The Coffin Hatch

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Life in a very old farmhouse can sometimes throw up some unusual challenges. In our case one of the biggest ones is getting large items of furniture up and down the stairs.We have been planning a few changes here, most notably a new study for Roddy and a new Brocante room for me. Sounds straightforward enough – what was Roddy’s study will now become my space and Roddy will be moving his office upstairs. There’s just one slight stumbling block, notably a large desk and an even larger old oak sideboard. Both of these heavy pieces now need to go up a floor. Now normally this would be a job that requires some brawn and muscle, and with a few heavy grunts from a couple of men, voilà, the job would be done. But our stairs are too narrow for anything larger than a simple chair. Everything else has to come up and down via the coffin hatch. This mechanism of movement is regretfully named as such due to circumstances from long ago.

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Our house was originally built with a steep and narrow staircase and this would have made it impossible for a coffin to be removed from an upstairs room. Therefore, a hole was specially cut into the ceiling and a hatch installed to cover it. Often, when a person died, they were placed in an open coffin so family and friends could pay their last respects. When it was time for the funeral the hatch was opened and the coffin was lowered down through the hole. This is probably also the reason why it is placed right by the front door, for easy access.

Aside from the usefullness of this opening, it is a feature that we wanted to keep. Incidentally, when I first saw the house and the lifting mechanism, the heavy old chain and winch, I thought it looked so interesting that I was determined not to remove it, it would make a nice feature, I thought! Little did I realise at the time what an integral part of the workings of the house, even in the 21st century, it actually was.

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The block and tackle might look like something out of the dark ages, but don’t be fooled; it is a remarkable piece of ingenuity, that something so simple can lift something so heavy without any strain on the operator whatsoever – quite a feat of basic engineering in itself. Pulling the chain is simple, a child could do it, although I hasten to add no youngsters are allowed near it when the hatch is open, it’s a scary space and not a place for kids.

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So a simple job, attach the strop, hook it up and hoist. But the desk was wider than the hatch so it took a lot of careful angling, not easy when standing above an open space peering down at the floor below. Gigi was watching on with her broken wrist, Roddy sagely noted “you’ll break more than just a wrist if you fall down there”. Wise words but not what we really needed to hear. I lay on my stomach on one side, shoulders over the open space manoeuvring a desk leg, Millie lay on the other side doing the same, Roddy lay down to help too and we got the giggles, bad timing to go weak with laughter!

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p7840413Next up came the large chest, it’s depth gave us 2mm to spare. Hoisting in a confined space means there is no room for error, one swing to the right and all the panes of glass in one of our front doors would be smashed in an instant.

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What for most would be a quick 20 minute job took well over an hour. But this method is tried and tested, it takes patience and organisation but is efficient and successful. When all is done, the hatch is closed and life returns to normal!

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Now I’m truly excited, my small brocante enterprise will move into the main part of the house. I have so many new items, still stacked on a shelf, unphotographed and unlisted. My new room will give me space and also an area for photography. I can’t wait, but first I have to decorate!

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Never one to let inclement weather stand in my way I headed off this morning with two of the girls to an outdoor vide grenier, where the brave stood selling their wares in the chill damp morning air, clapping their hands to try and keep them from turning completely numb. Still, smiling faces greeted us at every corner, even in the depths of winter it is still a surprisingly sociable event, although much of the chit-chat starts with “il fait froid”. This is after all France and it’s one of the things I love so much about living here.

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60 thoughts on “The Coffin Hatch

  • Looking forward to seeing all the Brocante treasures….we are in short supply here in Southern California! Thank you for the weekly visit to your corner of France. Be well.

  • Well done you…all of you! What a remarkably useful feature, making a dumbwaiter look like a piker next to it! When I first saw the narrow houses in Amsterdam many, many years ago, I wondered how they got any furniture to the upper stories. Their contraptions are on the outside, though.

    Looking forward to seeing how everything develops.

    janet

    • Ah, yes, Janet. I’ve seen similar contraptions on lorries down the narrow streets of several European countries – Something like a fire ladder with a platform on it, and I’ver stood and stared as deep-freezers and armoires soared above streets and went through windows. Sometimes the whole street would stop and stare too. Fascinating and ingenious!

  • Our car boot sales are only from Easter until October…you are so lucky that yours go on all year. Glad your furniture made it safely up a floor…we use the same principle to get things up into the loft. Happy New Year to all of you.

  • Oh the joys of living in an old home. In Italy we tend to dismantle furniture in order to move it up or downstairs. In a former 3 flight walk up in NYC years ago, we simply lowered or raised furniture on a pulley out the window.

  • What a wonderful peek into the charming, useful and ingenious aspects of your old farmhouse!! Brilliant! Loved the photos and thanks for taking the time to take them during that tricky effort. Want you to know how much I LOVE these glimpses into your lives. January is such an invigorating month, isn’t it? The juices flow with resolution and creativity of a different kind when evenings are spent scheming new plans by a lamp rather than out and about in the light of day. I have been getting so organized and reshuffling spaces and cleaning out closets. Cheers to your new space…may it bring you much happiness, ease and inspiration! xo

  • How cool is this. Wow that is the first time I have seen something like that. Probably was a great way for peeps to use so long ago for the coffin up and down. Now it works great for you to get the pretty treasure up and down that you found.
    Happy Sunday. Have a great week.
    Kris

  • I loved reading this! Having moved a baby grand piano up and down the stairs of our last house in France, it’s good to see a much more ingenious solution than the one our movers used. Well told story!

  • How interesting. Truly ingenious, but nerve wracking. More information for my Francophile Heart.
    We are almost back to normal here, after the wind storm that left us without power for eight days and phone and internet for eighteen days over Christmas. We’re now tackling the massive clean up. We were lucky, as the house and car were not hit by falling trees. Lots of folks were not so fortunate. A lot of massive trees were blown over with the root systems pulled out. Vicious winds blowing from three directions at the same time though parts of the West Coast left us very surprised. The winds were measured at up to 120km, It was another example of climate change. Apparently the hydro power company had not seen so much damage before. I will send you photos….
    Ali xx

  • How ingenious! I have never heard or seen one of those but what a good idea. We just moved and our huge wooden bibliothèque had to be dismantled before being taken down from the office which was in the tower. And we wanted to put a gorgeous large cabinet that Stuart had transformed into our TV cabinet on the first floor TV room. It had to be hoisted up over the internal balcony by brute force and straps. Quite an ordeal but our movers were amazing.

  • We was lucky enough to see this great idea in action during our visit last summer it really did make light work of moving heavy furniture, lucky Roddy!,,,,, It just adds character to your already beautiful French oasis.
    Paul&Louise xxx

  • Wonderful photos and very interesting article!! The desk looks like a coffin….. We are going to renovate a house in Limousin.(starting May 2019). This house has an outside pulley leading to an attic double door .

  • You had posted about that coffin hatch before way, way back! A most practical solution with a somewhat ghoulish name. Glad you have a larger and more practical space for your brocante items now . . . must come for a look-and-see soon . . .

  • I remember reading about your coffin hatch before. Such an interesting space. I am looking forward to seeing your new brocante wares.

  • Such a great idea, isn’t it? A few times in Paris I’ve seen big furniture go up to the top floors on a kind of hydraulic ladder on the outside of the building, and the furniture goes in via the window!
    Wishing you all a very happy New Year too, I did post on your last couple of blogs, but they seemed to vanish. Maybe my tablet is having a breakdown! xx

  • Coffin Hatch….funny but scare too at the first moment. Similar I have seen to bring furniture into the old and very
    narrow houses in the old part of Spain

  • So interesting. One of the reasons to love old houses! I enjoy your blog so much & wish you and your family a Happy New Year!!

  • Practical feature – thanks for sharing! The chest was a very tight fit!! I’ve done my share of heavy lifting up and down stairs with two daughters who seem to be constantly on the move. Happy New Year!

  • Ingenious. I think you posted about this hatch before. I could have used one last week when we could not get the great armoire up our narrow stairs in our old French farmhouse so sadly it is resting downstairs but I am not complaining. Look forward to you brocante pieces. Happy decorating😍

  • We could have done with a coffin hatch when we bought a bow front chest of drawers!! hubby had to saw off one inch of windowsill in order for it to get upstairs! Quick bit of Pollyfiller, sanding down and re-painting and you’d never know what happened!! It’ll never come down though!!

  • A great post with quite marvellous photos! I knew (of course) of the coffin hatches but I marvel at your capacity (family effort) of doing the ‘re-placing’ of beloved and heavy furniture AND taking photos. And I agree with Neil that surely Roddy’s knot-knowing-how-to helped greatly. On our frequent trips we sometimes see VERY scary removal set-ups. Stuff sort of flying with or against the car roofs, sticking out behind the cars/vans and being a lethal danger to following cars…. But of course it’s a serious business and I would trust you guys with my life if you’d ever need to transport me from one floor to the next 😉 (most likely in its intended fashion, in a box!)
    Looking SO much forward to seeing you all again – so soon too! Hugs and kisses – to the ‘beasts’ too!!!!! Is all well with them? The very old darling pet of our English friends we so much love had to leave this earth…. I felt last year that it would be our last time and I told her Good Bye. Now I’m crying just thinking about her and wish her much happiness in doggie heaven.

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