A VISIT FROM THE SWEEP
Sweeps are said to bring good luck, so a good subject
as a new year approaches.
|In English our sweep would be called Mr. North Wind and
is a wonderful example of a link between the Middle Ages and the latest
technology. He dresses as you can see in a traditional costume, with hat,
tunic, brass buttons and a leather belt onto which are fastened all his
smaller tools. When working he wears protective spectacles and he needs
instrumentation to measure the effluents from the chimneys. There is a
corporation of master sweeps and they employ less exalted sweeps. The territory
is divided between the masters and the owners of the chimneys have no choice.
The masters 'lend' their workers to one another as the need arises.
As we are in the country, where the fear of major fires
due to the prevalence of wooden buildings persisted much longer than in
the towns, we have a special body which manages compulsory fire insurance
and fixes, according to the type of installation, the frequency with which
we are obliged to have our chimney swept. There is also a double fire inspectorate,
the one at the local level (in our case two of our neighbours) coming whenever
there is a change of owner or installation.
All this concern is concern is understandable because only a hundred years ago one of the neighbouring villages was almost entirely burnt down. A woman preparing a bottle for her baby carelessly threw away a match and a fire started which spread from house to house. The houses were built side by side and back to back, with outbuildings full of hay among them. The children played at hide and seek in the interconnected attics, running from one house to another. Disastrous fires usually occurred in the summer when the able bodies were up in the Alps. On this occasion the men were haymaking not far above the village. They saw the smoke and thought it was another village across the river that was burning and came down to help. Too late; the women and children had escaped the flames and walked to a nearby village which itself had completely burnt down twenty years before.
|There was an immense wave of sympathy and gifts of money and kind came from near and far. There was an encouragement to slate the roofs of the new houses instead of using shingles. But in the other village the houses were rebuilt with the traditional wooden chimneys in which hams and sausages could be smoked. These are large enough for a little boy, like poor Tom in the Water Babies, to climb up, but I doubt if they were ever swept. In the mountain chalets they are still common but most in the villages have been replaced with modern, tubed chimneys as people have installed central heating.|
|As well as our oil fired central heating we have an enclosed
wood-burning stove which most of the locals consider the cosiest form of
heating. This type of stove is in the living room but fed from the kitchen
and was invented in the Middle Ages. In recent years there has been a lot
of work on developing wood-fired central heating using pellets which feed
automatically or combination burners oil/wood. The sweep not only cleans
the chimney, he also checks the adjustment of the burners and gives advice.
The sweep comes when it suits him, but he has to give some warning because the burners and fires must not be functioning and the chimney cool. Our sweep talks incessantly, on his mobile telephone, to us, while working very efficiently. He started the oil burner and showed us a new way to regulate it. He checked it was still functioning before he left. Then on his way out as he neatly stored his equipment in his black van, he told us more about the fire which started in the chimney of the next house against our wall exactly twenty-four years ago. As it is a thick stone wall our house was saved.
"Only your house could be saved. When the fire service
arrived they could see the other houses were hopeless. The old woman had
run out of the house leaving all the doors open and the fire roared off
and through the adjoining houses. They concentrated on saving your house."
It was a religious holiday, Immaculate Conception, and so cold the water froze as it left the pipes. The village fire service with its training sessions is obligatory for all residents aged between 18 and 45 except for women with children. Those who do not participate pay an annual tax. For each fire the firefighters get a small fee. It is usually the farmers who fight the fire because they are on the spot. For a big fire the professional force will come out from the town.
I remembered the mess left by the sweep in the days of open coal fires on England but it only took us an hour to clean up. An hour after the sweep left the oil burner went out and had to be returned to its old setting but the wood fire is much easier to manage now the flue in in the kitchen is clean.
12th December 2004