Gloucestershire County Council have just finished resurfacing parts of our country lanes and a jolly good job they have made of it too. It’s only when you see all the kit that is needed to lay this black top and chippings that you realise just how exorbitantly expensive all this type of activity is which brings me round to a telephone call I received the other night.
I picked up the phone to a voice on the other end: “I want to open up my fireplace.” A Hello would have been pleasant, I thought to myself, as I recognized the voice. It was a gamekeeper friend, and a very cantankerous one at that, who had got increasingly more cantankerous with my stand on the badger cull business. He just could not understand all this hooh-hah. His view was very much, ‘If they have to be culled, then cull them.’ As my wife often points out, everyone is entitled to their point of view. “Can you wait for a couple of weeks as I am rather busy?”
“No I can’t.” was the reply, “If you can’t do it I can very soon get someone who can.”
“I’ll see you in half an hour.” Being self-employed in the countryside you can never be cavalier about work and you can never turn down too much because there has been times in the past when I have really needed it. I was soon knocking on the front door of his cottage which was situated at the bottom of a track just over a stone bridge which was straddling one of the most attractive streams. As I waited at the door which seemed like an eternity, wondering if he was in or had gone out, the door then opened. It was his wife, Elsie, who unlike Donald was very friendly. She asked me in and asked me if I would like a cup of tea or a half of Donald’s cider. It had to be half of Donald’s cider as I had never known or seen Donald put his hand in his pocket to buy anyone a drink. All you ever got from Donald was “Ahh, everything is so damned expensive, you drink your own and I’ll drink mine.”
“You don’t need a fire this weather Elsie.”
“No, but we want to open it up for the winter, this electric night storage is cripplingly expensive.” Elsie then showed me into the sitting room and there was the old inglenook fireplace which I had blocked up some five years earlier just before they had moved in. “Our Rayburn in the kitchen is fine, I do all my cooking on that, but an open fireplace in this sitting room would be ideal.”
“When do you want it doing?”
“What, now now?” I asked.
“Well, yes, Donald will be back soon and he will be able to give you a hand.”
“Ok,” I muttered, “Could you give Jackie a ring for me and tell her I am going to be late?” I went out and got my tools from the Land Rover, lump hammer, bolster and returned to the cottage to make a start. Elsie had already put a sheet down in front of the fireplace and had cleared away her clock and all her other various china from the mantelpiece. I had no sooner started knocking the blocks out when Donald bustled in. He was always like a hornet in a jam jar. Awkward and also very anxiety struck. “Evening Allan, I see you’re helping yourself to my cider.”
“Yes, a drop of good stuff, you can pour me another as this is thirsty work all this hammering.” He ignored the remark and started to carry out the concrete blocks as I hit them out and within a very short time the stone inglenook fireplace could be seen in all of its glory. “Aha, that’s better,” said Donald.
“You feel warm just looking at it,” said Elsie.
“You will do this winter when I get a few logs into it,” said Donald rubbing his hands.
“Get the rest of this rubbish out then Donald while I have another mouthful of cider to lay this dust.” He grunted as he carted the rubble outside. I looked up the chimney and there was no daylight at all. Elsie shouted from the kitchen, “What’s it like?”
“Blocked,” I replied.
“It is Jackdaws that have blocked it with twigs and nest building material, that is five years of uninterrupted nest building up there.” Just then Donald came lumbering back in.
“Fireplace is blocked, you’ll have to get a sweep.”
“Them blasted Jackdaws, we’ll do it, we’ll unblock the chimney.”
“I can’t, I haven’t got a ladder with me.”
“I’ve got a ladder in the barn.”
“Damn.” I said. With the speed of a missile Donald was gone. As Elsie was telling me how cold they had been the last two winters, we could hear a few thuds on the side of the cottage. “He’s got the ladder, you’ll have to go up it as Donald doesn’t like heights.” I went to the front door just as Donald was coming in. “There’s a ladder up to the chimney and there’s a good long poking stick.” He then pointed to a twenty foot nut stick on the front lawn. “Hang on a sec,” and he went and got one of Elsie’s slippers and tied it on the end, it was the rabbit type slipper.
“The slipper will be ruined when I push it down the chimney with all that soot and debris.”
“It’ll wash off,” replied Donald.
“Yes, it’ll wash off,” agreed Elsie.
I was soon up the ladder staring down their chimney. It was now time to make some dust. After heaving the nut stick up to the top of the chimney, I pushed it partly down until I started to reach some resistance. I pushed downwards with all my might as it was all terribly compacted. Up and down I pushed and shoved - it was as tight as wax! After a few minutes it was starting to give, then a screech could be heard from the cottage, “Stop! Stop!” The resistance to my poking was no more, the chimney was now completely free of sticks and debris. I started my descent and could hear the deep voice of Donald, he didn’t sound best pleased. Just as my feet touched ‘terra ferma’, Donald ran out of the house, resembling a seventeen stone mole, he was black from head to toe, covered in soot. He didn’t stop running until he was up to his knees in the stream. In Donald’s absence, the cottage was very quiet as I ventured in, peering into the black to find Elsie cradling a fine looking barn owl somewhat blackened and bewildered but perfectly fine. The rest of the room was covered completely in soot, it was black everywhere. This would take hours to clean up and it was time for me to go home.
My two children were brought up with their pet Barn Owl, Chloe.