We had to have work done on our chimney this week, or more precisely, the woodburning stove we installed nearly 25 years ago. None of our previous chimney sweeps had told us the installation didn’t conform to normes (standards). The new sweep we engaged did and explained in detail what needed to be done.
An open fire is lovely to look at, but it’s not efficient and creates a lot of mess. The previous owner lit fires on the metal plaque at floor level, and people told us their fronts roasted while their backs froze.
Wrongly installed wood-burning stove
In autumn 1997, a local shop, which shall be nameless, sold us a woodburner and said they could install it. They came for an initial visit, bringing a Spanish maçon with them.
He climbed up on the roof (three storeys high) and said, “Where’s the American flag?”
“Isn’t there an American flag on la lune?”
We never saw him again. Instead, le patron of the shop and an employee carried out the work without going up on the roof. This is significant later. The woodburner (un poêle in French; une poêle is a frying pan) worked well for many years. Only they didn’t fit it properly.
Fast forward to autumn 2021.
“They used the wrong flue pipes,” our new chimney sweep said. “They should be stainless steel, and there aren’t enough of them. They should reach to the top of the chimney. And the top should be capped up there. Also the dalles [slabs with which they closed off the chimney breast] are crumbling.”
The sweep must supply a certificate of completion every year, indicating any problems. In case of a fire, the insurance may refuse to pay out if the installation is not aux normes.
“Are these normes new?” I said.
“No, they’ve been around since the 1980s.”
Up to standard
Happily, someone recommended a maçon who specialises in rectifying these mistakes. He is certified RGE (Reconnu Garant de l’Environnement), which is a quality norm, important in case of future problems or when selling the house (no, we are not selling).
He duly turned up on Monday and did the work in a day. Apart from the interior work, he had to go up on the roof.
“Are you really going up there in this wind?” I said, since it was blowing quite a hooley out there.
He smiled. “Yes. Don’t worry, I’ll hang onto a branch.”
Fortunately, his ascent and descent were without incident.
The moral: when having any works done, check that the artisan is properly accredited and that the work is done to prevailing quality and safety standards. You would assume that reputable artisans know what they’re doing, but it appears this isn’t always the case.
In past times, the fireplace was the centre of the house. The hearth was the principal source of heat and light, the place where the family and neighbours congregated during the long winter evenings.
Most farmhouses, like ours, had a fireplace known as a cantou. In English, it would be an inglenook. Beneath the protruding chimney breast, the cantou was often enclosed on two sides (ours isn’t), thus forming a sitting area that protected people from the inevitable draughts. One’s place in the family hierarchy determined one’s proximity to the fire.
In the rear wall of the cantou, an arched niche contained ash from the fire. This was used, sifted, as washing powder. Difficult to imagine, I know, but wood ash is a natural detergent. Other niches contained fire lighting materials.
A wooden shelf was fixed to the chimney breast above the fire. There is no longer one over our fire, but you can clearly see the marks where it was once attached. People placed on the shelf religious objects, such as statuettes of the Virgin or crucifixes, items for drying and kitchen utensils. Plus, no doubt, the usual paraphernalia that ends up on mantelpieces.
The stone heads are clearly not original and were put there by the previous owner. They are reproductions of grotesques that supposedly appear on Oxford buildings, although I have yet to identify which one(s). I don’t care for them greatly, but I am afraid of damaging the chimney breast by removing them.
Most of the cooking took place over the fire. Fireplaces were fitted with a crémaillère, a metal rack and pinion mechanism from which a pot could be suspended at adjustable heights. The crémaillère hung on a lateral piece of wood fixed inside the chimney.
By tradition, fixing the crémaillère marked the final act in the construction of the house. Pendre la crémaillère has become a metaphor for holding a housewarming party.
Sadly, our own crémaillère had to be removed when the woodburner was installed. We still have it, though.
In other news
March winds have been on the menu, with a strong vent d’autan (south-easterly) blowing all last weekend. I collected three wheelbarrow-loads of sticks dropped by our ash trees, useful kindling. Fortunately, no trees down or other damage.
With the wind coming from the South, much of Northern Europe has been experiencing the strange phenomenon of Sahara sand falling from the sky and colouring the sunsets an angry orange. Our car windscreen is slightly dusty, and the sky has had an odd yellow glow about it, but it’s not as obvious here as in other places.
We’ve also had a ladybird invasion as they wake up for spring. They over-winter in our window frames and emerge inside. I have been ushering them out, in the hope that they will eat the aphids on our roses.
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