The chimney-sweeping industry is setting new professional standards, writes Martin Whittaker.
THIS is his busiest time of year, he might just visit your fireplace and, if you're really lucky, you can catch a glimpse of him on the rooftops. Who is he? No, not Him. Not the corpulent, bearded bloke in red who gets stuck in chimneys. We're talking about the chimney sweep. Sweeps call this time of year the fire season, when they are constantly in demand to clean or unblock chimneys.
Martin Glynn, from Orpington, Kent, has never been stuck in a chimney during 20 years as a sweep. In fact, he rarely goes inside one, unless he is cleaning an industrial flue when domestic work gets slacker in the summer. "Some of that work is no different from what it was in Victorian times, when they used to send little boys up chimneys," he says.
Today, sweeps are called chimney technicians. Martin Glynn, 45, is a new breed of fully-qualified, professional sweep, far-removed from the image of the happy-go-lucky sweep who goes around bringing people luck. Three years ago, he became the first in the UK to get NVQ level 2 in chimney engineering. He is also president of the National Association of Chimney Sweeps.
He comes from a long line of sweeps. His grandfather was sweeping chimneys long before Dick Van Dyke foisted his suspect Cockney accent on an unsuspecting public in the film Mary Poppins. Martin's father, brother, two uncles and two cousins are also in the trade.
"I went into the family business. I'd had an interest in it through my grandfather," he says. "I used to help him at weekends. I took to it like a duck to water.
"We go from the rich and famous to all sorts. It's quite varied. Every fireplace and every chimney is different. It's a fascinating world when you go on the rooftops and look at all the chimney pots."
The National Association of Chimney Sweeps (NACS) was set up 18 years ago to introduce professional training. It followed concer over the number of deaths caused by carbon monoxide from blocked chimneys.
New members must complete a two-day induction course, which includes health and safety as well as the practical side of the job. They then work with an experienced sweep for up to three weeks.
New sweeps must show they have the right equipment, public liability insurance and a business plan. "The equipment can cost a few thousand pounds," says Martin Glynn. But if someone's coming into your house, whether it's worth pound;100,000 or pound;2.5 million, that operative should know what he's doing.
"Soot is classified as a carcinogenic substance and it can be absorbed through the skin, nostrils or mouth. So we do have to wear protective clothing. The days of tipping it on to the vegetable patch or the roses are fading fast."
NACS members also have to become registered with Corgi, Oftec and Hetas, the gas, oil and solid fuel watchdogs.
The association also pushes home the need to have chimneys swept regularly. It has just launched a campaign to raise public awareness of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
There is a membership of nearly 300 and Martin Glynn says there are as many again who have not joined NACS and taken the training. "Our research has found that a lot of these guys are the village sweep. It could be the bus driver going out to clean chimneys on a Saturday morning.
"Some of them aren't interested in joining a professional association.
"All our members have an ID badge they must display, and they must leave a certificate for each chimney they have swept."
In the Home Counties, they charge between pound;35 and pound;40 a chimney, and can deal with between 10 and 15 chimneys in a day during the fire season.
Perhaps that explains all the dancing on the rooftops!
For more information, contact the National Association of Chimney Sweeps, Unit 15, Emerald Way, Stone Business Park, Stone, Staffordshire, ST15 0SR, telephone 01785 811732.