To say the least! It’s been helped by a period of spring-like weather which I’m sure has made everyone feel so much better compared to when we had day after day of almost continuous rain. There are buds on lots of the trees and shoots from the daffodils and other spring plants have emerged into the daylight and are growing visibly bigger by the day. Obviously we must expect for there to be a few more cold snaps and even some more snow during the next few weeks, but there’s a tangible feeling that Spring is in the air and that maybe we’ve turned the corner and are heading away from the gloom of Winter.

With the progress I’ve made on my fireplace, I still only had vague plans on how I might decorate and finish-off the platform on which my wood-burner will stand, so on Monday I decided to bite the bullet and make another long car journey, north into the Vendee to another tile factory that I’d found on the Internet. The factory is in Aizenay and I knew that the drive there and back would take me a whole day. I left Plazac in bright sunny weather and although I hit roads that were wet after recent rain storms as I headed north-west towards the coast, I didn’t actually end up driving through any heavy rain the whole day. What was noticeable though, was how the whole of the south-west of France has been thoroughly drenched over recent weeks with many of the fields and other land at the sides of the roads having the appearance of mangrove swamps with trees and bushes growing up out of what were quite substantial lakes in many places.

We tend to take technology for granted these days, but I’m still amazed how I can feed an address into my satnav and end up right outside it after a few hours driving. It makes the journey so much more enjoyable than in the old days when we had to rely on maps and constantly keep our eyes peeled in case we missed vital signposts. So a few hours after leaving Plazac, I was turning into the car park of Les Terres Cuites d’Aizenay. I spotted the factory immediately as I began to cross over the main road that I’d just left, with its massive piles of scrap wood and its old stone kilns burning away with smoke coming out of the tops. I was soon greeted by a chap wearing an old jumper and with holes in the knees of his jeans and it turned out that he ran the whole place and was the great great grandson of the gentleman who originally started the business. I explained what I was there for and he took the opportunity to practice his English, which he said he hadn’t been able to use in some time, and over the next couple of hours, our conversation continued in an interesting mixture of English and French.

After a few minutes he said that he was firing up a kiln (cooking it, he said) and would I like to come and watch? We walked across the yard and descended into a shallow pit at the back of what was obviously the original building on the site housing the kilns. Two iron doors were open with fires blazing away inside with several large lengths of wood hanging out of them with their ends on the floor. The heat coming out of the open doors was quite intense, so I stood back a bit, but my new friend seemed quite unperturbed. It turned out that the reason why the wood was protruding in such a way was because the lengths of the scrap wood that the factory buys up, whenever it is available from the look of the enormous stacks on the land across the yard, are too long to go straight into the kiln fire boxes, so he just shoves in what he can and allows the fires to burn and break them. Then he just pushes in the bits that are hanging out and adds some more, even talking away animatedly on his portable phone if he needs to while doing so.

I would love to have seen what was going on in the factory itself as it uses only traditional materials and traditional manufacturing methods, but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time. So we headed off to look at some of the stock stacked on pallets outside to see what I could use. The tiles (‘carreaux’) that I thought I’d be interested in turned out not to be suitable, which was a bit of a blow as the photographs I’d seen on their web site had looked so promising. However, I’d spotted some other ‘carreaux’ in the small showroom which had given me another idea. These were half the size of the ones I already have on my floor and available with or without a lovely decorative motif in the form of a white fleur de lys and I worked out a new design for my fireplace there and then based on the measurements that I’d brought with me. I then found that actually the tiles were slightly bigger than I really wanted – 16cm square rather than 15cm – but I loved them so much that I decided that I’d just have to find a way of trimming them down

So we loaded them up into the back of my car and sat down for my bill to be calculated. Wowee! Unfortunately I’d not checked the prices before loading up the car and it turned out that the ‘carreaux’ with the motif were 7€ each! But maybe it was for the best, because if I’d known that I either wouldn’t have bought them or would have settled for a compromise. As it is, I know that they will be perfect for what I’m trying to achieve and the cost will end up being worth it.

Toddie and I arrived home pretty late on Monday night so we both took it a bit easy on Tuesday. I dealt with a couple of domestic issues (I have a dispute with EDF who are trying to over-charge me for the electricity I used due to a faulty meter from when I arrived here until they replaced it in December, and also with an English company who supplied me with boots of the wrong size and can’t be bothered refunding me) and spent some time thinking about how I should go about trimming down the ‘carreaux’ I’d bought. I checked the web sites of companies who supply tile cutters and found that although you can buy smaller models for ‘domestic’ users from as little as 40€, the heavier ‘professional’ table-mounted versions that I would need for my kind of job ran out at about 200€. I couldn’t run to that after investing as much as I had in my ‘terres cuites’ so on Wednesday I decided to have a look at the small ads on Le Bon Coin. Unbelievably, a table-mounted tile cutter, used once it said, had been put up for sale only about an hour or so before, at a price of only 60€! It seemed to me that fate had taken a hand, so I called up the seller and after asking a couple of questions, agreed to buy it 🙂

And so it was that yesterday Toddie and I found ourselves heading off north-west yet again to Saintes. We left Plazac in mist and drizzle but as we drove the weather gradually brightened. We drove through Perigueux, Angouleme and then Cognac, past field after field of vines and the distilleries of companies like Courvoisier, Reynac and many more smaller ones with puffs of steam rising above them. Then as the sun broke through, there was the most magnificent view across the rolling land of the Charente that by itself made the drive worth it. It’s why I don’t mind doing it – each journey as well as having a purpose is an enjoyable experience in itself, a small window into France and French life that I find so rewarding.

The seller of the tile cutting machine (‘coupe carreaux’) spotted me looking for his house, which was dead lucky because he had just left home when I arrived, to return to work. We quickly did the deal, loaded it into my car and Toddie and I turned round and headed for home. The machine was still in its original box so later on in the evening I unpacked it and checked it over and here are a couple of pics I took of it.

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Everything worked fine but I found that the original owner had obviously just been cutting tiles by eye and had lost the adjustable guide that clamps to the ruler. It would have been useful if I’d had it because I have lots of similar cuts to do, but it isn’t essential and I can do my job without it. In the meantime, I may see if I can buy a replacement as a ‘spare part’ – I probably will be able to because the machine was made by Peugeot and is only two years old.

I’ve also shown the tiles I bought standing on the machine’s cutting table. They aren’t actually different colours – the plain one had been stacked outside in the rain so was wet while the decorated one came from the showroom, so was dry. Anyway, I’ve now got all the tools and materials I need to finish the job, so I’m rarin’ to go and can’t wait to get cracking again 😀

I just came back to say that earlier this afternoon I fired up my new ‘coupe carreaux’ and trimmed a couple of tiles. Here is a pic of the finished articles next to two originals.

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Trimming the edges was a piece of cake and only took a few moments in each case. The new edges are great and the trimmed-down tiles both look excellent. I can’t wait now to get the job done 😉