Making a clean sweep


Chimney sweeps do not usually occupy the front pages of Czech newspapers. But over the last week or so chimney sweeps and do-it-yourself tips on how to care for your chimney have been all the rage. The cause is a new law next year calling for annual safety checks on chimneys amid dire warnings that there are not enough sweeps to meet the expected demand. Apparently, sweeps became a rare species in the last decade with only one school giving lessons but they now seem to be on a comeback.

The reporting takes me back to my most recent encounter with a chimney sweep about a year ago when casting around for expert help for a blackened and short of breath wood stove. I must admit, he was not easy, to find.

It was a cold December day when we met. The man seemed to cast a shadow of soot although it was still early on and I supposed he had not been called out already. I also suspect that beer consumption might have rendered him mentally, how shall I say, a sandwich short of a picnic.

On introduction to the stove, the sweep drew out and brandished the remains of a bird’s wing, with feathers and, maybe, some of the bird still hanging on. I half expected him to start performing a Red Indian dance around it or some black magic or voodoo ceremony. Instead, he started using the wing to scrape off the soot and then examined the main problem, an encrusted door handle that almost refused to move.

He admitted he could not do much about this but knew a man who could. So off we trekked to a local farm and the man charged with repairs to the tractors. A lot of hammering, head scratching and beer intervals followed. The sweep himself took some time off to deliver his calling card round the village, where he claimed he was in any case well known and the sweep of first choice for locals.

I was getting nervous because this was not a cheap stove and my confidence in the sweep and mechanic were waning. Miraculously, everything worked well when we got back. I paid the sweep for his brief bird wing cleaning, middleman services and drove him home. He left the bird wing and a shadow on the car seat as a souvenir.

Later my girlfriend has cause to call the sweep to her flat in an old four storey town villa. She wanted to put an unused chimney back into service. After a muscular half hour with the broom later he confessed himself content and gave the chimney a clean bill of health.

But that is when the problems started. Neighbours above complained of a black sludge oozing from their walls with the chimney apparently damaged in places. Another sweep or chimney expert has been hard to find to remedy the problems.

My girlfriend is adamant that her section of chimney can still be used. I harbour the nasty suspicion that her first fire could be larger and more communal than planned and possibly be the last. So I now read the chimney tips with keen interest but am not so sure that more sweeps and more visits from them is the right road to take.