REAL WORK: NINE TO FIVE
Sunday 06 June 1999
I saw a TV programme about a couple from Whitby who were chimney sweeps at around the time I was putting a stove in my fireplace. I was looking for info and thought, I could do that. I got in touch with the National Association of Chimney Sweeps and started going to their trade fairs, and I went out with a sweep from Lancashire for a few days to see how you do it. Then I went to a place in Huddersfield and bought all the equipment.
Well, I was already doing contract gardening at various places so I had a van and public liability insurance, and they're both jobs you can do on your own. I still do the gardening but I wear different clothes. I've got magnetic signs on the van so I change them over depending on what I'm doing.
Ooh, very Del Boy.
Ha! Well, I've been doing it for three years now. Each job usually takes me an hour. I'm not the quickest but I'm thorough. I advertise in the local parish magazine but mostly it's word of mouth.
What's sweeping like?
Unpredictable. There's no knowing when the brush has come out the chimney pot. Things can go wrong. You're pushing a rod and brush into the unknown, especially if it's a tall flue. Once I was doing a job and somebody had left three rods and a scraper up there. You're in it on your own but you can ring the training officer if there's a big problem. Customers sit and watch you. They like to see what's going on and what's coming down.
Are they surprised to get a woman sweep?
Yeah, they are. Actually there are one or two female chimney sweeps and some women do their own. I quite often get blokes offering to help bring the things in. I say "It's alright, you'll get dirty". It's hard to tell if they'd do the same thing for a man but I like to do things a certain way.
Bet you still get messy.
Sometimes. I wear a boiler suit, gloves and a mask, and use barrier cream on my hands and face. But I might touch my face with my gloves and it does take a bit of getting out as the soot gets into my pores. I cover everything up, seal the fireplace and go steady.
Any horror stories?
On one occasion a cat got up the chimney after I'd left while the owners were on holiday. When they came back they thought there'd been a soot explosion.
Do you ever get asked to be the official sweeper at weddings?
Yes. It's a tradition to have a sweep when you get married for good luck. Some blokes really dress "down" with a waistcoat like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins but I put on tails and have an old silk top hat. You black your face with soot. The couple doesn't expect you to be there when they come out of a church or registry office. I've got three verses to read, kiss the bride and have my photo taken with them. It's part of the business and I charge for it!
What do you do when you're not working?
I've bought myself an old classic 1959 125cc motorbike like you see in Heartbeat. It comes from my teenage years. My ambition is to find the time to polish it. I love to garden - I grow fruit and veg but never got on top of it last summer. I went to see Carmen in Leeds and I go to the cinema. I try to take a holiday in February, as that's the time when the chimney sweeping and gardening are very quiet.
What does your partner think about your job?
I've mostly lived alone. Now I just live with my cat Ignatius. I've got no idea what he thinks.
National Association of Chimney Sweeps: 01785 811732.
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