Now all our neighbours' chimneys smoke,
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with bak't meats choke,
And all their spits are turning.
Without the door let sorrow lie,
And if, for cold, it hap to die,
We'll bury't in a Christmas pye
And evermore be merry.
Wither's Juvenilia, 1622
I am still browsing Old English Household Life by Gertrude Jekyll and came across that little rhyme on the subject of firesides. I'm something of an expert on firedogs various now, taking note when I may have walked past before, and we came across this one on a Christmas visit to Buckland Abbey this week...
I may as well share the Tithe Barn tree too (sorry, blurry iTouch pic)
There is something majestic and haunting about this 15th century monastic space, more about Buckland Abbey soon.
If you have ever built a chimney as we have...well Bookhound has, I watched and said reassuring things like "Of course it won't fall down," when a steel girder was unexpectedly required 'that minute', but you will know there is an art to it. They can be stubborn creatures, the 'draw' up a chimney flue is not a foregone conclusion, whilst a room filled with smoke often is, and I didn't know that a reliable method of loosening the soot was to fire a shotgun up a chimney (maybe don't try that at home) .
Gertrude Jekyll has much else to impart about the social importance of the fireplace and interesting to note their presence in just about every ancient building we see, the Neolithics on Orkney had it sorted too..
'There is little wonder that the much-valued fireplaces, useful in purpose, rich in intimate associations, and elevated to real centres for home and family ties, should have evoked the familiar sayings and home-made village ditties made in praise of them.
And to say we have been in praise of ours for several months right now would be an understatement. Even in the mild climes we seem to have been living in recently, lighting our three woodburners is the pinnacle of satisfaction each afternoon. Bookhound keeps the Tinker stocked with logs and leaves him to it and the Tinker has swiftly mastered the woodburner rather than the central heating thermostat. The whole wood collecting thing is an ongoing saga which Bookhound loves; the chestnut and ash was cut and stored several years ago, and our wood for 2015 and beyond (dv) is just coming in from the latest logging expeditions. We see the smoke curling out of the Tinker's chimney and know that he will be as warm as toast.
We must have burned every variety of wood since we bought our first stove, a Canadian Fisher 'Grandma Bear' in 1980, and thus can vouch for this little ditty too...
Beech-wood fires burn bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Store your beech for Christmastide
With new-cut holly laid beside;
Chestnut's only good, they say,
If for years 'tis stored away;
Birch and fir-wood burn too fast
Blaze too bright and do not last;
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
Dangerously the sparks will fly;
But ash-wood green and ash-wood brown
Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.
Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter's cold;
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Elm-wood burns like churchyard mould,
E'en the very flames are cold;
It is by the Irish said;
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread,
Apple-wood will scent the room,
Pear-wood smells like flowers in bloom;
But ash-wood wet and ash-wood dry
A King may warm his slippers by.
I would have to add...
Eucalyptus creates a hum
And expect your flue to be blocked with gum.
It was a mistake...what on earth were we thinking. Days of scraping thick black treacle out of the flue though we did all have crystal clear sinuses.
I light the little fire in my Book Room, Bookhound lights the bigger one in what was our big sitting room but is now his very big 'study', and we all hibernate off into our corners to 'play.' Gathering in front of one or the other for the occasional beverage and a natter.
We will all have a Yule Log too.
I'm not quite sure how this will differ from an ordinary log but it will be designated 'Yule', though I had no idea of the traditions behind it.
Plenty of superstitions... an ill omen if a bare footed or squinting person crossed the threshold while the Yule Log was burning, and if a barefooted person with a squint stumbled in who knows what hell and damnation might descend. According to Gertrude the log should be lit with a brand 'carefully preserved from the Christmas fire of the previous year' ...we have failed.
And fireside accoutrements were also of great importance. Shovels, tongs, trivets, bellows, brand tongs for picking up fragments of fuel blown into flame for lighting candles, spits and pot-hangers, tinder boxes and flints...there can't have been room to move, and all a far cry from my 'bucket' with Zip firelighters, matches, shovel and gloves.
And who knew about the medieval 'coeverfu.' Originally used when the bell tolled for for 'fires out' at eight or nine o'clock, the coeverfu was placed over the fire to extinguish it and from whence cometh the more familiar 'curfew.'
I had often wondered exactly how a bread or clome oven actually worked too. We have two in our old fireplaces, sadly minus their doors, and in our kitchen minus the fire, but when required for use Gertrude explains all...
' a faggot of dry brushwood went in and was lighted; by the time it had burned and the ashes were removed, the right degree for baking had been obtained.'
And talking of Yule, my thanks to whoever recommended Anonymous 4 a while back. I have been listening to An English Ladymass all Summer and now have On Yoolis Night - Medieval Carols and Motets for Winter Solstice listening.