The family had owned the property at 29 Surrey Street in Norwich for over 20 years, and the house itself had stood for over 200 years without mishap, but in 1982 there was an unwelcome visit from the Fire Department. They informed me that the internal arrangements were a fire risk, and alterations were required; the stair well in particular needed modification. There was a degree of conflict between the government agencies on this matter; the Planning Authority wanted this listed building left in its original state, while the Fire Authority demanded the changes. In this case fire precautions trumped listed building consent. For once I was entirely in agreement with the planners, to leave everything well alone, but that was irrelevant; what the owner of the building would have preferred counted for nothing. The Fire Department juggernaut pressed on.
At least asbestos had been identified as a hazardous substance by then, or this ghastly material would have been introduced to this old building, only to be removed at a later date. As it was, there were a lot of unwelcome changes – all to be financed by me of course. The first was the demise of our lift. This was only a small Victorian affair which you pulled up on a rope, originally intended for taking trays of food up from the kitchen in the basement to the dining room on the first floor. It went beyond that to the third floor, to take bed linen etcetera down to be washes. It went up the stair well, but in the opinion of the inspectors, this was chimney flue to funnel flames up the building, and the lift shaft had to be sealed off at ground floor level. This was niggling change to the building, but it did not modify any original features, so it as not too bad; the next alterations certainly did.
In the entrance hall, where formerly the eye was lead from the front door through an elegant arch to the staircase, now a fire door with an automatic closure mechanism blocked the view. A prominent sign saying Fire Door – Keep Closed met the eye instead. The elegant six panelled doors were one of the finest features of the house, but they were unsuitable to be fire doors; the chamfered panels were apparently too thin to arrest the flames. All the doors opening onto the staircase had to be covered with a fire-retardant layer on the inside. I had these plain panels decorated with wooden mouldings to imitate the original, but it was a poor alternative. These doors also had to be fitted with automatic closers, and FIRE DOOR signs in red affixed. These changes demonstrate the problems that arise when modern ideas of Health and Safety are applied to an old building, constructed in a different age to very different principles. Put brutally simply, the understated elegance of the Georgian house was ruined by these blunt instruments. If I had limitless resources I could have made these modifications slightly less intrusive, but not much. With my shallow pockets these changes led severe expense, with no financial return. Of course I would not have wished to be burnt to a cinder when the house caught fire, but in the case of a conflagration I wonder if such fire precautions would have saved me? Perhaps, but most likely not. Personally I would have much rather have taken the risk.
I am glad that the arrival of the fire inspectors happened after my father was no longer alive. The property at Surrey Street was a great source of pleasure to him, and to see these touches of beauty stamped out with such a heavy hand would have distressed him enormously. It distressed me too, but it made the wrench of having to sell the property about a decade later somewhat less of a catastrophe. The house would never again be the Georgian gem I had known.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
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.