Before moving to France, I was a lifelong citizen of the Big City. I knew nothing about sanitation. I knew that when you ran a tap or flushed the loo, the water ran away to some far-off sewage farm. I knew enough to know that one mustn’t pour paint or bleach or hydrochloric acid down the plughole because it would end up killing something aquatic somewhere.
Since moving to France and living in the country, I’ve had to put my faith in a septic tank. The trouble is, I’ve never been convinced that you can put your faith in a fosse septique. Having a tank teaches you sanitary responsibility, but short of putting all surplus paper in loo-side bins, avoiding any cleaning agent that will upset the delicate bacterial balance in the murky water beneath the big green plastic lid, and flushing down a sachet of food for the benevolent bacteria at the end of every week, there’s little really that you can do. I feel quite powerless.
I would describe myself as a septic-tank sceptic: I’m never convinced that they’re altogether doing their job – probably because I don’t quite understand what goes on under the green plastic lid. Probably because I’ve never seen a programme that illustrates the septic process with time-lapse photography.
Mind you, after 16 years or so of ‘overseeing’ a septic tank, I now understand a little more than I did when my wife and I first went hunting for a quaint stone-built house in the middle of Nulle-Part, rural France. To paraphrase Manuel, ‘I knew notheeng’. All I knew was this: we would need one. And so it became one of the principal criteria of our search. Whatever we bought, wherever we bought it, it had to have a fosse septique.
Hindsight, alas, has shown that we turned down many a shrewd investment simply because there was no septic tank. We ended up buying somewhere, which hindsight has shown that we shouldn’t really have bought. It had a septic tank – that much was certified – but it wasn’t until the thing started backing up in our bathroom and I had to scratch around the back garden to find it that I realised how inadequate it was. Sure, it was a modern plastic one rather than some deep dank leaky pit, but it failed to meet all modern standards. It was far too near the house, it was too small for our needs and there was no proper soak-away.
Subsequently, as part of the construction of the current Maison Sampson, I’ve watched our tank being lifted into a big hole in the ground and a filter bed being created with supposedly special-grade sand. And behold it seemed to be good. At least it helped to de-mystify the process. Some time afterwards, a nice man from the unfortunately named SPANC service inspected the works and pronounced them acceptable. He explained that I should unscrew the two plastic lids to inspect the overflow pipes on an annual basis. I nodded thoughtfully and very soon forgot what it was I should be looking for. He also told me that I might as well feed it with yoghurt for all the good that the special bacterial food does. But I still religiously flush down a sachet of placebo every weekend in the hope that it will keep things active down below.
For all my comparative enlightenment, I still have no faith. Maybe I’m not so much a septic-tank sceptic as an atheist. I wait for the day when the telltale stink in our bathroom will indicate that the tank has broken down once more. At least I know that when the day arises, I can pick up the telephone and ask for some sanitary enterprise to send a big lorry over to stick its big hose into the horrible water, pump the contents away, flush out the pipe-work and start the thing off again. Or better still, I can save a few hundred euros by asking the local farmer to come and suck the contents into some rusty mobile tank – to take away and spray all over one of his fields. So I suppose I’m sufficiently septic-tank savvy to realise that a sanitation breakdown doesn’t indicate the end of the world.
This very weekend, my lack of faith was tested by our kitchen sink. It hasn’t been draining away properly and there has been a nasty odour, which joss sticks have failed to eradicate. I have been trying to ignore it for at least a fortnight, because I was convinced that the problem emanated from our septic tank. Finally, it failed to drain away at all. Clutching at straws, I unscrewed the trap beneath the sink – but sure enough found nothing blocking the U-bend. Before I changed into my worst waterproofs and an old pair of Marigolds, I thought I might as well unscrew the plughole itself. Blistering barnacles, but holy, holy Mount Zion, I discovered a thick compacted bung of all things grey and malodorous. So that was the problem, not our septic tank after all. My relief was of Mafeking proportions.
Nevertheless, I say unto any readers of little faith, the day of judgement must surely come again. For all my due diligence, I know that I haven’t done enough to assuage the vengeful gods of the impenetrable murk. I am already thinking that – if funds should ever present themselves – our next eco toy will have to be one of these micro stations d’epuration (or whatever they call those, what are they… I guess a kind of mechanical reed-bed).
Ah! Now there’s an idea. A natural filter-bed that will provide clean water in times of scarcity to wild life around here. The trouble is, I know even less about reed-beds than I do about fosses septiques. Ideas please on a postcard…