As the nights draw in, you can expect to see more smoke above the rooftops and smell a woody tang in the air. With oil prices continuing to rise, many people are exploring alternatives to oil-fuelled central heating, and there are none more appealing than an open fire. You may not have a fireplace, and, in many houses, chimney apertures have been filled in and forgotten. However, now is the time to consider opening them up. Once you’ve cleared the brick and plaster blocking the hole, David Black, whose company, Thistle & Rose, produces high-quality reproductions of Adam chimney-pieces, recommends that you ensure that the original lintel is sound. If it’s either cracked or rotted by soot erosion, you can replace it with a standard concrete one or set one in below the original. He stresses that ‘it’s vital to ensure that smoke, flames and sparks don’t get through to the back of a chimneypiece or, even worse, the timber backing of a lath and plaster wall’.
It’s also necessary to check the flue from top to bottom: condensation in the upper portion can allow corrosion through the brick or stone bridges that separate the flues, leading to leakage into other rooms. Mr Black explains: ‘The usual method of checking a chimney is with a smoke pellet. If smoke backs up into the room, it may be that the chimneypot has been capped off, or a family of crows has taken up residence.’ You will also need to ensure that the hearthstone is adequate and there is a large enough space between the fireplace and a timber floor or fitted carpet. If the fire smokes, Mr Black says, ‘it’s usually because the aperture into the room is too wide for the flue diameter’. He recommends using late Georgian or Victorian register grates, which reduce the aperture opening.
And, of course, a yearly sweep of the chimney should keep it performing at its best. If you’re buying or replacing a chimneypiece, there are many specialist companies, such as Jamb, which makes contemporary pieces in stone and marble. Increasing efficiency Although traditional open fires are attractive, there’s no hiding the fact that the majority of the heat disappears up the chimney. You could consider an alternative such as a Jetmaster, a steel-constructed appliance with a natural convection system built in. Once installed, it looks like a conventional open fire with the added bonus of sucking up cold air from the room, warming it behind the fire and sending it back into the room again.
Wood burners such as the cast-iron ones made by Norwegian company Jotul are another option. Ed Knight, who supplies seasoned hardwood logs and installs wood-burning stoves (www.ed-knights-logs.co.uk), says: ‘Wood burners work at 70%–80% efficiency and need far less wood and coal than an open fire to generate a decent temperature.’ Which wood? As for the wood itself, whether you’re buying it in or felling your own trees, you should aim to burn hard wood. Dense hard woods such as ash and oak burn far more slowly than soft woods such as spruce or cedar.
At Chavenage House in Gloucestershire, David Lowsley-Williams says: ‘It’s a case of making do with what one’s got, but well-stored oak or elm are the favourites.’ The other priority is to ensure that your logs are properly seasoned and that they’re allowed to dry out (preferably for a season) before they’re brought in to burn. Wood from a recently cut wind-blown or felled tree (known as ‘green’ wood) should be kept in a stack, off the ground, in a well-ventilated lean to or barn, and it could take nine months before it’s fit for your fire. If you’re unsure as to whether you’ve left it for long enough, well-seasoned firewood generally has darkened ends with cracks or splits visible and weighs comparatively less than wood that has recently been felled. Splitting your logs to the required size immediately after they’ve been felled will also help to speed up the seasoning process.
When buying wood, it’s important to make sure that it comes from a sustainable source wood from woodland covered by the UK Woodland Assurance Standard offers a guarantee of this. The environmental argument states that as long as you burn wood from managed woodland, the process is carbon neutral because more trees will be planted (and some will be left standing) to absorb the carbon produced during the felling, burning and transporting of the wood. Far from being a threatened resource, our woodlands are much underused, and the Forestry Commission currently estimates that about 60% isn’t under active management. If the market for small round wood were to increase in the future, this would have to change, with huge benefits for wildlife.
How to lay a fire
These days, fires are often used in conjunction with central heating so their cosmetic value eclipses their real function. With the radiators turned off, there is more pressure to get your fire going well and this will require preparation. A fire will take a good hour to impact on the temperature of a room, so it’s always wise to light it well in advance of sitting down. The art of lighting a fire has eluded many of us from the ‘radiator generation’, but those born before the war, such as grandparents, are a great source of information when it comes to firelighting.
Start with a firelighter, criss-cross some bone-dry kindling above it, and, above that, create an arch with two of your smaller, dryer logs (preferably those that have been sitting in your log basket beside yesterday’s fire). Put a match to the firelighter, and, when the crackling has died down and the flames are large and well established, you can add some coal and some of your larger, less dry logs