One day we children watched a strange ritual. A carpenter had died. Some of the men who had worked with him for years had gone to the funeral. Now there was a strange ceremony. The widow, left with her husband's tools, could not face the sight of them. There was no family: nobody who would continue to use them, yet she could not bring herself to sell them. She had asked one of his friends to dispose of them as he thought best.

That lunch time about six men who had known him well sat round in a partly floored room, to eat their sandwiches and drink their tea. Then the straw was opened, heavy with tools. They tossed up for turns like children in the playground and then they each chose a tool in turn as a memento. A wooden smoothing plane, remouthed with boxwood, shining with wear. A cross-cut saw, a carpenter's brace together with a green baize roll of bits. Chisels chosen singly. Tobacco tins of small bits and piece accumulated over a life-time. Each item was handled carefully and put away by the new owner in its new tool kit, where it would become the subject of a new story. Lastly the leader collected a small sum from each man to buy a present for the widow, a tea tray perhaps or a vase, as a remembrance. The foreman's whistle went and they slowly returned to work.

After the rafters were in position, long tiling battens were nailed in place, but without any roofing felt, or other insulation below them. The tiles would be the sole protection and, from inside the lofts, one would always be able to see the sky through the draughty chinks. When the carpenters left, the roof tilers arrived. Large boxes of red clay tiles had been delivered and now stood around the houses, scattering whisps of packing straw. Labourers stacked the tiles in their carrying hods and climbed the ladders to the top of the scaffolding, holding the ladder with one hand and gripping the hod with the other. They piled the tiles ready for use and the tilers began laying them from the eaves upwards. They hooked the tiles over the wooden battens by their projecting nibs, nailing every fifth row. It seemed too little, but the men assured us that this was enough.

Years later I read the amusing account of Samuel Butler's house in New Zealand, where they put the roof on upside down. Samuel Butler, getting as far away as he could from his father, the Bishop, became a sheep farmer in New Zealand. There he had a house built in the traditional early colonial manner of earth block walls and a thatched roof.The thatchers were amateurs who started tying in their bundles of thatch from the ridge and worked down to the eaves instead of the other way round. As a result, the open ends of the straw thatch were pointing upwards, open to the sky, instead of being protected by the straws above. When it rained, the water ran through the vertical thatch into the house as if the roof was made of bundles of drinking straws. Fortunately, in the Coppetts Road estate the tilers started correctly from the bottom and worked to the ridge. Once there, they cemented in place round capping tiles along the ridge and down the corner hip rafters.

Meanwhile the carpenters were inside the houses, building the floors, fixing the floor joists and nailing down floor boards with heavy cut nails. Large open boxes of these, crudely stamped out of sheet steel, accompanied the carpenters everywhere. The hammer rhythm was absolutely regular. Tap, bang, bang, bang. A light fixing-stroke followed by three heavy blows, as regular as clockwork. One could tell from the outside of the house when a man was nailing floorboards.



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