I came, I paid, I repaired: How volunteers are restoring France’s cultural heritage

The way to save history for free.

This chateau, constructed between the 12th and 16th centuries, was destroyed in the course of one year during WWI / Photo by Andrey Kochetkov

In April, the Russian Ministry of Culture announced plans to allow public organizations and volunteers access to unclaimed monuments, which are formally owned by the Russian State Property Agency. This means that derelict monuments and buildings will have a second chance at restoration by volunteer communities. Andrey Kochetkov, the founder of the Tom Sawyer Fest historic preservation festival, travelled to France and learned how to attract young volunteers to 12th century castle ruins, how many objects can be restored within the span of a year, and how to combine restoration with entertainment.

Rempart is a French organization bringing together 170 volunteer historic preservation associations. The organization makes sure that the restoration process is up to standard and that volunteers are properly treated and accommodated. Since the launch of its operations in 1966, Rempart has managed to attract over 20,000 volunteers from France, Israel, Spain, Morocco, China, the UK, and other countries. The organization also conducts its activities in a number of countries, from China to Morocco, and from Sweden to Palestine. In 2016, Rempart entered into a cooperation agreement with the Russian National Society for the Preservation of Historic Monuments (VOOPIiK). In 2017, Russia and France began exchanging volunteers under this partnership.

The carpentry workshop starts from the very basics: turning an oak log into a beam / Photo by Andrey Kochetkov

Rempart supervises the simultaneous restoration of hundreds of different sites, including churches, castles, residential buildings, windmills, and other culturally valuable sites. The majority of its workforce is comprised of volunteers. The restored sites are often augmented with new modern functions and continue to serve as venues for various events, anything from music festivals to restoration industry conventions.

The following is a report by Andrey Kochetkov.

France in ruins

Berzy-le-Sec is a small commune located in six kilometers away from Soissons, long ago a powerful center of Roman Gaul, and today a cozy little center of the historical region of Picardy. An hour’s train ride from Belgium takes you to a world strikingly different from any global metropolis. Berzy-le-Sec has a population of 400 and doesn’t even have its own store. Instead, the town takes prides in its Roman church decorated with 12th century frescos and a chateau of the same era. Together, they lured me into this calm springtime land filled with the smell of blooming apple trees and chestnuts.

At the end of World War I, the ancient castle was shelled, almost reduced rubble, and remained in that condition for the next 75 years. A local boy named Bruno Lestra used to play football in these ruins. When he grew up, Lestra left his hometown and got a job unrelated to renovation or heritage. But in 1998, he returned to the commune as the founder of the Aspam Association, a member of Rempart. With help from volunteers, Aspam launched a restoration of the chateau.

When asked where he finds volunteers and funds for the large-scale restoration, Bruno looks at the sky, folds his hands in prayer, and chants “S-s-spare a coin for Berzy?” All jokes aside, the restoration is funded through a combination of grants, private and corporate donations, and municipal financing. The chateau would probably still lie in ruins were it not for Aspam and Bruno’s efforts to find funding.

The restoration of the chapel roof took several years / Photo by Andrey Kochetkov

Who volunteers for restoration

Ten professionals working at the site are assisted by a number of volunteers, anywhere from 20 to 80 people. During more popular times, they camp in the chateau yard, inside the building, and in its vicinity. April happened to be somewhat calm, and volunteers were accommodated in an improvised hostel in the Berzy town hall and in a local school a mere 50 meters away from the chateau wall.

The volunteer team is an international mix. The youngest member was only 18 years old, while the oldest were already retired. Besides the French participants, the group also included volunteers from Israel, the UK, and four Russian citizens, including me. Anyone can drive to Berzy for a day or a half-day and take part in the restoration work free of charge. But the majority of the volunteers come here to join themed workshops, which usually cost 100 to 200 euros. Workshops usually last for a week and offer a series of lessons in one of the available crafts. In 2017, Aspam is offering courses in carpentry and woodworking, masonry, ceramics (crafting roof and floor tiles), as well as traditional stained glass craft. In the summer, they plan to add blacksmithing, archaeology, and even medieval calligraphy to the list.

In Russia, volunteering for even a couple of hours is an achievement of its own, so it may look bizarre that people are willing to pay to participate in the restoration. Staying in Berzy dispels any doubts. While some arrive here to learn new skills at the workshops, the majority of the volunteers travel to Berzy in search of new impressions, connections, socialization, and the satisfaction of contributing to something new and useful. Hardly anything can compare to the feeling that your own hands built the roof framework for a renaissance-era chapel. Workshop participants say that this type of socially responsible tourism is nothing out of the ordinary for France: many have gone to an open air music festival and then spent a week or two restoring something on their way back. The Israeli participants even organize special travel tours to spend their vacation in an unusual setting.

Stones for the restoration are mined at the same location as when the chateau was first constructed / Photo by Andrey Kochetkov

A number of volunteers return to Berzy every year, and some of them travel between more than a hundred objects restored by Rempart members across France. The most persistent become workshop tutors themselves, picking up restoration as their profession. After more than half a century, Rempart’s system has reached almost a perfect balance, and the participating associations are able to accept, engage, and find suitable work for thousands of volunteers. Their experience is documented and later published as books and guides available for purchase at restoration sites, together with promotional t-shirts and hoodies.

What they do

My choice of workshop specialization was dictated by the goals of the Tom Sawyer Fest. As we and our volunteers work with wooden architecture, I decided to enroll in “charpenterie”, or carpentry. The workshops are organized so as to provide every participant with an understanding of the entire technological process. Our particular workshop began with turning oak logs into beams using medieval tools and technologies. Later, we built framing for the roof of the chateau chapel. Work on the framing began a few years ago, and by the end of our shift the process was almost completed. After we were done, the roof was finally ready to be covered with tiles crafted by those who attended the ceramics workshop.

Although restorers prefer traditional technologies, sometimes electric tools help speed things up / Photo by Andrey Kochetkov

Francois Baud, our workshop tutor from Bretagne, studied Russian in school and visited Russia twice. His best friend’s wife is a Chelyabinsk native, and Francois spent his last winter holidays there. The tutor’s links to Chelyabinsk spawned a number of jokes between him and the Russian volunteers during our week at the chateau. The workshop leaders are not only accomplished experts in their craft, but also charismatic leaders who managed to create a unique atmosphere where serious restoration effort finds its place next to a spirit of sheer entertainment. In order to keep both these aspects team-based, everyone has to speak the same language. Although nine out of ten workshop participants spoke decent French (I was the outlier), most of the time we communicated in English.

Work at Berzy started at 9 am and ended at 6 pm, with breaks for lunch and coffee. At 7 pm, workshop participants gathered in the inner yard to chat about the day’s experiences and progress over a glass of soda or beer. After that, we shared a dinner, and then it was time for entertainment: a performance by a Breton fishermen choir, for instance. Work at each site usually takes place for several months of each year with small breaks in between.

Cooking at Berzy was usually done in shifts. Considering that feeding 30-40 hungry people after a hard day of outdoor work is no easy task, professional cooks joined in to help the volunteers. The Russian team impressed the volunteers with potato stew and carrot-and-garlic salad. And the Israeli participants surprised everyone with a variety of dishes from different parts of the world, from humus to baked chicken.

Stonemasonry basics can be learned within a week / Photo by Andrey Kochetkov

The French experience shows that attracting volunteers to monument restoration is a sound solution, and that it is about time professional restorers started working hand in hand with volunteers in Russia. And if for no other reason, than for the sheer fact that thousands of deteriorating and abandoned heritage objects may never find state or sponsor funding. The skill of Russian restoration schools (their work in Kizhi Pogost, for instance) is recognised even in France.

The week spent at Berzy-le-Sec showed that the volunteer community is capable of producing a new generation of restoration experts and adopting a new level of public responsibility for the future of cultural heritage. Putting your own work and emotions into restoration forever changes your attitude towards cultural sites.

Author: Andrey Kochetkov
Translation: Philipp Kachalin