Saturday, 31 January 2015


Today, I smell pine smoke.

The Pescod family. My mum is on the left,
uncle John on the right and my grandparents
 in the middle. c1948
On these chilly-chilly evening times there is blue woodsmoke in the air. Neighbours, who bricked up their fireplaces years ago, have put in wood-burning stoves or re-instated an open fire in the front room.

Splitting logs for the fire is almost the only daily chore that most of us old men still enjoy doing. Some of us use axes but the real pros use a mallet and wedges.  You need an industrial sized supply of logs and offcuts to run a stove if it is your main source of heat, but for a boutique style, part-time, open fire like mine, a more casual, hand-to-mouth approach will get you by.

The age-old act of gathering firewood and kindling touches on some of my deepest memories and associations. Even before our species left Africa, fire must have been vital to our existence, not just to cook on, or to keep warm, but to keep serious predators at bay. In Medieval times, peasants could not have survived English winters without the right to access manorial woodland for fire-wood.

Gran's house today.
In the Yorkshire Dales of the 50s and 60s, firewood was still an essential item for survival for my grandmother. Electricity arrived in the mid 60s but it was not used for heating. Her stone house was more or less built around the chimney and around the big, black cast-iron range that heated the room, the water and the oven which was off to the right side of the fire. That fire dried our clothes and we bathed in a tin bath in front of it. Like those early Hominids, the fire provided us with heating and cooking, but it did not keep the animals away. In fact several cats and both the farm dogs fought to lay in front of the hearth.  We had coal delivered, but we still needed wood to start the fire because no-one had yet invented fire-lighters. The Sunday Post came in handy for fire-lighting, once we had all read it and finished the puzzles.

On "baking days" we ate dozens of fresh bread-buns from that stove, followed by ginger-snaps, tarts, pies and short-bread biscuits; all perfect. There was often a salty ham being smoked in the chimney too.

Gathering kindling was not a seasonal job because we used the fire all year round. Every walk to the village, or just to the letterbox, included foraging for fruit, mushrooms and sticks to carry home. We must have looked like peasants from a Bruegel painting with those bundles of sticks and heavy shopping bags. Of course we did not find all the sticks and mushrooms that we wanted by staying on the paths. The river-banks would be covered in alder-sticks after a flood and the steep, inaccessible bank-sides would not have been picked over by our less-adventurous neighbours. Gathering sticks was always an adventure.

The kindling sticks we carried home were usually wet, but we could dry them in a little oven on the left side of the range. If you ever looked inside you would always find newspapers and sticks drying out for the next fire.

Later in life, I moved to West Sussex where I lived in an ancient house in Eartham Woods. It had an open fireplace big enough to be an extra room and we burned huge logs on it that we dragged back from long walks beneath the towering specimen beech trees that grew there before the Great Storm. I lost at least two pairs of good leather boots through falling asleep with my feet on the grate.

Today, I went foraging for wood. I drove from garage to garage to garden centre looking for logs to buy. I found wet pine logs that will not burn at all and kiln-dried hardwood logs that cost nearly £1 each. I could easily spend £10 on keeping the front room warm for four hours. At that price, I should be thinking about using more fossil fuels, or buying cheap furniture to chop up.

"Move over Darling, I need your chair for the fire."

I need to work my contacts. Richard, who is a taxi driver on the school-run, stops every day at a factory gate to pick up wooden packaging and palletts. Dave, who is retirted, has chatted up the builder across the road so that he gets daily drops of offcuts and old doors. I work on a nature reserve so you would think I would have access to all the wood I need, but we recycle it where it falls. Every time a tree comes down and rots away, if you leave it alone, it provides all the ingredients for the next tree and a home for all kinds of creepy-crawly beastie.