Or “How to Embarrass Your Husband in Front of a Room Full of Belgians”

So the story starts on a gloomy November evening with Gus and I rolling down the A26 in France  heading for the beautiful south. Google map in hand with chambres d’hotes location in pink highlighter we stumble around the Reims  periphery until we find ourselves in front of a pair of very smart but very closed gates.

We were late for a change (never underestimate how long it takes to install a pair of headlight deflectors !!!!) so we buzzed the intercom and as the gates slid open and we rumbled forward, this completely unexpected sight greeted us.

Mont D'Hor champagne house near Reims at night

We looked at each other bemused (the american car*) and then, as usual, at the sight of a timber building I got ridiculously overexcited and forgot that I hadn’t eaten for 7 hours,was desperately in need of tea and that probably everyone was in bed. Unfortunately for me Gus was not as inclined to forget and I got short shrift when I asked if I could get the’ big’ camera out and was instructed to get my bag from the car before it was locked.. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6… lockdown!

You have to admit it’s a pretty cool building. I could hardly have just pretended like it wasn’t there! I immediately started to mentally measure the bays, span, sections, determine the method of construction,  timber species …  you know the drill.

And back in the room Sarah….

We didn’t find a cup of tea – way too late – but we did find the most glamorous hostess ever who had just flown in from selling her champagne in New York.  Didn’t we know it was a domaine for champagne? No!.. how exciting! Gus groaned (after picking his jaw up off the floor) and I could see him holding on to his wallet for dear life.

Anyway, the point to all this is …  shattered, we went to our room in the dark with no idea of our surroundings. Just that it was warm and clean and cosy and that the room we were staying in measured 4.2m x 6.5 = 27.3m2!,minus 4m2 for the bathroom…

and then I had my pen and paper confiscated… but not before I’d done a quick sketch plan of the timber building. Sshhh don’t tell Gus.Mont D'Hor Head office timber building with offices warehouse and shop


I admit I was a teeny bit like a child at Christmas when I woke up. Really tired from driving but too impatient to hang around for long in the room, I was out with the camera regardless of the dreadful light conditions, moist air and grumbling stomach. And this is what I discovered.

A huge timber building that houses a drive in warehouse for storing the champagne, once crated in bottles, a bottling/labelling room, a shop and the offices. All in the village of St Thierry just a few miles of Reims, where most champagne comes from I suppose.

I climbed the wooden steps up to a viewing patform  (a timber deck that interestingly wasn’t the slightest bit slippy, even though it was wet and leafy)  that looked out over vineyards, but not just any vineyards, oooooh no, Veuve Cliquot vineyards!

There was a lovely view of the obligatory** abbaye  where monks historically ‘invented’ bubbly fermented white grape juice.  The domaine explained they have a close relationship with Veuve Cliquot who process and  bottle their champagne for them. What a very civilised way to do business! So I traipsed up and down the wet grass photographing Veuve Cliquot vines until my shoes squelched.

Suitably sodden I decided I was hungry enough to give up the photography in favour of food and caffeine and went to hunt breakfast.

I was drawn towards some double doors on the timber deck and fell into the room to find a typically continental spread i.e. a table laden with enough bread products to sink a batteship, which I promptly forgot about as I looked out across the vaulted interior of  a timber frame barn!

When I say barn I mean barn with a capital B for huge. And not Oak, not Chestnut..  Douglas Fir! Yep you guessed it, out came the camera again folks (the ‘small’ camera.. I wasn’t allowed the ‘big’ one), and I set about trying to capture every angle and joint detail… bolted, sometimes pegged… with dedication and determination.

Mont D'Hor at St Thierry. Breakfast time in the Barn with Douglas Fir Trusses

Meanwhile my sadly neglected husband was an island in a sea of Belgians on a buying trip, sitting alone but for his bike magazine  with his breakfast finished and a large, cold cup of coffee opposite him for company. But did that stop me? No I’m afraid it didn’t. I had a deadline to meet, a 9am departure for the ‘portes du soleil’. I only had so much time and I couldn’t fritter it away scoffing brioche.

Mont D'Hor at St Thierry. Breakfast time in the Barn with old Douglas Fir roof structure

So here it is ladies and gentlemen. This is the best I could come up with I’m afraid, thanks to a room jam packed with Belgian breakfasters, a time constraint (and a pesky Canon ‘small’ camera that manages to bend every straightline it’s presented with – don’t buy a G9!) and a glorious Douglas Fir timber frame that’s been around for an age… and some.

Mont D'Hor at St Thierry. Breakfast time in the Barn

It’s been renovated, restored but not replaced.

Mont D'Hor at St Thierry. The Douglas Fir roof structure in the barn

They’re not big sections, they’re not long lengths.

It’s a very attractive timber frame made of modest dimension timbers with intelligent use of triangles… and pegs… but there’s not even a massive amount of joint cutting here either.

I have to say, I can get excited about a lightweight timber frame. I mean I love the big dims of traditional Oak structures but .. there’s always a but with me…

I actually like the slightly less monoliothic construction of  this frame, don’t you?

Mont D'Hor and Douglas Fir timber frame Barn

I mean this is a massive building, getting on for 30+ metres long I’d say and you can see the height for yourselves. It’s a big two storey.  And the bays work really well, not too awkward or close together at all and the tie beam’s pretty high up, so even before it was a fancy breakfast room it was alot of space for hay and straw storage, with animals down there too, and the people used to have a floor on top of the tie’s and that’s where they lived, so that post’s at least 2 to 2.5m high.

Maybe we should all be thinking about these small dimensions, make the timber work harder. Small dimensions can do the heavy job when used in multiples. It’s got to be more economical on so many levels? Smaller section round timber = use less = less waste = lower cost?

Mont D'Hor at St Thierry. The barn roof external structural timbers and underside of roof

Lighter & smaller = easier to transport = cheaper & faster. Lighter & smaller = easier to handle = cheaper & faster.  Smaller dims round logs = quicker to grow = faster to harvest = cheaper.  Smaller dims round logs = faster & easier to convert = cheaper.

But it’s not just about the money.

There’s alot more small dimension timber out there than there is big… big is harder to come by and more expensive when you do, so the supply is so much easier for the smaller stuff. And you have more choice!

Tonnes of our lovely Douglas Fir of course… but sweet Chestnut could get in on the act too and other forestry thinnings that have structural properties like Oak & Larch, all excellent in small dimensions.. and super sustainable, both locally and from our European sources.

Mont D'Hor at St Thierry. The barn roof external structural timbers

I’ve gone way off topic here, I know, but It get’s you thinking doesn’t it? Looking at what is effectively a lightweight timber structure, built in who knows when give or take a century or two.

Are we as intelligent as we can be now with our use of timber?

It’s a renewable resource, yes, but in the long term not in the immediate future so we have to ‘make it count’  between now and then. When it’s gone it’s, it’s gone.

We puzzle over the best and most economical use of timber, and sometimes the answer is just staring us in the face, or hovering over us at breakfast.

Use less.

Mont D'Hor and Douglas Fir Barn with chambre d'hotes

But then, I say that and across the yard from the barn they already did use less. The modern interpretation of the barn structure does it. They made a large commercial/light industrial building using small section timber. Not exactly because they’re glulamed up but even those sections are not big.

It is another lightweight timber frame with a big roof and an cantilever/overhang.

Mont D'Hor at St Thierry. The Lincoln & bottling warehouse

Why do you think we don’t see more of this kind of construction in the UK?

Somebody tell me pleeeease (comment below)

* you wouldn’t believe the number of times we’ve booked places to stay in France where the owner has displayed a penchant for les voitures americaines!  – for example see the Chateau de Prauthoy below…

** All abbayes had monks that brewed stuff didn’t they? Here’s another one I know of..  St Hilaire, near Limoux,Blanquette region, the original Champagne!

P.S. How do I know it is Douglas Fir? The Madame who served breakfast told me… I had my doubts. Not sure about those knots. I wondered about Larch, but she was adamant.

P.P.S. I forgot to say…  I love metal guttering. But not as much as I love hidden guttering… I mean really???? Design a beautiful building and then stick black plastic tubes all over it.. really???? Ok I’m done.

MORE about ‘stuff

Douglas Fir – we’re building the profile on good old Douglas, he deserves some attention, he is a nice local lad afterall… https://www.englishwoodlandstimber.co.uk/species/douglas-fir/

Images of Douglas Fir trees  http://bit.ly/VMvc1F

Bit of a tree spec from the Woodland trust http://www.british-trees.com/treeguide/firs/nhmsys0000462103

Lightweight timber where it counts by humanitarian architects article 25   http://www.e-architect.co.uk/images/jpgs/haiti/pakistan_building_a010210_10.jpg

This is what I’m talking about people… http://www.giannibotsford.com/project/casa-kike/  no concrete pad.. just mini piles baby!!! with a timber structure built in no time plonked on top – lightweight and beautiful. Enough said.

Champagne anyone? Rude not to really isn’t it? Here’s a list to be going on with, I suggest you get in the car and go check them out and report back… it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Champagne_houses http://www.reims-tourism.com/reims-champagne/champagne.aspx

Blanquette.. don’t knock it.. it’s pre-Champagne ‘champagne’ i’ll let this lovely lady tell you all about it.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87KvdlAgeig    http://abbayedesainthilaire.pagesperso-orange.fr/

Our fantastic B&B at Mont D’Hor Champagne Domaine at St Thierry nr Reims (5 minutes drive.. not even.. from the motorway and the city of Reims.. roughly 2.5 hours from Calais) http://mhchampagne.com/3-le-clos-du-mont-dhor

Another of our B&B stops that loves american cars http://www.chateaudeprauthoy.com/  sweet people, grand rooms & wierd grottos off the A31 near (I say near but I’m using that term loosely.. this is France) Langres.

Dare to dream in Douglas Fir???  So strong, so beautiful,  genuinely sustainable and ever so economical… get in touch and tell us about it sarah@englishwoodlandstimber.twdemos.co.uk or  click here

If you read all the way down to here.. SURPIRSE..!!! You’re invited to afternoon tea on Friday 11th January afternoon at 3pm.. you’re tempted aren’t you? expect chocolate cake in the kiln dried shed!

RSVP and I’ll make sure there’s enough tea in the pot for you.