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Hearth and Home




The stove is now installed. Since coming to live in this house, nine years ago, I have missed the fire. For much of my life I have lived with some form of working fireplace. This house has an old fashioned gas fire with a boiler behind it and, in the other front room, there is a pretty fireplace which, as from today, is home to a wood burning stove (it burns smokeless fuel too but we bought it to burn wood). There is a long and drawn out story attached to this but, briefly, I loved the fireplace the moment I saw it and the lady who sold the house to us suggested it was original. As far as I was concerned the house had risen to the top of the list of possibles. Once we had our offer accepted and had moved in, I started to petition for opening up the fireplace. That turned out to be the easy part. Once it had been agreed that I could have my flames, plumbers and builders, heating engineers and chimney sweeps were consulted. Basically it was a case of no-can-do! This went on for several years and, in that time, I discovered that the fireplace was installed in the second half of the 19th century and wasn't in fact original - the house having been built around the time of Queen Victoria's accession. We were sold thermostats for the radiators on the occasion of a visit by one plumber who had come to assess the fireplace. We haven't regretted those. We were also sold a huge radiator to replace the average one in the room where the fireplace is found. That plumber thought I wanted extra heat in there. I didn't. Doesn't anyone understand how a burning log can make one connect with thousands of predecessors? Am I the only one with memories of sitting around the various fires of my life feeling the love? In the Lincolnshire cottage before this Caithness townhouse, the entire house was aired by a central hearth set in the oldest part of the house. This dated back to 1727 and I would imagine the farming family who first lived there, silently congratulating them on building the farmhouse in such a way as to avoid flooding when the water meadow behind was over capacity. New houses were built on said water meadow - on platforms to avoid filling up with water and not at all concerned that the water would be pushed back to flood the gardens of the old properties behind them.


We were quite lucky because we had dug out a "moat" between our very small area of woodland and the rest of the garden. This was done to mimic Green Knowe - the subject of a series of children's books close to our hearts - but turned out to be useful when the floods affected our village in the noughties. It is a strange thing but I have found over the years that, when one does a thing to give joy, it somehow sticks around to help out in some way. The kids got their moat - we kept our ground floor in tact.That fire drew very well indeed and many a contented evening was spent watching the flames leap upwards and away. The children tried the baking potatoes thing on the two ledges inside the fireplace, hard in the middle; they toasted marshmallows, grubby if you were not careful - and the odd request to Santa was posted for a sooty elf to collect.


Before that, when we lived in Stenness, Orkney, overlooking Scapa Flow, we had a fire which ran the radiators. It was not efficient in the depths of winter when rather more heat was required but we drew up our chairs and enjoyed the flames. Going back even further, the first house my husband and I owned after our marriage, had an enclosed stove which ran the central heating. One dire memory was the night Keith was at a school Christmas function and I was home with the (then only two) children. Any woman with two children under three will understand that the mind can become a little clogged at times - as it does again when one hits 65. I found this out last year. The children and I had been making bird puddings and the small people were safely tucked up in their beds. I was clearing away the debris from the kitchen.  Without thinking, I threw the left over pudding ingredients onto the fire.  How incredibly stupid - I hear you - and you are right. The fire roared and the chimney breast creaked and groaned. I realised my mistake too late to put it right. The flames changed from domestic ones into flames which might send a rocket into space. I ran upstairs to get the children. But which one should I take first? No I couldn't take one and not the other. I carefully went downstairs with the son on one hip and the daughter on the other - all the while shaking with fear and with anger at myself. Then to phone the fire brigade - with a voice which came from somewhere but with a struggle. Two fire engines arrived - and a police car. A kind neighbour took us in - I don't forget a kindness - and, when Keith came home from school,  he was not just a little anxious to see lights flashing at the homestead. He was very nice about it - he has always been forgiving. There was never any unfaithfulness or profligacy to forgive but there have been silly mistakes. The emergency services too were very patient - and the neighbours. Call me . . . . . .!


Before we bought that house we were in an ancient council flat for a few months. It had an open fire with a back boiler which was meant to heat the water and the radiator behind it in the bedroom. I had no children and no fear in those days so I would bank up the fire without a thought. Lord! I was so irresponsible!  Responsibility came to me after the birth of our first child - to such an extent that I slowed down when driving and I ate sensibly - knowing that I had to keep this machine working.


We always had a fire when I was a child and right through into my adulthood. At Branscombe Lodge in Belton, Axholme, my parents had a Baxi installed with a pit beneath it for ashes. It was very modern in those days and meant that the ashes didn't need to be emptied every single day. At Aston House, Epworth, apart from my brother's bedroom, the bathroom and the boxroom, every room had a fireplace. This didn't include the soothingly cool pantry however. I don't remember using the bedroom fires though. I suppose if someone was confined to bed for any length of time the fires would have been put to good use - but no one was. Studcross Cottage, also in Epworth, had a fire burning almost every day of the year - perhaps not in high summer - in the room in which we ate, bathed, rested, knitted, sewed, read, cooked, washed up, listened to the radio and, later, watched television. The other front room only had a blaze on special occasions - such as on Boxing Day when the family came to us. It was such a cold room - but very pretty.


Fires have been a part of our lives, in one form or another, for 1.8 million years. In comparatively recent history, cattle were driven between two bonfires at Beltane in May so that they would be free from sickness through the summer months. Starting at the other end of summer, in September, the smell of bonfires is common throughout these islands as people dispose of farm and garden rubbish. Fire as the great purifier! There was a time when stubble could be burned without regard for the direction of the smoke and that, at times, was fatal when traffic was plunged into a thick and instant fog. I never knew a farmer in Axholme who was so uncaring but there were some elsewhere.


Our son has spent a great deal of time in the wilderness. He is an outdoors kind of chap. When he comes back from his travels, it is the photographs of himself by his camp fire which give me the most pleasure of all the magnificent views and panoramas he has to show us. Here he is content and I am able to understand that sense of peace.


Tomorrow the decorating of the room with the stove will crack on. A little hampered by age, I am grateful for the hard work my amazing daughters put in and I am learning to pass on the baton to those who can. It isn't easy to let go of control but it is a good lesson and a little humility never hurt anyone. The horizon is coming home from a dog-walk and being able to smell logs burning in the stove, taking off my boots and sitting by the fire with a cup of Earl Grey. 

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