Fireplaces Ancient and Modern

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.   

Inglenook fireplace

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.

Niche for ash
Storage niche

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.

Crémaillère – detail of ratcheting mechanism
Pot holder that would have hung from the crémaillère

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.

Stay well.

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  1. Hi Vanessa. All fascinating stuff. I rather like your little gargoyle. And you have unexpectedly solved a puzzle for us. We inherited a cremaillere here at Le Shack but I had no idea what it was. Now I know. And it gives me an excuse for a housewarming some time!


    Liked by 1 person

    • In the right setting the grotesques would be okay, but they don’t quite fit in an 18th-century farmhouse! And we have five of them. I don’t really notice them now, but I did when we were having the work done. I was sorry that our crémaillère had to be removed, as it had been there since the house was built, but we have kept it as part of our ‘museum’ of old items.


  2. My, you have been lucky with your chimney! Our woodburner was also installed by the shop we bought it from as had a smaller one in our holiday home some 14 years earlier. After a few years we had a fire in the flue behind the stove (a collection of clinker being the culprit!. For the first time in my life I made an emergency call to the pompiers who came out and checked the chimney throughout its 12 metres, verified tour va bien but we needed a proper ‘gainage’, ie tubular stainless steel flexible flue. We had one installed which was fine for a few years until the year we were sold green wood and, innocents that we were, we used it until the moment the flue became compketely blocked with tarry soot. Forward some weeks and the installation of a second flue (!) which wasn’t secured properly and fell down a few weeks later. Cue return of the apologetic roofer to reattach it!
    Our last sweep, the most loyal, told us the height of our chimney, 12 metres, was the over riding problem. Eventually we decided the cutting and stacking if wood was too much and have had a wood pellet stove installed with a mercifully short flue. The old gainage is still hanging in the chimney, sealed off until the next householder sometime in the future decides that a woodburner would be a lovely addition…pah!

    Re the niches, we have one in our cantou but I didn’t know about ashes and the washing so thank you for that insught.

    Re ladybirds, we are fielding umpteen every morning in our ensuite shower comme d’hab. It starts with one or two in January and is now about a dozen or more. Our ensuite is the base of the old pigeonnier with a very high wooden ceiling in which they hibernate.

    Re that sand, filthy car and sickly yellow sky one day but blown away now, fingers crossed

    It’s lovely to read your posts and recognise similar experiences…thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gosh, you have had bad luck with your woodburner. 12 metres is high for a domestic chimney. Fortunately, ours starts on the first floor, otherwise it would have been the same as yours. It must have been frightening to have a chimney fire. We had a terrific build-up of ash and clinker above the slabs that seal off the chimney. Our former sweep used to clean it all out every few years, but he never said anything about our installation not being aux normes! We used to cut our wood into lengths for the poêle, but it took three days out of our lives, so we buy it ready cut now. We still have to stack it, though. I had the pleasure of this task toute seule last year when the SF was recovering from cataract operations. 8 cubic metres – 84 wheelbarrow loads!

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I always learn things from your comments, and it’s good to compare notes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m on cleaning and filling duties with our pellet stove as Mr McGregor had his first cataract op a week ago.
        Our gite woodburner was installed with a couple of long rigid tubes up the chimney so when the one in this house had the same but about four tubes it never occurred to us it wasn’t right. The shop should know, n’est ce pas? The fire was caused by clinker that had collected in the ‘courde’ behind the stove catching light. It was the pompiers who dismantled everything and put the tubes outside to cool and told us a flue was safer. At no point did anyone suggest what we had wasn’t ‘aux normes’ and we had had two different chimney sweeps by then who hadn’t said anything either. I’m glad you found out in a less dramatic way than we did!

        Liked by 1 person

        • The shop certainly should know, as should the ramoneurs. I’m amazed it took nearly 25 years for someone to point out that ours was wrongly done.

          I hope Mr McG is recovering well from cataract op no 1. Many people say they see colours more vividly afterwards. The SF didn’t really experience that, but he said his distance vision was clearer. Good luck with op no 2.


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