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Stig of the Dump in Kent – fireplaces and chimneys

Fires and chimneys are strong visual props in the Stig of the Dump, the timeless children’s classic – but did you know that both the book and the late author (Clive King) have strong connections to the county of Kent?

King spent part of his childhood at Pease Hill in Ash, during the 1930s, and he was very familiar with the Kentish North Downs. It was a chalk pit in the local area which later inspired him to put pen to paper to create the background to his literary tale about a boy (Barney) who befriends a caveman (Stig) in an old chalk pit full of rubbish. The surrounding towns and villages in Kent must have also been familiar to him – for example, one of the scenes in Stig of the Dump sees Barney’s grandmother announcing, ‘I have to go to Sevenoaks this morning’.

Barney could have benefited with advice from chimney sweeps whilst helping Stig to create a rudimentary fireplace and chimney for his smoky den: ‘The smoke was filling the den, and there was no way out for it except to trickle through the gaps in the roof. It made Barney’s eyes water, but he supposed it was one of the things you just had to put up with, like nettles. All the same the place could do with a chimney, as well as windows’.

The dangers of carbon monoxide aside, the perils of DIY fireplace creation are clearly evident in the story. Stig squashes empty tins together into a makeshift stove pipe and Barney helps him by upturning a bath to use as a mantlepiece with the fireplace itself made of ‘chalk blocks and big flints’, and the pipe of tins (no mention of chimney lining!) pushing through ‘a crack between the piece of linoleum and a sheet of corrugated iron’ into the open air.

As a member of the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, you can only imagine I would have some strong advice to give to Barney and his caveman friend. Their efforts are fully commendable but the contraption would certainly fail my safety risk assessment! Even more so, when it comes to lighting the fire:

‘Barney lit the fire – which Stig had laid as they built the fireplace – and threw some additional scraps of paper and twigs on to it. Once the smoke had learnt its way it went roaring up the pipe. They rushed outside and there it was coming out of what looked like a proper chimney-pot sticking through the roof. Stig watched, fascinated. ‘There you are, Stig,’ said Barney. ‘Now you’ve got a proper fireplace people can come and visit you without getting their eyes full of smoke.’ Actually Stig didn’t seem to care very much about having the place full of smoke, but he was as pleased with his fireplace as if it had been a new toy, and kept on putting twigs and leaves on the fire so that he could go out and see the smoke coming out the other end.’

All good fun in a story – but in real life, in case you’re tempted, please don’t [1] create your own chimney out of scrap materials! And [2] make sure your wood is dry and [3] the chimney pot meets industry standards and [4] there really shouldn’t be smoke in the den. That’s the most disturbing comment: ‘Actually Stig didn’t seem to care very much about having the place full of smoke’. Smoke inhalation is extremely dangerous.

And, of course, it’s the invisible fumes which are also dangerous if a fireplace is not fitted properly: carbon monoxide is odourless and invisible. It kills in minutes. Fireplaces and chimney flues need to be correctly created to lessen the risk of CO poisoning.

I love the enthusiasm for indoor fires in this wonderful story. It’s heart warming (no pun intended!) but we should also let it serve as a reminder as to what NOT to do when it comes to fireplaces and flues. What Barney needs to do, is persuade his caveman pal to call in the services of a proper chimney professional in Kent…i.e. James the Sweep! Meanwhile, if you’ve never read Stig of the Dump… please do! It’s a superb story for children.