I first met Ben Law, the woodsman, in the early nineties. He was made famous for building his own home from his own roundwood timber in his own wood and appearing on Channel 4 TV's 'Grand Designs' on numerous occasions. Ben has restored acres of coppice and created a beautiful, biodiverse yet productive woodland 'farm' near where we live and his work has had a deep influence on me.
I love woodland and all things woody and I have been building and cooking on fires since I was five when my family stayed in Connemara on Loch Corrib. We would be out on boats all day, mooring up on the Loch's uninhabitated islands to brew tea and explore. Fire is one of my deep pleasures. It takes me from the great outdoors to the heart of the home. I have been collecting firewood, home grown, gifted from friends with land or bought by the cord for 20 years.
ÅProviding your own logs is an activity that generates heat fourfold. I cut the wood with a chainsaw, and split it with a Gransfor Bruks Splitting Maul (hand forged in small numbers - a real tool for life) or, when more challenging, a hydraulic splitter. We have woodpiles in various locations around the house and others where the wood dries and seasons. I love stacking wood and feel a real sense of wellbeing when the store by the house is full for the winter. This is physical work but after a day at the office or on a sunny crisp winter's morning there are few better activities to raise the spirits and reconnect with the body.
When we first moved to our house over 20 years ago we had an open fire in an Inglenook in the main living room. It had rarely been used as it smoked but we got it drawing well. I will always remember a visit from two American permaculture eco-warriors who took one look at our archaic, inefficient fireplace and tut-tutted at us. How could we burn wood so inefficiently? It was my profligate dark green secret: I was deeply attached to the experience of sitting by a roaring open fire and feeling such a deep connection with the element.
Preparing for powerdown
Then one year our village was cut off by deep snow fall – unusual on the gentle southern slopes of the South Downs. A power cable was felled and the electricity went out intermittently over the next few days. The gas central heating stopped working, the electric cooker stood inert, and suddenly we were in enforced state of 'powerdown'. All vehicles were snowed in but we quickly adapted and our children celebrated – no school or college or work for any of us! We were snowbound. Then we realised that if we heated the house with the inglenook we would quickly run out of wood, it was such a greedy beast. At subzero temperatures with no means of heating or cooking food that was no option.
We shut up the kitchen, dining and living room and moved into the little snug where sits an old wood burning stove. It was a cozy space for five but the woodburner became our cooker and kept us warm. We made an oven out of a biscuit tin, baked pizzas and potatoes, cooked casseroles and grains and we also had some hot water from the solar system. Neighbours who usually kept themselves to themselves came out and socialised while we kept a close eye on the more vulnerable elders in our village. One friend even visited on snowshoes and we played music, shared food and enjoyed an unusual few days of leisure without any gadgets whatsoever.
It got me thinking deeply about 'powerdown' – global supplies of oil and gas supplies have already 'peaked' and in time they will be so expensive that ordinary people will not be able to flick a switch for heat or light (that time has already arrived for many). I decided to create a 'powerdown' shelf in the house for times when the electricity goes out. I collected candles, a windup radio and lights, a cob oven, my adapted biscuit tin, a storm kettle and our camping gas stove in one place. Now when the lights go out we are ready and actively enjoy 'powerdown' but whether they do or not, we try to cook on our woodburner whenever it is in use and save electricty.
Installing a smokeless woodburner
After that winter, we decided to give up the Inglenook and install a Clearview woodburner that would help heat a considerable portion of the house. Made in the UK, it is highly fuel-efficient and can burn just one kilo of wood per hour. If you are choosing a woodburner there are a number of important considerations. Firstly, it needs to be smokeless and have a double burn system. This means the stove is designed to allow a fresh supply of oxygen above the fire. When you burn wood in a hot stove, wood gas is released. Add oxygen and the gases are burnt rather than being sucked up the chimney. This creates a secondary combustion and produces extra heat, whilst reducing emissions.
The manufacturers of our stove add another clever design by heating the supply of air before it reaches the firebox by drawing air through channels next to the box in the hot stove. The gases ignite, creating a beautiful aurora borealis effect, which also increases combustion and efficiency. Added to this, they developed the 'air wash system'. This basically draws air from above the fire over the glazed door, preventing tar depositing on the glass. The outcome is a far warmer house, far less wood used every year, a flat top to cook on and we get to see the flames! We do not miss the open fire at all.
People are increasingly installing woodburners and the price of wood is rising too. The positive outcome however is that coppiced woodlands are coming back into rotation, more local English charcoal is being produced, woodland crafts are seeing a resurgence and community woodland schemes are emerging. Coppicing groups have been set up to train volunteers who are then able to share the crop. They often form good social bonds. Wood owners get their coppice worked and this benefits nature as opening the woodland canopy to coppice creates habitat for more species of flora and fauna. There are many yields here.
Fire cleanses, regenerates, warms and traditionally creates the centre, the heart and hearth of our homes. The annual cycle of the seasons and the process of gathering, cutting, splitting and seasoning wood is like the storing up of good karma for the colder months. It also reconnects us to an ancient part of our psyche. It is one of the most grounding activities that we can do. Every time I light a fire, I honour the woodland, the wood itself and the gift of warmth and I feel a deep gratitude for the ability to live in intimate contact with this powerful element. I thank Fire and feel blessed.