Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Wasteful Business

Do you ever wonder about post-use plumbing? Do you ever spare a thought for the journey taken by your grey water? Do you just flush and forget? 

Well, I know exactly where everything goes, because we have a brand new drainage system. 

Rural France doesn’t have mains sewerage: parts of it are being connected up to locally centralised systems, but that costs money, and money is in short supply. However, the various drainage inspection bodies around the country go on looking into our domestic arrangements, and grading them like essays. Our last house had an adequate system – that’s the equivalent of a B-: good in parts, but needs editing. This house had an F: go away and start again. They charge you for the privilege of undergoing this mandatory inspection, and the cost varies according to the whim of the governing body: anything from 80€ to 300€. 

Nothing changes: there’s money in waste. Well into the 20th century, there used to be a man who collected ‘night soil’ from a special container at the bottom of your garden, where you emptied the gazunders (the pot that goes under the bed), and he would take it away and turn it into usable compost matter. In earlier times, the liquid content would be collected by the lady of the house and, after 3 weeks or so in a pot in a little-visited corner of the yard, whilst no-one was looking, it would turn itself into ammonia. She would mix this with wood ash – lye – and strain it through straw, and soak the linens in it. She’d then go and beat the living daylights out of them in a stream, which was just one reason why you did not drink the water. 

Today, away from mains drainage, we have septic tanks. Ours is 3000litres: it lives in a deep hole, so that only the twin covers peep over the soil surface.  There are pipes going into it and out from it, as though it were the beating heart of the house and garden. Which, actually, it is: if your toilet or your drains are blocked, everything stops and panic ensues. You are only a flush away from domestic disaster. 

The upside of having this work done, by a man with a Big Digger, is that we now have a blank canvas of a garden. The tree roots are gone, the remains of a chicken run discovered and removed, and nothing left to mow. I took cuttings of the old roses that had been strangled by nettles and brambles, all of which have rooted (to my less-than-green-fingered amazement).  He Who Does Everything Around Here, who was dreaming of rows of onions and courgettes and beans and sundry edibles, is disappointed – these are not to be grown in the ground within 3 metres of the soakaway which runs under the place where the lawn used to be.  To fit into our garden this had to be done on four 15metre lengths, so accounts for a large area. But he’ll find a way: perhaps he could use some of those pieces of timber that lurk in the workshop for a raised bed? It’s a man thing, it seems, to collect wood at the end of some job, and then never use it in case it’s needed for something else. 

We now know that the old system didn’t have a proper soakaway, but that a large unexplained pipe ran across the courtyard and seems to have dumped the contents into the lane, within a couple of metres of a well. When we were being inspected, we never found this: but as we had to do an archaeological exploration to unearth one tank (500litres, not emptied in 16 years), and to discover that there wasn’t a tank at all for the other house, this isn’t surprising. Where would you dig? Now that the new pipes have been covered up, I’m not exactly sure where they are, and I only saw them yesterday. 

However, I know they’re there, doing the job they were created to do.  One day, some four years from now, we could stand and watch our past lives pass before our very eyes as the tank is emptied out (why do they use transparent pipes for that?); but for now, we can be secure in the knowledge that we’ve earned an A++ this time. 

Now we have to plan a new garden; but we won’t be making a big thing of the water feature.

©lms 2013


  1. What a saga! If you have even the remotest idea where those pipes are, mark them now! Draw a graph of the garden and measure meticulously, or take a photo and mark that, or plant a row of something indestructible.
    Believe me, you will forget, and one day an over-enthusiastic garden fork will do expensive damage. Meanwhile, happy flushing - although as one bar round here says in a notice, "Don't put anything in your toilet if you haven't eaten it first."