Chim chim cher-ee!

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Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; 
Nor the furious winter’s rages, 
Thou thy worldly task hast done, 
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages; 
Golden lads and girls all must, 
As chimney sweepers come to dust. 
 
From Shakespeare’s Cymbeline song to Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper”, Dickens’ Oliver Twist – and indeed, Bert in Mary Poppins (immortalised with one of the most bogus Cockney accents ever by Dick Van Dyke) – chimney sweeps have had a mixed press. The use of young “climbing boys” to clamber up inside chimneys, risking death by asphyxiation or eventually carcinoma, was not fully outlawed in England until 1875 (see Peter Coveney’s excellent 1957 book on the child in literature, Poor Monkey). Nevertheless, to see a sweep on your wedding day, or shake hands with him at any time, was considered good luck – as we learn in the song “Chim him cher-ee!” 
 
In Paris, rogue “ramoneurs” come knocking on apartment doors, insisting on the legal necessity for this to be done and then charging three or four times the going rate.
 
In rural France, today, most people have wood-burning fires, both for pleasure and because wood is a cheap and readily available fuel. If you use your fireplace, the law requires you to have the chimney swept professionally once a year, at which time you receive a certificate. Should you then have a chimney fire (igniting cobwebs being one common cause), the insurance doesn’t cover you unless you have said certificate. I have a complete chimney sweeping kit in my barn, but I can’t bypass the professionals, being unable to issue myself with a certificate!
 
After a hot summer, a sudden chill. This year we started making evening fires earlier than ever. Now it is officially Autumn and the hunting season began yesterday, so I feel slightly less guilty about doing so. Today, therefore, the chimney sweeps came – complete with designer chimney-sweep trousers (see photo above). They blocked off the fireplace to contain the soot, then climbed onto the roof to brush down, then worked from under the fireplace tarpaulin to brush up. Then they hoovered up the mess. Forty-five minutes, and Done!
 
Here it is in pictures.
 
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© 2020 Adrian Mathews