After thirty years I again have a hearth, and I cannot tell you how much it means to the sense of homeliness. I feel a warm glow both inside and out. Unlike what I used to have in my bachelor days, the hearth no longer contains an open fire; it is a wood-burning stove. Now that we have gas central heating there is a back-up if we don’t want to light the real fire. We didn’t have gas in the old days, so it was an oil stove or an electric fire for heat if there was no time to kindle the coal fire. (Before the twentieth century it was kindle the fire or go cold.) Electricity is a fierce heat, but not a comforting one; it is also the most expensive form of heating. We now have lots of insulation in the roof and the walls, so on winter mornings it is not essential to kindle the cinders to banish the cold. With double glazing the ice will no longer form inside the windows, as was often the case in the past.
The fire is once again the focus of the sitting room; our dog Wesley is sprawled out on the hearth-rug warming his belly. I am sitting in the armchair toasting my toes. The ritual of making the fire up from the log-basket is almost the same as stoking the fire from the coal-scuttle. As wood burns faster than coal, so the fire has to made up more often. With a fire to gather round, who needs a television? Well I could manage without one I suppose, but there are still a few programmes I would not like to miss.
There are even some added advantages to having a wood-burner over a coal fire. There is the smug sense of virtue in not burning fossil fuels for a start; and so not adding to the global production of the greenhouse gas CO2. Burning a log produces no more of the gas than if you simply left it to rot. This was not a consideration 30 years ago; it is today, and a wood-burner is a greener source of energy than either gas or electricity. It certainly beats dirty old coal. Another property of the wood-burner is that you can save the ash to spread on the garden. Because we are still burning the old joists and rafters that were removed when we had our roof raised, it doesn’t even cost anything; free heat!
The possibility of roasting chestnuts on the top of the stove would have been an advantage in years gone by; it is certainly easier than balancing them on top of a shovel, which was what I did with the open fire. I should not give the impression that such stoves are an entirely new phenomenon. We had a stove in the front room when I was a child. True, we burned coke rather than wood on it, and the ‘glass’ in the doors was sheets of mica (a translucent rather than transparent material few will have heard of today), but the effect was very similar. Instead of being just black cast iron, the stove was covered with maroon vitreous enamel. This stove was removed for some reason when I was about ten, and we went back to having an open fire.
We don’t have to burn wood on our wood-burner; it is a dual fuel stove and will take coal as well. I suppose the coal sold in this country is mostly imported, as all our deep coal mines have closed, and only a few open-cast mines survive (and this in a land almost built on coal). A stove is much safer than an open fire, whatever you burn on it – there is not much danger of burning embers causing a conflagration by falling onto the hearth. There is no need to place a fire guard in front of the fire if you are going to leave the room. In all the years when I had an open fire, I never had any problems with spitting sparks, but the danger was always present.
I think that most people who rely on flicking a switch to turn on the central heating (or pressing a button on their smartphone to do it remotely) will find my love of the hearth a little odd; they need to experience one to appreciate it. We are lucky to have a house with a chimney. Houses are now built without this expensive addition. It is true that it is possible to install a wood-burner without a chimney, by extending the flue through the room to the open air, without a brick-built chimney. This is better than nothing, but it doesn’t provide a traditional hearth.