Each year, I like to ‘shadow’ another sweep in a different part of the country. I call it ‘Sweep Swap’.
Although quite common in Europe, UK sweeps don’t tend to do this. I’m not sure why; perhaps we are a bit more reserved. But I think it’s a brilliant opportunity to learn new things, swap tips and generally enjoy some great camaraderie in what is at times quite a lonely business (after all most sweeps work by themselves).
For my 2019 jaunt, I headed to London with fellow sweep Paul Roddy from Manchester based Sparkling Flues
Our host for the two days was Paul Solicari, owner of SweepSmart, who is based in Enfield, North London, but like me covers a wide area.
I was drawn to shadow Paul for a few reasons. Firstly he’s grown a successful business in a very competitive part of the country. Also, London presents its own challenges with traffic, parking and some very tall chimneys. I expected it to be very different from my own patch in the North West, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.
Over the two days we did about a dozen appointments, ranging from traditional, 3 bedroom semis on suburban streets to basement flats in the heart of the more built up areas. At one appointment, we had to park the van 5 minutes’ walk away and sweep four open fires, all on separate floors. I’m not embarrassed to say that this kind of scenario on a regular basis would severely test my sanity! Paul just smiled: ‘This is normal David – at least the sun is shining!’
London flues can be very tall. To put it in context, most chimneys in my area are around 9-10 metres tall. In London, they can be double or even triple that. No need for gym membership in this part of the world if you’re a sweep!
Keen to get stuck in, I swept a 16 metre open fire and, again, I find no shame in admitting it was definitely a challenge. There’s a certain knack to sweeping flues at this height and, having not had the same level of practice, it gave me a work out! Looking up to see a clean flue always leaves me with a sense of satisfaction, but this one was a bit more so.
London’s history is also reflected in the state of its chimneys. Some aren’t in the best condition due to severe bombing of the city during World War II. However post war properties can have flues which are in, by contrast, excellent condition. This is to do with the fact that they weren’t actually in use for very long due to the imposition of the Clean Air Act in the 1950s. This legislation was brought it to curb pollution in London, and it had a massive effect on solid fuel use – meaning the flues themselves are in pretty decent condition. We undertook a camera inspection on one flue and I’d say that of the original flue lining which was undertaken when the house was built, a good 70% of it was still in situ. That is exceptionally rare in my area of the North West.
On another flue, I noticed – to my horror – a wooden beam just above the fireplace. Paul explained this was again quite common in flues in London. It apparently goes back to, again, the Clean Air Act when fireplaces across the capital were literally chucked into skips. Decades later, people started realising the aesthetic appeal of these fireplaces so started reinstating them purely for decorative purposes. The easiest way to fix them to a wall was via a wooden beam. Again, the flue wasn’t going to be used, so the presence of wood in the flue wasn’t deemed a problem. I can see how, with the passage of time, these beams could actually cause a house fire if someone wasn’t aware of their presence and started using the fire before having it professionally checked.
Paul also showed us how, apart from his traditional rods and brushes, he uses the latest technology to inspect chimneys which people want to bring back into use. One of these is a pressure testing machine, designed to check a chimney for leakage. This is itself was fascinating on a technical level, and certainly added to my own knowledge.
So, yes I had a great time but apart from that, what was the benefit?
Well, I’ve always strongly believed that far from being a management buzzword, Continued Professional Development (CPD) is extremely important. It tends to get overlooked in manual trades, but to me it is perhaps even more important.
As mentioned above, most sweeps work alone. We tend to work for ourselves and therefore interaction with peers is generally confined to chat at trade shows and on social media. We rarely see each other in action, so we have nothing to compare our techniques and routines to.
Getting out for a few days with someone who plies the same trade is good on a number of levels. It increases your own awareness and knowledge, and allows you to critique what you do in your normal routine and make improvements. Some of the stuff I saw in London may never be used in my own day to day job for the next 5 to 10 years, but that knowledge will be stored, and ready to use at a moment’s notice.
I sincerely hope that, if you work in a trade and are reading this, then you will consider doing something similar. It can be daunting, but the benefits far outweigh anything else. You’ll return to your role fresh, invigorated and have a wider field of expertise on which to draw on.
And that can only be a good thing for you, your trade and your customers.
Mr Soot Chimney Sweep is a HETAS Approved Sweep, and member of the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, offering a professional and friendly chimney sweep and stove service. Book Mr Soot online or call 0800 0541154.