Keeping London’s home fires burning
There’s nothing like the comforting glow of a blazing hearth on a cold winter night. We meet four Londoners dedicated to warming your cockles
Tim Smith, stonemason, UB7
Crouched over an unsteady wooden table in an industrial yard a stone’s throw from Heathrow airport, Tim Smith fiercely polishes the foot of an ornate marble fireplace. ‘This is for a very famous Hollywood actor,’ he says.
Covered in a layer of dust with a piece of rope holding up his trousers, Tim isn’t one for airs and graces, even when he’s working for the A-list. ‘It makes no difference to me whether you want to spend £1,200 or £12,000.’
All the same his client list is impressive, ranging from landmarks such as Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s to celebrities such as Claudia Schiffer and Elton John.
Restoring and making bespoke fireplaces might be his bread and butter but, Tim says, ‘It’s very subjective work. You get some people who say, “You’ve cleaned it too much, I wanted all the chips and stains and pigeon poo on it,” and others who say, “Ugh, it looks like it’s 200 years old.” What can you do?’
Ed Mosley, wood supplier, SE8
‘Lots of people get genuinely excited by all this wood. One guy came and wanted to handpick his own logs – just to set them on fire.’
Ed Mosley works at the Deptford yard where The London Log Company houses its collection. The company was born when founders Mark and Debbie Parr asked a tree surgeon friend for his unused offcuts to burn while their central heating was installed. When neighbours started requesting wood, they knew they were on to something.
Some 10 years later, the company not only sells wood to individual homes, but also supplies London restaurants such as Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa, Gaucho and Claridge’s with wood for their ovens.
‘Some chefs want their wood chopped into tiny, finger-sized bits so they can use it in special smoking devices. That takes a while,’ says Ed. ‘Nuno Mendes at the Chiltern Firehouse wasn’t getting what he wanted out of his grill so we developed a combination of woods to give the food an authentic and unique depth of flavour.’
And the worst part of the job? ‘I drop lots of wood on my feet, which hurts like hell. But I haven’t had a single splinter since I started working here – touch wood.’
Nadine Davies, architectural salvage, N1
Nadine and her husband Jason run the Architectural Forum in Islington, salvaging and restoring everything from Victorian and Edwardian cast-iron fireplaces to Georgian and Regency marble fire surrounds. Looking fondly across the shop floor, Nadine says she sees the business as a rehoming centre for abandoned fireplaces. ‘I fall in love with everything, probably because I’m a bit biased and only buy stuff I really like.’
This can make it tough to see items go, particularly when their new homes are a far cry from their original location. ‘We had some fireplaces from Sir Joseph Beecham’s house in Hampstead which we shipped to Thailand. It’s not the way I’d want it to be, but the most important thing is that the item is given a second life,’ she says.
‘People are nervous about putting in a fireplace and making sure it’s proportionally correct and working properly. We do a fireplace fitting service and get H Firkins & Sons to sweep the chimneys to make sure they’re happy with the end product. After all, buying a fireplace is a costly commitment – they’ll be looking at it every day when they walk into their front room.’
Graham Firkins, chimney sweep, N13
Back in 1860 a boy named Harry Firkins found work as a chimney sweep in Crouch End in order to feed his starving family. Over 150 years later, Graham Firkins, his direct descendant, is still cleaning the chimneys of North London for the family company, H Firkins & Sons.
Although some things have changed since Harry’s day – the use of a vacuum to hoover up soot and a van to drive between jobs – the art of chimney sweeping hasn’t altered that much. ‘What I’ve got here is what they had in 1860,’ says Graham. ‘The rods might have been wooden rather than plastic, but essentially it’s the same.’ The biggest change since 1860? ‘Traffic and parking.’
With a loyal client base, Graham is kept busy through the winter. ‘We do Claridge’s, Rod Stewart, half of the cast of EastEnders, lots of wood-fired pizza restaurants. On a long day you can do 10 chimneys.’
Even with the company resting on his shoulders, Graham says he felt no pressure to join the family business. ‘I studied to be an engineer for four years but then my uncle needed someone to drive his van, so I went to work with him for two weeks. Thirty-five years later here I am.’
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Photos: Martin Usborne