Tales of a traditional tradesman

The end of the recent cold snap didn't come a moment too soon for the residents of The Rural Retreat, especially the female co-owner who spent much of the frosty fortnight festooned in blankets while dreaming of the heat-soaked Namibian plains.

So it was predictable – though no less welcome – that one of the contenders for the prize of improving our home heating should get in touch the week after temperatures had risen and the onset of spring had become more than a distant possibility.

Renovation of the Rayburn is still on the To Do list, most likely sometime after our forthcoming honeymoon has faded into a happy memory, but thoughts of a wood-burning stove have been abandoned in favour of restoring the traditional cottage fireplace, which is why we were visited last week by a traditional tradesman.

We know that there used to be a proper fireplace in the Retreat, for there's a splendidly solid granite hearthstone and an oak mantel to prove it. However, of the associated ironmongery there's no trace – just a gaping hole occupied by a bent grate flanked by a few bricks and stones placed there by a long-departed unknown former owner in an effort to reduce the up-draught that can consume a bucketful of coal in minutes.

If a real fireplace had stood there before, I reasoned, filling the hole should be no problem. Not so, Matchgirl and I were told by an Invernessian heating specialist during a reconnaissance before Christmas. The firm's expert would first have to make an inspection, so we returned to the Retreat with an armful of brochures, from which to choose our favourite, and waited for his visit. And waited.

Until at last he was upon us, the man who knows, armed with a notebook and tape measure which he used extensively while tapping on walls, studying the hearthstone and peering up the chimney, whereupon he demonstrated the traditional tradesman's sharp intake of breath and tutted about the small diameter of the chimney lining. The wall opening may be too wide for a modern fireplace, he mused, amid more tutting, and the hearthstone may need to be cut to prevent it being cracked by heat.

Ten minutes after arrival he left to spread good cheer among his other clients. At least he didn't demand that the chimney-stack be rebuilt.

Matchgirl and I now wait with impatience to hear whether our chosen fireplace will fit the empty hole and whether we'll have to stump up for a new mantel as well. The favoured model features decorated matt black cast iron and four rose-encrusted tiles up each side; if we're going for tradition we might as well go all the way. Sadly, there's no optional tea-pot stand, such as my great-grandma used in her fireplace, and nowhere to boil the big black kettle I also remember. We also lack the rag rug and a toasting fork.

One accessory vital in every rustic cottage we do possess, however – a rocking chair – although its regular use is curtailed by the presence of the resident long-tailed cat.

The down side of a gleaming new fireplace is that the lived-in look of the rest of the cottage will become even more apparent. But no matter: Matchgirl has a DIY itch to scratch and a desire for new furnishings.

Domestic harmony may soon face its sternest test yet.

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