French farmhouse renovation: How to install cobblestones

Nick Inman charts the ups and downs of renovating an old French farmhouse. Here he shares how best to lay a cobbled garden area

16 June 2021

'In geology, 'cobble' has a precise definition and in France, stones of varying sizes are referred to as cailloux or galets' Pic: Vladimir Nenezic / Shutterstock

By Nick Inman

Only once in my life have I been tempted to sit in protest in front of a bulldozer.

It was when a man from the council came to tell me that my street was to be resurfaced – and that would mean demolishing the 150-year-old cobbled pavement in front of my door to make way for a prefab gutter.

Fortunately, the mayor agreed to move the gutter half a metre towards the middle of the road.

Cobblestones are beautiful, practical, natural and free – all good DIY qualities. Where I live, you only have to dig a hole in the ground and stones of all sizes, rounded by glaciers and rivers, pop out of the ground. Being irregular, they go well with the rustic pre-industrial architecture of old farmhouses.

In geology, “cobble” has a precise definition, although all you need to know is that they are bigger than a pebble and smaller than a boulder.

In France, stones of varying sizes are referred to as cailloux or galets.

The first step to repairing a cobbled area, or creating a new one, is choosing stones of the right size.

They should be of vaguely uniform proportions but they must be at least as big as an adult’s open hand, otherwise they might budge when you walk on them.

I’ve recently been experimenting with very large stones, which really will stay put for eternity, but they are heavier to transport and manipulate.

To lay cobblestones, you first need to excavate a little to ensure you have sufficient depth so that the tops of them do not pass the required level.

Place the stones as tightly together as you can, turning each one in your hand to get the best fit and the flattest surface on top.

It is often necessary to wedge an awkward stone in position.

This is an ideal way to use up smashed-up bits of old brick and tile. The surface of the cobbles will never be perfectly flat – for that you need concrete – but you can get it as even as possible by laying a board and long spirit level across the top of the stones.

It is laborious work but I find it strangely satisfying.

Once you are happy with the arrangement of stones, the spaces between them need to be filled in.

The simplest way is to use soil and that is what was done in old farmhouses, where the pavements were continually trampled by humans and animals. Soil, however, allows the seeds of weeds to flourish in millions of cracks.

To some extent, this can look attractive. Trying to eradicate all weeds is a losing battle – I have even used a flamethrower – so now I allow selected plants – such as alyssum, mint and other herbs – to thrive among my cobblestones and manually remove the rest.

To reduce the weeds, the infilling can be done with very fine gravel and sand, but if you use a coarse material you have to poke it into all the cavities and check for subsidence after a few days.

The other alternative is to use a weak mortar of cement or lime that sets solid but you will have to clean the splashes off the cobblestones if you don’t want the finish to look messy.

'Laying cobblestones allows for some creativity'

Stones can be sorted out into shapes and colours, and with some thought it is possible to greatly enhance the visual effect, either by placing like with like or the opposite, to achieve contrasts.

With ingenuity, you can create lines and shapes like hearts or flowers or even sign your pavement with your initials.

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