Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: Trouble with the chimney

Now entering a second winter restoring our old house in the country, my wife and I have toughened up. We greet each turn of events on the building site with the same slit eyed, steely glower. We have seen how disaster all too quickly follows triumph, or sometimes vice versa. Still, the new conservatory caught me out.

It is the latest room to be finished, as, inch by inch, we win the house back from the builders. Before we commissioned this room’s design a year ago, we took careful soundings from several conservatory owners and architects, and their views were almost unanimous: too hot in summer, too cold in winter. So we gave our room a solid claytiled roof and painted wood pillars instead of the traditional glass roof on thin struts.

Seeing it for the first time this week without scaffolding and workmen all over it, I gave a sudden choked cough of delight. It looked so unbelievably pretty with its limestone flagstones, parchment coloured woodwork, built in window seats, and sparkling glazing, all lit by the bright winter sun.

It’s just too bad that for now the room gives a grandstand view over a forest of ugly, dying, brown docks in our back garden. A curse you can count on facing if you restore a house is the mysterious march of these deep rooting and beastly weeds. Too tough to yank out in any numbers, they have to be dug up by the roots – punishing work. (Chemical sprays aren’t an option for us, as the surrounding fields are organic.)

So I splashed out immediately when I recently found myself at a country fair and came across a stall selling antique farm implements, including a nifty cleftnosed dock grubber for £35. The company to ring is Handles Old Woking (01483 773461).

Did I say something about triumphs and disasters? Well, I lit a fire in the dining room before dinner a night or two later and, whoosh, the flames quickly rose from the logs with a beautiful chuckling roar. So all was well until I went upstairs an hour later to check that our young children were happily asleep and, when I opened their bedroom door, fell back at the bitter stench of smoke. Somewhere there is a great big leak in the chimney.

‘Looks like you’ll have to line it then,’ said our builders. That means the house will soon be covered in scaffolding again. I’m not looking forward to having a lined chimney, as it will have a narrower flue and be more likely to smoke badly. If it does smoke, I’m told we can solve the problem by fitting a powered fan inside the chimney, again at a price.

Meanwhile, the toll of mice is rising. My dining room traps have accounted for a dozen now. Will this battle go down as some sort of Passchendaele in the mice annals of warfare? I can’t help but salute the brave way they keep sending reinforcements out of their hole in the oak wall panelling and into battle. Maybe Christmas Day should bring a truce. Over a hunk of ripe Stilton, we can sit together as brothers and shake our heads at the mad world that makes us enemies.