The nights can be quite chilly, now the days are shorter and the sun is lower in the sky. But a live fire on a cold night brings a special kind of comfort that a radiator can’t match. Many of us have a primeval, even spiritual, response to a good fire.
Once, only gods could set trees ablaze with their lightning bolts. How must it have felt then, when we first discovered how to create a living flame. The fire kept predators away, roasted our meat and boiled our root broth: it also drew us together to keep warm and share stories.
However, the fire-god’s gift demanded to be fed. A constant supply of fuel was needed, even in summer, for heating water and cooking food.
For generations woods and forests were a ready source, providing the owner had granted permission for scavenging fallen wood. Dead branches too high to reach were brought down by using a long pole with an iron hook on the end, giving us the expression, “by hook or by crook”.
While rural folk burned wood, peat, or turf, England’s towns needed northern coal to fill the hearths of their growing populations. In 1563-64, 33,000 tons left Tyneside and Wearside on colliers bound for the port of London. Production doubled between 1750 and 1800 and by 1848, Britain was mining two thirds of the world’s coal.
In the 1960s coal was still king, although the open hearth was starting to vanish from our homes. Progress was a bricked-up fireplace and central heating. The carting in of coal, the black dust, the raking out of cinders, it all seemed so primitive. Luddites who missed their fire could buy a glowing electric one with flickering-flame-effect and plastic logs.
Yet the hearth fire never lost its fascination. Now it’s reckoned that one million British homes boast its current incarnation — the woodburning stove. Clean and handsome, the woodburner also revives an old tradition, the sourcing and chopping of logs.
These stoves need more than the odd scavenged branch. In winter they’ll gobble barrow loads of firewood and it all needs to be decent, seasoned wood. The drier the logs, the hotter and cleaner they burn. Some people think it doesn’t matter — wood is wood. But logs from different trees have their own qualities, summed up in these old verses:
Oaken logs if dry and old
Keep away the winter’s cold.
Elm wood burns like graveyard mould,
Even the very flames are cold.
Apple wood will scent the room,
Pear wood smells as flowers in bloom.
But ash wood wet and ash wood dry—
A king can warm his slippers by.
Beech wood fires burn bright and clear,
If the logs be kept a year.
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for years it’s stored away.
Birch and fir woods burn too fast,
Blaze too bright and do not last.
But ash wood green and ash wood brown—
Fit for a queen with a golden crown.
Notice that some common trees are missing from this list. Certain woods would never be put on the fire, however desperate the householder. Hawthorn was avoided because it spits, and it was most unlucky to burn holly or elder.