Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray

… on what to do next if a cowboy plumber caves in your ceiling

A plumbing disaster convinces our columnist that it’s essential to know the basics of DIY and what to do in an emergency.

So, I was sitting here at my usual Saturday morning spot. It’s the dining table in my somewhat cramped eating area and, when there’s no one here to join me for food, it’s my workplace. There are two large cups of strong coffee, a phone on charge, an iPad for reading the papers and my laptop. It’s much easier to write on the ground floor rather than having to climb two flights of stairs to reach the attic I call my office. 

The only sound in the house is Maria, who helps me with the cleaning. She’s upstairs, about to do the bathroom.

Suddenly, a deluge.

Water pours down the outside of the small window in front of me. Odd. It’s not raining. Then, through the ceiling above me comes gallons of the stuff. I have the presence of mind to get the computer, phone and iPad to safety and watch the flood drowning the table, chairs, vase, coffee, wooden floor, and rug and am temporarily frozen in panic. 

Maria rushes down the stairs, explains she was about to clean the bath, turned on the tap and heard what sounded like an explosion.

“We need to turn off the water,” she shrieks. I can’t remember how. The water still pours – now through a massive hole in the ceiling, down the once pristine white walls and all over the antique wood and glass cupboard I inherited from my grandmother

Sudden inspiration. I remembered the guys who came to fit the downstairs loo last year had turned a tap under the kitchen sink. I rushed to it. Very stiff and difficult to turn. I managed it eventually. The water stopped. I booked an emergency plumber who arrived within the hour, diagnosed and fixed the problem – 250 quid. 


What fool allows unknown men merely discovered on the internet with a few stars in recommendation to go behind the walls and fit pipes or wiring?

Mopping up took several hours. I called the guys who’d done the downstairs loo. The deluge had been caused by their failure to secure pipes safely that took water from the upstairs bathroom to the new loo. They promised to make good. I said no. I wasn’t going to trust them a second time. I wouldn’t be able to do it myself, but I’d find out what needed to be done and get a recommendation from a neighbour I trust for someone on whom I could rely. 

I learned something important that day. I’ve reached the age of 73 and have no idea what goes on behind the immaculate decor of my beautiful little cottage.

What fool allows unknown men merely discovered on the internet with a few stars in recommendation to go behind the walls and fit pipes or wiring? And how come that same fool hasn’t bothered to imprint on her brain the whereabouts of the tap for turning off the water? 

I have thus, somewhat belatedly, come to the conclusion that you are never too old to learn. It’s extremely unlikely that I will become expert in DIY. I will, though, practise again the basics in electricity my father – an electrical engineer – taught me many moons ago. I know how to change a plug. I’ve found out where the fuse board is, so I can deal with a light blowing out. I can change a bulb without squealing for help. 

Most importantly I’ve stopped pretending that everything in this house is as perfect as it appears. I’ve accepted that behind the lovely walls and ceilings there is dirt, grime and possibly mouse droppings. It’s my duty to myself to know what is there. Where the wires sit that light up the rooms and where the pipes are that serve the toilets, the shower, the sinks, and I need to know exactly what to do in an emergency. 

Today I’ve begun to piece together in my contacts book a list of plumbers, carpenters, electricians etc who have been recommended by friends and neighbours as trustworthy. In future I’ll be able to call for help and give accurate details of what the problem is and where, so they come prepared. No more scouring the net for someone who might be able to do the job. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been checking the roof for any loose tiles after all the wind and clearing the built-up muck from the eaves. I’ve unblocked the kitchen sink and fixed the burner on the gas stove. And I know where to turn off the electricity and the water. I’ve oiled the water tap so it’s not so tight. Gosh! I’m proud of myself. Not before time. 

Jenni Murray

Written by Jenni Murray