the original builders weren't looking, I suggest. Yes, says boss builder. Or perhaps they were drunk.


Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 10:00AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment