When I have visitors, I love to show off the back garden. Not my horticultural skills, or water features. I don’t even have an outdoor pizza oven. What I’m inordinately proud of is my wood pile. It takes up half the back wall and reaches about 8ft; it is a thing of beauty.
There’s a wood pile, of course, because there’s a wood burner. And despite the news that owners will be fined for too much smoke or using the wrong wood, I will never give mine up. Two different beloved dogs have snoozed in front of it; I’ve felt my mood improve countless times by gazing into its flames, and so far this winter, it’s allowed me to avoid switching on the central heating.
I live in a terraced house in London from which the previous resident ruthlessly stripped out all the fireplaces, but I grew up in a house in the shires where an open fire was the norm. I remember coming downstairs on winter mornings and still feeling the residual warmth – bliss.
My husband suggested a wood burner a decade ago and I loved the idea of our kids enjoying that toasty feeling too. The problem in a terraced house in a city isn’t so much where to put it, but where you can run the chimney. Because the burner has to vent above the highest ceiling, the kitchen with its little bit of outside wall was the best option and it’s perfect.
I love to cook and entertain, and spend a lot of time in the kitchen. We don’t have a table in that room; instead there’s a sofa, so hanging out with a coffee or a glass of wine by the burner is very cosy once, that is, you’ve lit the thing, for which there’s a knack. I’ve been known to use my cook’s blowtorch before now to get it going.
Once alight, as well as gazing at the crackling logs, there’s the mesmerising fan, which sits on top of the burner and which starts to spin as it heats, dispersing the warm glow to beyond the three feet in front of the glass. This, and the glass itself, must not be touched – I spent most of the lives of Olive and Badger keeping them away from burner danger.
But in general, it’s a joy. Almost every evening when I get home from work I’ll empty the ashes and quickly get a fire going – using kindling, some paper and my unsurpassed lighting skills (there is, as you might imagine with men and fire, some competition in this area).
That wood pile, though, is all my husband’s work. Not only does he work outdoors and have access to plenty of fallen trees and a large saw, but more relatable might be his clever knack of befriending the council workers, who regularly fell trees around the borough. It started while walking the dog in our local cemetery, when we saw a huge tree trunk on the ground and enquired whether we could have it. “Of course,” the team said, and by the time we got back from the walk, the trunk was in our front yard. In one piece. It caused much merriment until my husband chainsawed it into submission.
Seasoned wood is key to success with a wood burner and there’s a strict system for the pile. Heaven forfend I take anything from the upper levels, the logs more recently arrived, which need to dry out. The good stuff goes in, the fan gets going and a little billow of smoke comes out of the chimney high above.
It’s not hurting anybody, surely? How can my beloved stove – which is simultaneously warming the family, encouraging the bread dough to prove, using up a waste product and lowering my heating bills – be anything but good?
The, uh, burning question is whether I am contributing to the poor air quality in my area. Well, the neighbours have never complained, despite one side having a roof terrace and the other being, for a while, keen gardeners. In fact, the engine-idling delivery drivers are the real polluters. Apparently, even my equally beloved gas hob is more harmful. Besides, I like to think the shiny chromed pipe running up the back of the house is a feature, not a fault.
Even if I kept getting slapped with fines for my flaming habit, I’d never give it up (perhaps I’d upgrade if a super-non-smoky one was invented). They can prise my kindling from my cold, dead hand.