It’s been nearly a year since I bit the bullet and converted the entire central heating and hot water system in my house to run from a single wood-burning stove.
In the beginning, it was a testing relationship to say the least: the initial monetary outlay—more than a part-time English teacher, part-time aspiring yoga teacher, part-time ‘I’m a writer but am struggling to get anything down on paper right now’ writer could fork out without a slight sensation of panic rising up from the gullet.
The endless internal battles and internet searches regarding fossil fuels/sustainability/environmental impact; the first week without any heating whatsoever due to new chimney flues being fitted and sections of the pipe-work needing to be by-passed. (I still won’t profess to fully understanding the reasons why; when it comes to stuff like this, I have to put total blind belief in my dad’s assurances that, ‘it needs doing’.)
Getting to grips with the dark arts of fuel-ventilation-temperature gauge ratios and the sinking feeling that I was giving decidedly more than I was getting rising at five a.m. for an early start at work only to discover that the house is freezing cold, (the grate is a heaped pile of black ash and that morning practice would now have to be replaced by the raking, riddling, paper and kindling ritual is not conducive to positive start to the day).
But now, 12 months on, there he squats: Hercules (the model name, not a marker of my affinity for pet-naming inanimate objects after legendary Greek heroes), my stove—his warm belly rumbling away in my kitchen, pumping steaming hot water through the various veins and ventricles of the heating system, sparking life into the intestine-like coils of the radiators before returning, cooled, ready to begin the whole cycle all over again.
Hercules truly has become the life-source of my house—bringer of light, comfort and nourishment—which maybe contradicts my earlier statement about him being ‘inanimate’. Yes, the fact that I am freely using a pronoun here in reference to an overly-glorified camp-fire is not lost on me; the fact that I’ve gone for the masculine variant even more so (it suits him). Although, the way his stubby little cast iron legs bend beneath his body-weight has the makings of a mean goddess-pose.
Such is the nature of our relationship: in the early days I was making the classic mistake of setting my expectations too high and totally underestimating how much input was required from me in order to reap the full benefits. As we have gotten to know each other better, we have forged a way of living together which is mutually beneficial and sustainable, and yes—like any partnership, it takes hard work and awareness of the other’s needs, which is why personification of said inanimate-glorified-campfire comes so easily and inevitably.
However, Hercules coming into my life hasn’t just revolutionized the way I heat my house. Listed below are a few unexpected changes that I have gradually come to acknowledge over the past few months.
Before I begin, I would like to assert that I am in no way linked to the company from whom I purchased my stove, and am therefore not advocating the switch to solid fuel nor advertising on behalf of the manufacturers.
My life also revolves around more than a log-burner (although you may find that hard to believe after reading this). I will even drop the pronoun for the remainder of the article (although I may continue to use his name in our more private moments).
10. It has saved me a fortune.
Aside from a reluctance to line the pockets of greedy energy companies and tug on the world’s depleting energy resources in these austerity-struck times, any savings can seriously alleviate feelings of stress relating to how the bills will be paid—or how we’re going to eat for the next week.
I no longer work full time as the pressures of my job and the crippling lack of fulfillment was making me ill. After taking the leap (apparently there’s a word for people like me: jumpers. May be appropriate in some respects), I now split my time between my old job and exploring other avenues—and am much happier as a result.
However, the pay off for this liberation is the inevitable kick in the pay-packet—at least until I can make one of my other endeavors financially viable.
Simply put, if I hadn’t have converted my heating system when I did, I would be seriously struggling right now.
Another bonus is that I pay for my fuel as and when I need it; I am no longer tied into the monthly scrutiny of my online banking to see whether or not the gas/electricity companies have taken their pound of flesh yet—and in the summer months the cost is considerably less meaning that, like a squirrel, I can begin to make provisions for the onset of winter.
Yes, it’s a lot of extra work, takes some forward planning (rewind to last winter: fuel runs out; heavy snow hits; deliveries by trucks delayed by two weeks; misery ensues; lesson learnt) and is by no means as convenient as flicking a switch, but it is exactly this that makes me much more grateful for and mindful of the money that I do have, how it is being spent and for the ‘basic human right’ of heating and warmth.
Which I wouldn’t experience by flicking a switch.
9. I have re-discovered a love for simple, manual tasks.
For as long as I can remember, my world has been embroiled in academia, corporate decision making and bureaucratic exercises.
The processes that I have to go through in order to keep the fire in my house burning has reminded me of the pleasure of simple toils. Making my way down to the fuel shed scuttles in hand and returning with them filled requires no mental energy and is full of purpose. I can bring myself into the present moment, acknowledging the colour of the sky or whether the leaves have begun to change.
If it is one of those days when I’m working from home and my partner is experiencing a long one at the chalkface, I can make sure that we have clean, freshly dried linen on the bed or that his ‘comfies’ are warming by the fire ready for when he comes home.
I find small acts like this deeply rewarding and very satisfying, and hope that they make my partner feel loved, valued and cared for.
8. It has brought me back in tune with nature.
Many cultures advocate the ‘rising at dawn, resting at dusk’ mantra. Unwittingly, I appeared to have adopted this practice through maintaining my fire, especially in winter. I need to rise early to open the vents and place the first logs on.
As the days shorten, if I haven’t been outside to stock up my fuel baskets before the four p.m. curfew (I.e. sunset), then my resting hours will be disrupted by fumbling about in the pitch black with only the pitiful assistance of a head-torch to guide me.
I have also had to become accustomed to changes in the weather and, subsequently, the air pressure as this affects my log-burner’s ability to function efficiently. This means that I have to vary the amount of fuel, type of fuel and level of ventilation to the grate depending upon what’s happening in the world outside.
This has taken a bit of getting used to, but just as nature can be problematic in this way, it brings with it a number of other opportunities: after a storm or heavy winds, I will take my dogs down the back lanes with a basket, gathering fallen branches and twigs to use as kindling. Similarly, any fallen trees (or trees that have fallen ill due to disease and threaten the health of those around them—I have learnt to spot the symptoms) are felled, chopped up and added to my wood store.
A decent lumberjack, I’ve found, is essential and was never something that I thought I’d need on speed-dial.
7. Everything is used to its full capacity.
Nothing is wasted in our house—everything is reused or recycled to within an inch of its current or previous life. This includes anything that can reasonably used as fuel: this year’s Christmas tree? Chopped up and used as fuel. Sawdust from the new kitchen units? Compacted and used as fuel. Personal documents that previously would need shredding…you get the idea.
Incidentally, my day-to-day fuel consists of the off-cuts from wood yards and carpenters. But it doesn’t stop there: leftover bits of incense sticks can be tossed onto glowing embers to release their fragrance throughout the entire house.
The same can be done with most things—sprigs from the lavender plant that has grown rogue and is threatening to take over my entire garden, pine needles from the aforementioned unfortunate Christmas tree, used tea leaves…lush sell tins of dried herbs for the same purpose, but I kind of begrudge spending £25 for the privilege when I have everything that could ever need right here.
6. My kitchen is now a source of sustenance rather than ritual hangovers.
I’m not saying that this never happens anymore, but in years gone by my kitchen was used primarily as a place for people to leave their wine when they came round. I have never been much of a cook, but whether it’s the influence of my new partner or that adopting a regular yoga practice had made me much more aware of what I’m putting into my body.
I seem to be finding myself bending over the oven much more frequently and willingly than I would have done previously. Despite this, I still lack the patience to spend hours brooding over complex recipes, and it is because of this that the log-burner has taken on a raft of additional uses. Stew pot that needs to be kept bubbling in order to release the flavours? Put it on top of the stove.
The low, regular temperature negates the need for constant checking and stirring. Yes, the oven could do the same job, but I’m a bit frightened of leaving electrical appliances on unattended.
Want the perfect kale chips? Place on a baking tray on top of the stove before popping into the oven. It dries the leaves out beautifully and reduces the need for oil.
I’ve always wanted to be one of those women who has a fresh pot of coffee on hand ready to welcome unexpected visitors, and now I can be.
All I need now are some unexpected visitors…
5. It gives me something else to point my furniture at.
Remember that classic line from Joey in ‘Friends’? “You don’t have a T.V.? What do you point your furniture at?!” Of course I have one just not in my kitchen.
Instead, my dining room chairs can be turned around to face the log burner where, in the absence of flashing electronic images to deaden and distract the mind, a space has been created for human connections and to foster conversation.
In the thick of a Yorkshire winter, re-enacting the twilight gatherings of the long-ago summer festivals around a communal heat-source (bonus: in the comfort of your own home) can be deeply soothing to the soul.
4. My dogs love it.
I love caring for our ‘boys’ and they love nothing better than stretching out together in front of the stove after a long walk in the cold. Watching them reminds me of their primal origins, when packs of fearsome, wolf-like hunting dogs tamed by early man would huddle around the campfire after a day stalking prey, picking at their share of the kill with one ear alert to any threat to their masters, cementing one of the most infallible inter-species relationships in history.
3. It promotes mindfulness.
It has that same weirdly beguiling and fascinating effect as a lava lamp. Watching the flames rising as the first of the day’s fuel sets alight places me in a vaguely mediative state. It’s never a conscious thing: it just happens. Rather than diving straight into the first task that springs to mind, I often find myself staring into the fire, sensing the heat increasing on my face, contemplating nothing but the the colours, the movements, and the infinite power of this, the most fearfully symmetrical of the elements.
Literally—I find myself crouching there. The sudden ache in my knees makes me acutely aware that I have been transported outside of myself for quite some time.
2. It brings me further inside my practice.
Imagine floating into downward facing dog, fingers and toes sinking kundalini-style into the soft pelts of the sheepskin rugs (after shifting the actual downward-facing-snoozing dogs off them), a warming, natural glow soothing the body deeper into the pose, with nothing but a gentle crackling sound to quieten and focus the mind. Utter bliss.
1. It is very romantic. Enough said.
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Assistant Ed: Judith Andersson / Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Lori Bourscheid via Pixoto
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