The business of lighting a fire, straightforward in theory, can be a tricky one – just ask anyone who has ever wrestled with damp logs, broken bellows and an absence of kindling or tinder. Matthew Dennison spoke to a natural firebug to get some top tips.
‘Give me… a good book, or a good newspaper, and sit me down afore a good fire and I ask no better,’ says Joe Gargery in Dickens’s Great Expectations. This sentiment is still widely shared today.
Once, open fires were a simple fact of life, their purpose strictly practical, and, for many country dwellers, an open fire is first and foremost a means of heating.
Jerome Mayhew, managing director of adventure-activity company Go Ape, is renowned for his ability to kindle fires – apparently from nothing – on the pebbly beaches of the string of uninhabited islets that fringe the southernmost tip of Co Cork, within sight of his holiday house.
At home in Suffolk – where cold wind blows all too easily down his Tudor chimneys – he concentrates his skill on indoor fires. ‘Living in a house that we can’t afford to heat properly makes a fire rather more practical than romantic,’ he says.
‘As soon as the fire is lit, rooms transform. Although the room may not suddenly become hot, at least the flow of air is reversed in the chimney.’
Get your kindling and fuel ready
The first step is make sure you have a flow of air and dry materials. Don’t be afraid to get creative. ‘After scavenging sodden wood from the nearby bog, we had to heat it in the electric oven to dry it sufficiently to light the fire,’ says Jerome Mayhew of a family trip to the Cairngorms.
‘I can still remember the intense odour of wet sap as we shivered in the kitchen.’
How to get perfect tinder, all year round
Material for tinder is readily available all year round for vigilant country dwellers. Pinecones in particular have a long ‘harvesting’ season as different conifer species drop their cones across a period of several months. Dry pinecones have the advantage of catching fire quickly, as well as their pleasing, albeit mild, scent. They are also markedly more attractive in hearth-side baskets or boxes than discarded newspapers.
Lovers of citrus fruits do well to dry orange peel, ideally in ribbons like old-fashioned curling papers, as a supplement to more conventional tinder.
Gettint the airflow right
Fires, however, like ancient boilers, can be temperamental: a lit fire will not necessarily remain alight without a degree of vigilance. A good pair of bellows is invaluable, blasting a supply of oxygen to feed the flames and rekindle smouldering sticks and logs.
If you don’t have bellows? Tobias Jones, author of A Place of Refuge, suggests using lengths of old copper pipe in place of conventional bellows – a trick he used to keep up his nine open fires burning while living in the woods in Suffolk.
‘The key was to blow hard,’ Mr Jones says, adding ruefully that the exception came when he forgot to ‘take my mouth off the end of the pipe, sucked in air and ended up, very stupidly, with lungs painfully full of smoke’.
Drawing the fire
In some instances, ensuring a good draw from the outset can mitigate the need for bellows. Smaller fireplaces can be ‘shielded’ with an open sheet of broadsheet newspaper to encourage a good draw. Nineteenth-century tole trays are also useful for this purpose and often more generously sized.
Sit back and enjoy
Sally Coulthard, author of The Little Book of Building Fires, suggests that the current popularity of open fires is part of the same ‘back-to-basics, feel-good’ philosophy that has seen a resurgence in the taste for camping, baking bread and growing vegetables.
‘Open fires have made a glittering comeback in the past few years; there are lots of reasons why, both economic and environmental,’ she says, ‘but perhaps it’s also true that central heating is, well, just a little bit soulless. Not everything worth having can come at the push of a button.’