Mid-life career changes have led Martin and Jenna Lee to sweeping success – he’s a Master sweep and she is Dorset’s first female Guild-qualified sweep
Legend has it that King William the Conqueror declared (not decreed() chimney sweeps to be a symbol of good luck after he was saved by a plucky sweep from a runaway carriage. Another legend says it was George III , and he was saved by a brave sweep after dogs spooked his horses.
My personal favourite is the tale of the chimney sweep who lost his footing and was left dangling precariously from a gutter. The woman in the house pulled him to safety and it was love at first sooty sight.
Since then, it’s been lucky to have a chimney sweep at weddings or to shake a sweep’s hand – Prince Philip reportedly dashed out of Kensington Palace to do just that before his wedding to the then Princess Elizabeth.
That good luck – along with a lot of hard work – seems to have followed Wimborne husband-and-wife Martin and Jenna Lee. They both made career changes, Martin six years ago and Jenna just this year, to start their own chimney sweeping businesses There are only 15 female Guild sweeps in the whole country and Jenna (43) is proud to be the first in Dorset to qualify with HETAS (Heating Equipment Testing and Approvals Scheme).
It’s not all Chim Chim Cher-ee
There’s certainly a lot more to this profession than Bert from Mary Poppins would have you believe. An intense mix of classroom training, practical sessions and shadowing master sweeps is demanded for sweeping inglenooks, wood burners, open fireplaces and even pizza ovens.
Martin explains a particular challenge: ‘Everyone in the industry knows that Aga Wenlock stoves are incredibly tricky to take part. At the training centre there’s one we strip and put back together against the clock. Some sweeps have even got one in their shed so they can practice. I’ll admit I’m a bit of sweep geek but even I wouldn’t go that far!’
The classic chimney sweep’s bristle brush is still in use – but now it works alongside high-tech kit including CCTV equipment. There are the challenges of removing birds’ nests as well as occasional birds, bats and squirrels – dead and alive! Martin says rain is the bugbear of a professional sweep: ‘Fluffy dry soot is replaced by congealed soggy goo that clogs up equipment.’
Martin and Jenna are meticulous in their approach to work. ‘The secret of being a good sweep is all about the set-up,’ says Martin. ’You need to assess the property and gauge what rods and equipment you’ll need, to minimise trips in and out of the house. It’s not just about dirty boots, you might also be surrounded by valuable ornaments, so taking extreme care is very important.’
His expertise means he is also called on for renovation projects. ‘In one old house, the builders were opening the blocked-up fireplaces. I spent a fortnight clearing 17 chimneys. I cleared huge nests that had been there more than 50 years – in one grate I found a newspaper dated 1954. The old adverts for tobacco were wonderful!’
Enter the lady sweep
The run-up to Christmas is the busiest time, with the couple each racking up 100-hour working weeks. Their customer base stretches across Dorset and into the New Forest, ranging from celebrity mansions with 14 chimneys to a small bungalow with just one.
Jenna says: ‘Martin was getting busier, so I started doing some of his paperwork. When I did the numbers I realised there was enough work for us both. I’d been working for an asphalt company for nineteen years, getting up before dawn, and it was taking its toll. As a couple, we were just passing each other in the evening. Martin would be ready to chill out and I’d be going to bed!’
Jenna cut her working hours so that she could help Martin – and then she was made redundant. For six months, Jenna spent two days a week shadowing Martin and in June this year she qualified and launched her own business, Dorset Lady Sweep, complete with a distinctive, pink-flashed van and Mary Poppins-style branding. She says: ‘Some customers are surprised to see a lady sweep but by the time I’m finished, they’re impressed. A lady in Swanage told me she’d never had any issues with male workmen but felt more relaxed with another woman working in the house. ‘It’s certainly not a way to make a living if you’re worried about breaking a nail, but I love it!’
And do the couple have a watershed, when talk of rods and flues is banned? ‘Not really. We’re a good team. The only time we fall out is over radio station choice and air-con temperature in the works van if we’re on a job together!’
- Quick fire questions:
- Dream dinner party guest?
- Jenna: Family and friends and biker Marc Marquez – I’m a big MotoGP fan.
- Martin: Metallica. It would be cool to have dinner and a few beers with the band.
- Book by your bedside?
- None. By the time we get home and have replied to emails and calls, we’re too tired to read! For us, it’s a soak in our hot tub.