The woman at the water board asks me how serious the leak is...

9th January 2004 at 00:00
...Apparently, serious means my house flooding and the water reaching my neck

Enjoyable though my job is, it's hard work, and so to make the most of the school holidays my wife and I have bought a cottage by the Kent coast. It's one in a row of six, built 200 years ago from flintstone, in a narrow lane with a converted mill at the end. Immense charm and character, the estate agent said, and indeed it has. Trouble is, the plumbing has character too, without the charm.

During our short stay this Christmas, I find my wife staring at the large plastic tube protruding from the ground in the back garden. We have a problem. Water gushes from the tube and runs all over the place. I know, deep inside, it contains the mains stopcock, but since it was probably installed by the Romans, I phone the water board. A woman asks me how serious the leak is. Apparently, serious means my house flooding and the water reaching my neck, and as those conditions haven't been met she'll send someone to inspect it the following morning. When nobody has appeared by teatime, I phone again. An inspector has indeed visited, she assures me.

"That's surprising," I say, "because we've been in all day." "Ah," she says, "we don't actually have to knock on your door; we have instruments that can measure the leakage just by standing in the road." I haven't bargained for such technology. Perhaps the leak can be repaired by telepathy? Apparently not, and nobody can come for at least a week.

Something has to be done. Next morning, I shut my eyes and stick a pin in the list of plumbers in the Yellow Pages. Within the hour, a van arrives and a plumber, immaculately kitted out, inspects the problem. There's a sharp intake of breath. "I'll have to dig down," he says ominously. "At least a day's work. And parts. And VAT, of course. It'll be pound;763, provided we don't find additional problems."

Since I could have excavated the entire patio in less time than that, I decline. Thirty minutes later, a water board van roars up. "You've come to mend my pipe?" I shout excitedly. "No mate," he says. "I've come to inspect it. Where do you turn the water off?" He wanders up and down the six cottages, enthusiastically turning on and off any stopcocks he can find, which doesn't endear him to my neighbours. Nothing halts the water pouring from my patio pipe. "No problem," he says, cheerfully rooting around in his van. Twenty minutes later, after running a metal detector over the wild grass at the end of the lane, he shouts that he's found yet another stopcock, and sure enough, the flow in my garden stops. "Looks like yours has seized," he says. "I'll give it a little tweak with the rod."

Satisfied, he turns the supply on again from the road and a stream of icy water shoots out of my garden pipe with the force of a fireman's hose.

Slightly embarrassed, he says that, strictly speaking, it isn't water board responsibility, but they will do a free repair within 10 days or so. And what about the water flooding my garden, I ask. He agrees it is a problem, but at least it is pointing away from the house...

Back to the Yellow Pages in desperation, and after an hour's trawling I find a local plumber who not only digs a hole and cuts out all the elderly pipe, but chases around Thanet to find the bits he needs, and then charges me just pound;149. I could have kissed him.

I've kept the ancient parts as souvenirs; I'll need them to illustrate my story in assembly.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.

Email: mikejkent@aol.com

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