One of my earliest memories is seeing my father in the early morning raking out the ashes of our coal fire. I was interested in the blue veins around his ankles and bare white heels as he strained forwards with his short shovel. After the ashes he carefully placed balls of newspaper, which he called ‘spills’, and built a tent of small kindling logs over them. I was careful not to speak as he was always in a furious temper while he was doing it. Fifty years on, I have discovered why.
I recently moved house and inherited from the previous owner a wood-burning stove, which takes up a large amount of space in my small living room, and a lot of time and energy from me. According to Radio 4, wood-burning stoves are now a mark of worldly success, having overtaken the Aga as a status symbol for the middle classes. Arbiters of taste such as Lily Allen and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rave about them, so I was lucky, I felt at first, to find one already installed. New they cost £2,000 or more, and 180,000 UK homes had a stove installed last year; sales were five times higher than in 2007. People are obviously desperate to go back in time.
It bothers me that since I moved in with this stove I am often cold, sometimes wet, tired and frequently covered in ash. My cat does not sit happily in front of it, yellow eyes gleaming, as she might before a real open fire. She is wise enough to stay in the bedroom submerged in the winter duvet.
I may have stumbled, thanks to the wood-burner, upon a major difference between the sexes: men are happy to forage for their fuel but most women are not. The friends who say they really love a good wood-burner are usually men. They enjoy discussing how to manage them, keep the fire going by using petrol-laced fire-lighters, pushing a lever to the right and releasing a valve at a particular moment. They seem primordially fascinated by pyrotechnics and see controlling fire as a real skill.
Perhaps my problem is that I live alone, and wood-burners are a two-person job; one to make the tea and rabbit stew, while the other goes out to get the wood every few hours. I used to enjoy westerns and tales of frontier life, fancying myself dressed in skins and snow-shoes, but as I get older I find I am not really a backwoods type. I don’t relish going out in the night when the fire starts going out unexpectedly — which it often does, as small logs burn too quickly while big logs refuse to light at all. I wish I had watched just how my father made his spills instead of looking at his feet. If I am tired I just let the thing go out and put on a jumper.
It’s not pleasant squatting down in the dark and wet, trying to find wood dry enough to burn, but neither is buying fuel any fun. If you get wood or smokeless coal delivered, it comes in very large amounts which will half-fill your living room or kitchen, so you have to take the car and drive off to find sacks of the right size. Like many women I do not like driving on motorways into industrial estates to find wholesalers. The first bag I bought was dry on top but mouldy and damp further down. A local workman suggested a different outlet where they sell smokeless coal, as it’s easier to manage and cheaper. I set off again, to find the place in a distant, decaying 1960s shopping arcade.
‘We ain’t got none. It’s not the season,’ an assistant told me as freezing rain lashed the roof. I suggested that winter might be a good time for mixed-fuel-burning stoves. She looked puzzled.
‘We only sell fuel for barbecues,’ she said. ‘If there’s any left it’ll be over there, in health and beauty.’ I couldn’t follow her logic. Even the most avid stove-fanciers don’t claim that owning one adds to your good looks. In my case it makes me look like a hermit with red eyes and a wheezy cough. I was relieved to find there was no coal among the false eyelashes and panty pads because I realised, rather late, that I couldn’t have carried it to the car, which was parked on a pavement somewhere round the back.
Instead I went yet further away to a better-known household store and bought four piles of expensive ‘high heat’ wood and lumbered that into my car boot. I never found out whether it gave a ‘high heat’ or not because back at home it refused to light.
A Spanish shop assistant later told me that at home they always use Doritos to get the fire going. Perhaps I’ll try them, or perhaps I’ll just join the cat under the duvet and eat the Doritos instead.