Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Flame at last

Winter is breathing down our necks, so it's time to get close to the hearth...

Juno enjoys the wood burner - which is not a Juno (TM)
The colder, darker nights are drawing in and for some of us this means the annular return of that cosiest of rituals: the careful chopping and arranging of kindling, the primal sense of satisfaction as orange flames blossom amidst crackling twigs and pinecones, and the wonderful smoky aroma as warmth spreads from your fireplace. If you are among that species of modern human who uses a heat pump, flames, crackling sounds and smoke are far from a source of blissful satisfaction – whereas a traditional fireplace doesn’t simply warm your home – it warms your soul.

Since earliest recorded history, the hearth has been a focal point of gathering, the preparation and sharing of food, and a source of heat, light and protection. When Prometheus, as the legend goes, planned to steal fire from the Gods he needed a container to pull off this heist, and settled for a glass tube. Presumably humanity discovered the slightly more convenient fireplace shortly afterwards.

The first open fire I ever lived with was a formidable specimen – a baronial hearth fit for hounds the size of horses to sprawl in front of - in the reception hall of a Scottish castle. Commanding views of the eastern Highlands, these towers had long been converted into a Youth Hostel and part of my duties as Assistant Warden was to keep the fire stoked with appropriately-scaled sections of tree trunk. This fireplace was a natural gathering point for Hostellers who delighted in its perfect blend of atmosphere and comfort. International co-operation, new friendships and even brief romances often flourished in its warm, amber glow - until we were joined one night by a brave and presumably flame-resistant bat that suddenly flew down the chimney. Squeals of fright erupted from Mediterranean Lotharios and the rapt objects of their attentions as this small airborne rodent swooped around the panicking hall at head-height, until I managed to encourage it back outside with an energetically undignified display of arm-waving. All in a night’s work for the Scottish Youth Hostel Association.

We love the smell of woodsmoke in the morning...

Back in New Zealand we were delighted to have an open fire in the first home we ever bought – perched near the summit of Wellington’s Mount Victoria. Almost counting the days until the temperature dropped enough to light it, we were in for a hefty shock. Whenever the prevailing northerly wind blew, which was often, the shape of the hill seemed to direct the air straight down our chimney. Many a convivial evening was somewhat ruined by our living room slowly filling up with smoke until we could barely see each other. In frustration one night, I tipped a thickly smoking log onto a baking tray and carried it outside, only to almost lose my eyebrows when it spectacularly re-ignited as soon as the northerly gusts touched it. The other disadvantage we found was the tendency of certain varieties of burning wood to unexpectedly fire red hot wooden shrapnel and sparks into the room with a sound like a gunshot. This tended to be quite a long way from relaxing, as was the ensuing scramble to remove the smoldering projectile from the cushion, carpet or cat which it had landed on.

Moving to the country we found ourselves with enough space to have a winter bonfire with a difference. The 1974 horror film The Wicker Man featured an unforgettable climax involving a gigantic man-shaped wooden structure set alight as part of a pagan sacrifice. Deciding to forego the sacrifice part, we wove our own moderately impressive Wicker Man out of several metres of grapevine cuttings, stood him upright on a stout length of timber with a sturdy cross bar to support his ‘shoulders’, and then bolted the whole towering arrangement onto a deeply-buried house pile. Friends arrived, the night was still and clear and a perfect full moon even obliged us by rising just as we set our pagan idol alight. He blazed magnificently until the vine cuttings burnt away and we realised with horror that we were left with a giant burning cross! (see below)

Honest, Officer, it's not what it looks like!
Being fairly new to the district this was far from the impression we wanted to make on our new neighbours. Unfortunately, the structure was so robustly built that we could only wait in extreme and helpless embarrassment until it finally collapsed in a shower of sparks. This event has unsurprisingly proven to be a ‘one-off’, so far. We warm our current home with a large woodburner, so explosive projectiles of red-hot splinters, clouds of smoke and stray bats have all become things of the past. Happily, the arranging and lighting of kindling remains the same, with a window offering ample opportunity for contemplative ‘fire watching’. And who knows, one moonlit, mid-winter night, a giant burning figure may yet reappear – but definitely on a less-cruciform scaffold, this time.

Our Wicker Man (Edward Woodward not included)

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