On open fires

by Barendina Smedley

An old jazz standard — the recording I know attributes it to W. C. Handy — starts with these lines:

Love, oh love, oh loveless love
You’ve set out hearts on goal-less goals,
From milk-less milk, to silk-less silk
We are growing used to soul-less souls.

I’m reminded of this song every time I sense the warm, scentless, practical yet uncharismatic presence of a wood burning stove. Fire-less fires, eh? Where’s the fun in that?

At one level, of course, one can see the point. The arguments in favour of wood burners are well rehearsed to the point of exhaustion by now. The best amongst these is fuel efficiency. Open fires, apparently, send 70 percent of heat up the chimney. Even here, though, the fire-lover in me chips in: ‘Really? Doesn’t that rather depend on the type of fuel and fire, the shape of the fireplace, the presence or absence of an iron fire-back?’ Let us accept the statistic. Where heating and fuel costs are the main points, to the exclusion of anything else, then wood burning stoves make sense.

Infinitely more revealing, however, are the objections based on, if you like, the fire-ness of actual fires. Which is to say, open fires are messy. They produce smoke and ash. They need feeding all the time. Under certain circumstances, they shoot out the odd spark or cinder. Worst of all, open fires smell like what they are — fires.

All of which sums up pretty neatly what I love most about open fires. For all its familiarity fire is, after all, a very strange thing, is it not?

Flickering haptically on the border between the animate and the inanimate, fire is both central to human existence even now, but also dangerous — a destructive force that we guard against, yet also bring into our homes in the knowledge that it will only ever be semi-domesticated. In the right place, nothing is more entrancing, reassuring and homely than a fire burning brightly on a winter’s night — and in the wrong place, few things are more terrifying.

It is not hard to see why so many cultures have, with varying degrees of sophisticated sublimation, worshipped fire. Even now, a roaring fire in an open hearth has a magnetic effect on those gathered around it, no matter how worldly, intellectually over-complicated and removed from the real things of life they may be. For if humans know anything at all instinctively, it is this: fire must not be ignored.

The attraction of playing with fire is a very real one, literally as well as metaphorically. Was this, I wonder, how the domestication of dogs and horses and cattle worked, too — those faltering attempts to evolve a sort of accommodation with something alien and potentially violent, but at the same time useful, desirable, strangely compelling?

Even now there is something impressively under-domesticated about open fires. This is why they are enlivening in a way that ordinary heating simply isn’t. Like our animal companions, fires sometimes smell, leave messes, show their teeth or rear up unexpectedly, reminding us of the damage they could do, should they feel that way inclined.

Some people, for deep reasons they probably don’t even understand themselves, find this wildness unacceptable. These are the easy recruits to the cult of the wood burner. Others accept the wildness of fire as a fact of life, while remaining twitchy about fenders, nursery grates, correct ventilation and good smoke alarms. Other still are simply fascinated, like my young son, who feeds twigs into the blaze with exactly the same cautious, exploratory delight he might show when feeding a carrot to a very large horse or stroking the head of someone else’s Irish wolfhound.

But when fires aren’t busy devouring cities they can be remarkably pleasing companions. A room where a fire is burning is never an empty room. There’s always a conversational crackle or hiss, the shifting array of colours and surfaces — and of course the fire’s raw hunger, too, for fires crave attention, feeding, indeed all-consuming devotion from those around them. But then leaning over the coals, one feels the rewards — that alchemical incandescence translated into warmth on one’s skin, the jewel-like transfiguration of what was recently no more than ordinary timber, the smell recalling something archaic and urgent. So what if it makes one’s jumper smell a bit odd the next morning?

Of course the detractors of open fires will object at this point that romantic nonsense is all very well but nothing to do with the practicalities of ‘contemporary living’, that mysterious phrase so beloved of decorating magazines. Decorating magazines, for their part, tend to be pro-wood burner, for the very good commercial reason that, while there isn’t much of great value that can be sold to enthusiasts for open fires — there are only so many sets of fire-irons anyone needs — wood burners, in contrast, are big-ticket yet whim-driven items that justify expensive advertising campaigns.

Well, perhaps they have a point. Not everyone, after all, wants to enliven their daily lives with references to the more successful mod cons of the Paleolithic era. Not everyone owns a decrepit beech wood in which at least one major tree is likely to collapse each year, yielding up its generous bequest of sweet-smelling, slow-burning firewood. And here, I have to admit that when it comes to ‘contemporary living’, my family and I are anything but normal. The Old Rectory boasts a dozen open fires but not one television set. One imagines that there are rather more houses in the UK where these statistics might work in reverse.

For all that, though, I don’t think we are the only ones who turn our backs on wood burning stoves for the pleasure of stretching out our limbs in front of a roaring, crackling, fully-functioning open fire. Over coffee the other day, a friend who has recently bought a cottage in Suffolk reported to me that she and her husband were contemplating removing their existing wood burner and re-instituting an old-fashioned open hearth. Unlike me, she’s a sensible, twenty-first century person who works on digital policy. Neither was her explanation for the decision regarding the wood burning stove purely aesthetic. The cottage has some problems with damp — not terrible problems, but enough that the idea of the sort of air-flow generated by an open fire, coupled with a fire’s gentle but sustained heat, seemed encouraging, rather than alarming.

Of course not every wood burning stove resembles the one that came with my friend’s cottage — ordinary, fabricated from steel made to look like cast iron, rusted slightly around the seals because no one remembered to leave the doors open. Perversely, I sometimes feel very drawn to the traditional tiled stoves of the Netherlands, Denmark and Scandinavia. They combine elegant vitreous finishes, traditional design, opulent colours — all civilised qualities — with a surprising level of heat surging unseen inside them. This is such an attractive metaphor for a strand of northern European culture that it is hard not to, as it were, warm to it. My Orangery may not yet be safe from the lure of the tiled stove, despite the fact that the better ones, as so often happens, are expensive beyond belief.

Yet these are, at best, flirtations on the margin of my central, longstanding and unshakeable devotions to open fires. It is frequently said that the kitchen is the heart of the home — perhaps because, in the simplest houses, the hearth and the kitchen were as one. In the Old Rectory, in contrast, the heart of the home is surely the drawing room. Here, a sixteenth-century chimney stack wraps itself protectively around a sixteenth-century (if not slightly older) oak bressumer beam and two inglenook seats, each still with its little ledge for resting a weary elbow or indeed a flagon of ale. Here, in what is, in effect, a tiny room of its own, one can sit with feet propped up on the edge of the warped iron fire-basket, staring into the blaze as massive beech logs spend hours flaming and shimmering into the darkness — and one can do this, pretty safe in the knowledge that people have been doing precisely the same thing, in precisely the same place, for at least half a millennium.

During our early time at the Old Rectory, when the house had no heating, this was almost literally a life-saver, allowing us to dry out damp socks, strip off a woollen layer or three and remember what warmth was like. Now, even with the easy comforts of central heating close at hand, the big drawing room fire has lost none of its fierce charisma. On a crisp autumn evening few conversations, books or day-dreams manage to out-compete its insistent, bright, slightly alarming allure. In the morning, as dove-grey light tentatively makes its way in through the windows, the smell of wood smoke pervades the downstairs rooms, as familiar yet strange as the manifestation of some benevolent genius loci. For all their practical qualities, how can wood burning stoves hope to compete with that?