The Sharp End - Reach for the sky

Dave Waller brushes up on his Dickens for a day as a south London chimney sweep.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The Sharp End is packing me off to be a chimney sweep for the day. I'm glad it's not the early-19th century. Even if I do one day succumb to the stress of my editor lighting a fire under my arse to get me to meet deadlines, at least I've made it past the age of nine.

These days, the career-minded young lad has swapped scampering up soot-filled flues for a paper round or being plucked from the playground by Man United, but the 'climbing boy' is still people's first thought when it comes to sweeps. Which is why Mr Jolly, my host for the day, has the phrase 'Doesn't Use Children' plastered down the side of his van. Otherwise he fits the bill perfectly: a lanky, shaggy-haired 44-year-old with warm Liverpudlian charm, a Dick van Dyke of the north.

Our first sweep is at 10am, in the basement of a period terrace in Camberwell, south-east London, home of a chirpy dental hygienist proffering coffee. After sealing up the fireplace with a sheet, Phil (as Mr Jolly is otherwise known) is on his knees adding rods to extend the brush handle as it heads skywards. It's a big old house. The average chimney takes eight rods. He's on the ninth when he finds it won't go any further - its progress is blocked by a kink in the flue.

Phil sends up a smoke pellet to test whether the path is clear. He likes these. Once his mate was having problems with his car and Phil chucked a smoke pellet underneath. The guy got out and legged it, thinking it was about to explode. At least Phil found it hilarious. Here, things are less amusing. A neighbour says he can smell smoke, which means the chimney is cracked and unusable. A new liner may cost £2,000.

The job takes around 30 minutes and earns Phil £50. Then we're off to East Dulwich, to the cottage of someone who works on Antiques Roadshow. Such glamour is not unusual. The other day Phil was sweeping the chimneys of a writer on Peppa Pig. Then there was the time he swept at Jason Statham's house, chatting to his dad about his fishing tackle shop, surrounded by massive pictures of the actor schmoozing with the stars.

Phil values a more down-to-earth life. Having tried his hand at landscape gardening, he was drawn to sweeping by 'the philosophy of simplicity'. 'This job may not be the most interesting, but it's easy and there's very little prep,' he says. Newbies simply have to join the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, paying around £1,500 for two weeks' training. But it's not always simple. When Phil moved to Tunbridge Wells, he discovered sweeping's dark side. 'I'll come round and break every bone in your body, so you'll never sweep another chimney again,' boomed a local rival down the phone. He tends to give the AGM a miss these days.

At least he hasn't been left to gather soot in the downturn - the phone never stops ringing. He's usually flat-out from September till Christmas, and his busiest-ever day brought in £650. But in his quietest week one summer, he took a measly £100. That's when weddings come in handy. Thanks to King George II, who decided that chimney sweeps are good luck during nuptials, Phil has a sideline loitering outside ceremonies with soot on his face, getting £200 a pop. He did eight of them last year.

Next we're off to Penge, to the terraced house of a friendly Telegraph hack. I have a go, getting the brush in there, attaching rods and trying to push it up. It takes more force than you'd think, and I don't achieve much beyond getting covered in soot. There's a lot of blind waggling. It reminds me of digging round the U-bend with a coat hanger. I admit I can't get it up, which draws a few sniggers. 'That's never happened to me before,' I duly plead.

Our final job is on a building site. Phil pulls a sack out from the chimney, summoning a cloud of soot that cakes him in black and stays in my nose for the rest of the day. Next, he pulls out an avian corpse. Although that's not as good as the time one well-to-do client asked him to sweep her son's chimney: Phil reached behind the fireplace to deal with a blockage and found a stash of dusty porn DVDs. 'She didn't seem the type to handle that conversation well, so I just dusted them off and put them back,' he says. The chimney sweep: once the scourge of small boys, now benevolent patron of newlyweds and teens.

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