WE are approaching the time of year when a blazing log fire in the living room grate seems a good idea. It will brighten the dull days that can arrive later this month, then continue into November and for some months afterwards.
It might be argued that log burning stoves have replaced the traditional open fire with its warming glow from coal but in fact some of us continue to light those old-fashioned coal fires. Quite often, the welcoming hearths will contain a blend of coal and wood, or perhaps recycled cinders smouldering among the wood.
This is therefore the time of year when I am often asked “Which is the best wood to burn in a domestic fireplace?” The short answer is that logs from our favourite trees are usually adequate but most of us welcome the range of effects that can be generated by greater variety of logs. However, there are quite a lot of factors to bear in mind.
Some woods will cause sparks to fly, others will not produce much of a blaze or any discernible heat, whilst yet more might burn to ashes rather too quickly. Some timbers produce a pleasing scent as they burn whilst others create clouds of smoke, some with unpleasant smells.
Clearly, we all favour something special when we have guests in the house who’ll spend time beside our hearth.
Perhaps, as a way of answering such queries, my best course is to reproduce a famous old poem that sets out the qualities or indeed the problems that can arise from a log fire. The author is unknown and the poem has become a traditional one that may appear around this time of year. There are other poems that highlight the burning of logs, but the messages are similar throughout most of them. This is the poem:
Beechwood fires burn bright and clear, Hornbeam blazes too if the logs are kept a year to season through and through.
Oak logs will warm you well if they’re old and dry; Larchwood and pinewood smell, but the sparks will fly.
Pine is good and so is yew
For warmth through wintry days; But poplar and the willow too
Take long to dry or blaze.
Birch logs will burn too fast, Alder scarce at all.
Chestnut logs are good to last, If cut within the Fall.
Holly logs will burn like wax, You should burn them green, Elm logs, like smouldering flax
No flame is ever seen.
Pear logs and apple logs, They will scent the room; Cherry logs across the dogs
Smell like flowers in bloom.
This old verse repeats what some of us already know – that the wood of fruit trees produces a nice scent in the room, the wood of conifers tends to spit out sparks whilst other timbers burn well if they are kept awhile to dry before burning.
Perhaps one of the best recommendations makes an appearance in another verse which reads “Ash wood green and ash wood brown are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.” It’s probably the best for your fire!
In considering modern trends, these old verses relate to open grates. Consequently the behaviour of these logs may differ when enclosed and burnt in a modern log-burning stove. In short, the choice is yours!
Whilst on the subject of logs, it might be wise now to think about obtaining a Yule log. Although Christmas is some weeks away, many like to plan well ahead so the question of a Yule log might now be considered if we want to acquire one. So what is a Yule log?
In former times, and even into modern Christmas Day festivities, the Yule log was an essential part of the celebrations, particularly in the north of England and the West Country. It does seem to have made an appearance in other parts of England, but perhaps with not such fervour.
As the name suggests, it was a log that featured in the Christmas celebrations whilst accompanied by special ceremonies. In some areas it had to be the largest log that would fit into the hearth, and most areas followed the old tradition of bringing the log into the household on Christmas Eve. It was ceremoniously placed on a burning household fire.
There was a widespread belief that the new log had to be ignited from a flame burning on the remains of the previous year’s Yule log. It was widely believed that bad luck would follow if the log’s blaze was allowed to extinguish itself on Christmas Day. And, of course, a piece had to be retained for use during the following year’s Christmas festivities, from which next year’s log would be ignited.
In some areas, the log was known as the Yule clog or sometimes the Christmas block whilst it was not unknown in some districts for revellers to actually sit on one end of a huge burning log to drink their Christmas ale. It is not known when or where the Yule log tradition started but some experts believe it was during the 17th century. I have no knowledge of it continuing in this region but it may still be practised.
EVEN if Christmas is a distant cause for celebration with blazing logs, the end of this month produces another such occasion. October 31 is known as Hallowe’en, otherwise the Eve of All Hallows or, in the Christian world, the Eve of All Saints. In the pagan world it is known as Samain which is the last night of their year.
The pagans would light huge fires and this became their greatest fire festival. It was dedicated to all deceased family members because the pagans believed that the ghosts of their ancestors returned to their former homes on this night. They were made welcome by those huge fires.
It was always believed that the strength of those blazes helped to increase the power of the sun at this time of year, and it was believed that ashes from the fires should be scattered on agricultural land to increase its fertility. In some part of the north, bonfires were lit at Hallowe’en even into the early years of the last century but in more recent times we light our bonfires on Bonfire Night, November 5.
It is not very long ago that games were played at Hallowe’en. A popular one was dipping for apples. Apples were floated in a barrel full of water and the test was to seize them with your teeth without using hands or fingers. The players’ hands were usually tied behind their backs to ensure this happened.
Perhaps the most bizarre game was played in the Pennines on Witch Lating Night, ie Hallowe’en. A player was equipped with a lighted candle which had to be carried on the moors between 11pm and midnight and if it remained lit, then the carrier would be free from witchcraft for the next 12 months. But if the flame went out, great evil would attend that person. I don’t think the game was very popular as it seems to have been discontinued – or the players got lost.