Thursday, November 28, 2013

How to Start a Fire

Keeping Warm
I've always felt November to be a month of anxiety-laced anticipation. It is that slow pivot when cold gives way to freezing, when colour fades to black and white, when Autumn slips into winter. It could be a dreary winter, or it could be a gorgeous winter. It could be a winter of being stuck indoors or a winter of uninterrupted cycling. Which it will be, we do not know. The season will slowly unfold to manifest itself, and all we can do is wait - distracting ourselves with a cluster of holidays, shopping, and big meals. 

Farm Yard
Earlier this week I explained Thanksgiving and Black Friday to an Irish friend. It surprised me that I had to explain it at all, as they've grown up on American sitcoms here and at this time of year practically all the episodes are holiday-themed. But I guess it's possible to watch and enjoy American shows despite not getting all the cultural references, and so Thanksgiving was one of those fuzzy concepts until I fleshed it out with an elaborate description of what actually goes on. In return I am asked whether I miss Thanksgiving. Is it making me homesick?

Hmm is it? Well, not in an obvious sense. Having lived outside the US half my life, I skip it as often as I celebrate it, and have mixed feelings about the holiday anyway. But I do miss the role it plays in marking that November transition. Without Thanksgiving as a marker, I feel a bit lost this year - lacking in structure and a sense of flow.

Keeping Warm
There is also the question of weather. In New England I've formed a strong association between Thanksgiving time and that crisp, dry chill in the air. There is something festive about that dry chill, something comforting and uplifting, invigorating. In Northern Ireland the late Autumn cold is different. Humid and penetrating, it feels as if an army of invisible clammy tentacles slowly wrap themselves around me, creeping persistently beneath layers of wool, then tightening their hold to sap my bodyheat. That kind of cold is not festive at all; it is energy-draining and spirit-dampening. And determined not to give in, I have been fighting it with fire. 

Keeping Warm
At the risk of disappointing those who took my earlier "thatched cottage with no electricity" comment seriously, my dwellings in Northern Ireland have all had modern amenities, including central (oil) heating. However, many here agree that heating a house via fireplace or stove remains the most effective method. There is something about the dancing flame of an open fire that dries out the damp better than anything. 

In my current fireplace I can burn wood, coal and peat - or a combination of any of these. All in all, coal seems to offer the best combination of heat, cost-effectiveness and ease of procurement. Coals burn slowly and they burn extremely hot. The heat is easy to regulate by the amount you put in, and how you arrange them on the grate. And in the new place I'm about to move into, get this: The main wood/coal burning stove (pictured) plugs into the central heating system, so that the radiators and the hot water can actually be stove-powered rather than using oil. I've been tinkering with the system to figure out how it works exactly. 

Keeping Warm
Getting a coal fire started is not easy - in particular when trying to do it quickly, with freezing trembling hands in the early morning. You cannot simply light a piece of coal with a match - it's like trying to set a rock on fire. Instead, you have to create conditions of extreme heat on the grate, which will set the coals aglow slowly and gradually. This is achieved by building up what looks like a little fort of sorts - layering crumpled paper, then thin dry pieces of wood, on which the coals are then placed. You light the paper, which burns quick and shallow, in turn lighting the wood, which burns slower and hotter, in turn lighting the coals which take some time to catch but, once aglow, release a heat of such depth and intensity that a small house can easily be kept warm all day with a couple of bucketfulls. Wooden logs can be added to vary the feel of the flames, which I like doing as well.

Keeping Warm
It is a dry, crisp heat that is comforting and festive in the absence of the seasonal markers I'm used to. I do not miss Thanksgiving, but I do want to wish a happy one to my US-based readers. Thank you, as always, for reading, and I hope you are finding ways to keep warm...

Keeping Warm
...with or without a fireplace!

51 comments:

  1. The next big thing for you - cooking on a coal burning stove.
    My grandfather used to cook on such thing his whole life and he definitely mastered it.

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  2. That's the shot!

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  3. Different coastline here, different ocean, and yet the same sort of numbing dampness...no coal allowed here, though. I think that's a capital crime in California.

    the focal point

    Hurray for Oak, Madrone, and Almond!

    Wood pellet stoves are the big thing here if you don't burn regular wood, but a pellet stove is useless if the power goes out.(which it does, without fail.)
    And the pellets attract rats so they're difficult to store in quantity.

    That integrated water heating system you have sounds brilliant.

    Enjoy your day!


    P.S. I've lived here almost all of my life, and still don't get Black Friday.





    Stay warm & dry, and happy Thanksgiving, all.

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  4. I grew up in a house equipped with several fireplaces, but no other form of heating. It saddens me to recall my parents struggling to get the fire lit, because it's not difficult if approached systematically. I no longer use paper, though. It sometimes doesn't burn long enough to ignite the sticks. Your nearest convenience store or supermarket will probably have firelighters in the hardware section. These are blocks of white waxy material made from paraffin (kerosene), and they light easily with a single match and burn very hot indeed. It transformed my firelighting when I discovered these, and I heartily recommend them.

    A word of warning. It can be very dangerous to mix different fuels on the same hearth. Creosote deposits can be created in the chimney, which may then ignite. A chimney fire can set fire to roof timbers. The politician Sir Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana had a house in Ireland which was burnt down, and it was believed that mixing wood and coal on one hearth had caused the fire.

    Do you know the tradition of sweeping the chimney by using the Christmas tree, after you've finished with it on Twelfth Night? Only works with a natural tree, of course. You climb on the roof and drop a rope down the chimney, tie the fir tree to the rope, go back on the roof and pull it up. Repeat as necessary. Remember to cover anything which will be damaged by soot in the room.

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    1. Funny that you mention Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists, and his wife Diana here - Wikipedia knows something about them: "[His first wife] Cynthia died of peritonitis in 1933, after which Mosley married his mistress Diana Guinness, née Mitford (1910–2003). They married in secret in Germany on 6 October 1936 in the Berlin home of Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Adolf Hitler was one of the guests." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oswald_Mosley)

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    2. I had a chimney fire a couple of years ago in January. It was scary as I had been in a house fire some years before which spread very quickly. My landlord had forgotten to clean the chimney that fall and one night the woodstove was acting up, the chimney made a scary trainlike sound... and upstairs in ourbedroom the exposed chimney cracked in some places, smoke billowing into the bedroom. Luckily it did not break out of the brick chimney and start on the wood house, the volunteer fire crew came asap, and they made a lovely mess that took days to clean up. The carpets had to be cleaned. We had to move out for a few days, we couldn't sleep upstairs, had to through out furniture, the cats were terrified. One ran outside, the other stayed in the house under some furniture while the firemen and women clumped around him.
      The best stove pipe are the straight ones with the thick insulated piping. it should go up straight, no elbows or kinks. As I commented, my wood stove is a nightmare at the best of times, the fire only made me more nervous, but the rent is cheap, so we make do.

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  5. Funny that some believed you were living in a thatched cottage in some sort "Quiet Man" version of Ireland. Apologies for mentioning the stereotype but some in the US surprise us in Europe sometimes. :)

    Is that an oil filled electric space heater in the front of the Brompton ? Amazing what the little bikes can carry sometimes. Reacting to a discount offer, last week I managed 6 bottles of wine, bread and other assorted grocery. Was a bit of hard work climbing over the canal bridge. Conjures up a image - Santa on a Brompton.

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    1. "Is that an oil filled electric space heater in the front of the Brompton?"

      Yes! The front bag swallows it with room to spare.

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    2. When V writes it's sometimes hard for me to distinguish fact from fiction....Are these people real or made up?.....Is this situation real or some sort of dramatic embellishment? I'm not so clever and am often confused about the mixture of product reviews and technical/statistical information vs. an imaginative and inventive narrative for other purposes. All I can think of is, 'well, this is what marketing is all about'....

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    3. The mixture of product reviews, stories, and posts on various bike-related topics is a fairly typical format for a journal/magazine-style publication.

      Nothing is fiction here, unless I am making an obvious (well, to me) joke. Like saying that I live in a grass thatched cottage with no electricity and use a lunar-powered laptop to write the blog. Carrying a small space heater in a bike basket isn't really that far fetched.

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  6. No stereotype here-thatched cottage seemed credible to me as I've lived in a freezer van in an Alaskan bush winter and almost took up residency in a loft above a barn of donkeys here in Arizona-living with my own kind I guess. Also, lived in a little tool shack about the size of a small bathroom in Oregon where I had a tiny, tiny pot- bellied stove, a toy almost that I burnt kindling in to keep warm. Quite a bit of mold living with me there, too. Lived in a 1907 farmhouse in the Oregon coastal foothills with just a scandinavian stove burning green wood all winter while trenching 1700-feet upslope to a spring for a waterline. Here in the foothills, we have a bracing, dry cold at slightly under 3,000 feet elevation. Have a big fireplace that I've never lit yet but never say never, especially after your nice post. Thanks for the post and I hope your passage through the seasons is warm and rewarding. Jim Duncan

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  7. Never a day without Velouria.

    Kind of strange that Americans celebrate a day they acquired a country by means of genocide.

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    1. All true - all I need is a native American to mug for 20 dollars, and my holiday becomes more historically accurate. History has been an unkind mess of complex theft through-out, however.

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    2. Yes, also once the pious pilgrims figured out where the First Nations people kept their food storages, they plundered them leaving the people who saved them to starve for the rest of that winter(and get small pox etc too).
      In Canada, thanksgiving is more of a harvest festival held in October. It's an official holiday always held on a Monday, so it means LONG WEEKEND!

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    3. Thanksgiving (the first one) was a celebration of the Pilgrim's first Fall harvest. It was a shared celebration with Native Americans.

      Jill

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  8. Ooooo... jealous! I'm such a pyromaniac - which is why it's a really good thing that we have wood burning bans in place most of the time here in Denver, and that I don't have a fireplace in my home. I fear I might have reduced the place to ashes otherwise!

    Enjoy the fire... it's 60 degrees and sunshine here, and I'm about to take a quick walk to the store for some emergency whipping cream - my step-mom always forgets it! Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

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  9. Coal burning?! That's allowed? A woodstove is my main source of heat. The baseboard electric heaters do not work very well and cost a fortune, so we pretend they do not exist, unless there is a real cold snap and the landlord offers to pay part of the bill so the pipes don't freeze.
    Do consider your health. Is the woodstove sealed and efficient? My woodstove is old, very old, leaky, obvious visible gaps, but the landlord thinks it is fine, and that is that unless we find another home for the same rent! Anyway, coal and wood smoke fumes and particles are bad for health and interior air quality. If you are prone to colds, sniffles, allergies, or asthma you could be in for developing a sexy smoker's cough. I basically assume that my lungs will be gross all fall/winter/spring. My woodstove does have a system to heat up the water heater which is wonderful and saves on electricity in the winter, and the pipes warm up areas of the house. I know some woodstoves have boilers that even warm up radiators which I love the idea of. I for one, want to live in a crofty cottage with an aga and a modern woodstove for cooking.
    Fire heat is wonderfully warm, definitely necessary in the damp maritime cold of the british isles and the pacific northwest. The dampness is not something you want to take over. It will cause mildew, moulds, and make everything damp unless you have another source of heat. I have lived in places with mildew and mould growing up the walls, had to throw out many boxes of belongings, a mattress I had on the floor japanese style... The fire heat does the best job against dampness, but does not always reach the entire house.
    My house is so big and drafty that most evenings I have to sit right in front of the woodstove to stay warm until the heat eventually warms up other parts of the house. But it is definitely romantic, and if the power goes up I can boil water and cook a few things on top of the stove.
    Canada has thanksgiving in October, which I can only imagine is so that colder regions can have a fall harvest type holiday with the appropriate weather, vs the US where areas further south might still be hauling in harvests and transitioning to winter.

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    1. Rebuilding a woodstove is easier than building up a bike, and is usually quite inexpensive unless you have to replace a cracked cast iron part or something. Your landlord ought to have no problem reimbursing you for gaskets and stove cement. Think $30 USD/CAD or so.
      Lots of free expertise at www.hearth.com

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  10. Well it's relatively warm and sunny here in SoCal. Just got out for a 35 mile jaunt for my first ride with a meetup.com group I recently joined. We had 28 and we merged with another (faster) group of about 60. So we took up a whole right lane of the coast highway from Del Mar to Carlsbad. Great way to start the day.

    But what I wanted to write and say is that I'm thankful for this blog and especially it's author, Velouria. I always look forward to the new posts and was practically in withdraw during your recent, though well deserved, hiatus. So on this day of Thanksgiving thank you for all you do. Your writing and photos are unmatched. Now pass the New Belgium Ranger IPA :)

    Doug

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  11. Living in the north of England, coal burning is no longer allowed. This area was declared a smokeless zone in the late 1960s, since when you must either burn a smokeless fuel or use gas or electric central heating.

    Anonymous, you state that Adolf Hitler was one of the guests at the wedding of Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Guinness. He was, as you might expect, the guest of honour. His wedding present to the happy couple was a photograph of himself in a silver frame. Whatever his failings may have been, modesty was not reckoned among them.

    Their union produced two children, Alexander and Max. The latter was, until quite recently, a leading figure in the sport of international motor racing. Sir Oswald's baronetcy died out because his eldest son, by his first marriage to Lady Cynthia Curzon, succeeded to the peerage by virtue of his mother having been a peeress in her own right, which title eclipsed the baronetcy. American readers must, at this stage, be wondering what the heck all this is about. At this time of year, just be grateful to the Founding Fathers for liberating you from all thie meshugas.

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  12. the joy of anticipating a wet, penetrating winter in soggy isle instead of crisp continental weather. the post made me feel better - not least the grim pic of the outside of the accomodation (bears uncanny resemblance to my back garden, where even the robin is beginning to look worried). However, there IS cycling, and cheap flights to Paris (Ryanair is Irish) or Brittany

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  13. During the two years I lived abroad, I honestly gave no thought at all to the U.S. holidays. There was so much to do in Hong Kong and Indochina that were it not for my companions getting all obsequious I would have forgot entirely.

    As for Black Friday, Richard Sachs has captured exactly my feelings exactly: http://www.velocipedesalon.com/forum/f2/black-friday-atmo-35321.html

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  14. curious: how many bikes did you take with you and how did you get them there? what was your packing strategy?

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    1. Two bikes, my Brompton folding bike and Seven roadbike, taken one at a time. I'll have a post at some point about the case I use for the roadbike.

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    2. How much does your brompton weigh in its Samsonite case? I had to swap for a bike pod to get under 20kg's - the limit for standard checked in on cheap European carriers

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    3. Not sure, because I always stuff the case with clothing in addition to having the Brompton in there. This time, the whole thing weighed in at just over 25kg at the airport check-in.

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  15. My boss was reminiscing her childhood in South Korea recently and was talking about the heating system in the house she grew up in. Basically it was coal fueled radiant floor heat that also had pipes going to the oven and stove. She said that they would buy big hunks of coal, maybe about volleyball sized and one could last the whole day. But the house was not very well vented, and so they had to be careful of carbon monoxide poisoning. She did remember sometimes waking up with terrible headaches. Poisoning aside, I thought the idea sounded quite cozy!

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  16. During my sojourn in North Dakota, the price of propane skyrocketed and I had to learn how to operate a wood/coal space heater. Lignite coal was cheap and could be bought for $4.50 a ton, and in the cold of the Northern Plains I burned 8 tons every winter. As Velouria explained, starting the fire is difficult, but wonderful heat once it is going. Because kindling was hard to come by, I learned to keep the fire going for a long as possible without rebuilding it, and the longest I kept it burning was a record three weeks. To do that, a good supply of coal was added before bedtime, and then damped down to burn slowly through the night. Before more fuel was added, one shook the grate to drop the ashes into the ash-box, moved the live coals over to one side or the other, then the new fuel was poured in next to it. The air supply was adjusted and the fire kept going. On the coldest day in my memory--the wind chill was -96 degrees F.--I used 8 buckets of coal in 24 hours. It far surpassed running out of propane gas which was only used as a backup to keep the pipes from freezing.

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    1. Good grief. You shoveled 16,000 lbs of lignite in your furnace, in one winter? I think it was the constant shoveling that probably warmed you, not the cheap coal.

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  17. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-fireplace-delusion

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  18. This is exactly what people did in rural Ireland many years ago. No problems with lighting the fire, because it was never allowed to go out. People never went away on holiday, so that wasn't an issue. It was said that some cottages had had the fire burning for 300 years, over several generations. The fuel used was peat, known in Ireland as turf, which people cut themselves from the bog with a specially-designed spade, and stacked up to dry. It's a lovely fuel to use, and produces an amazing ash which is virtually weightless. In summer, of course, the fire was still needed for cooking anyway. The skill, as stated, was to regulate the air supply overnight and keep it "ticking over." When a cottage was seen without the chimney smoking, it was usually because the last member of the family had died, or people had emigrated, never to return. In rural cultures like this, a smoking chimney is associated with health and prosperity, and there's a Scottish toast which goes: "lang may your lum reek," which translates as "long may your chimney smoke."

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    1. very nice. ah not about lovely bikes anymore, thank god.

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  19. "Getting a coal fire started is not easy - in particular when trying to do it quickly, with freezing trembling hands in the early morning. You cannot simply light a piece of coal with a match - it's like trying to set a rock on fire. Instead, you have to create conditions of extreme heat on the grate, which will set the coals aglow slowly and gradually. This is achieved by building up what looks like a little fort of sorts - layering crumpled paper, then thin dry pieces of wood, on which the coals are then placed. You light the paper, which burns quick and shallow, in turn lighting the wood, which burns slower and hotter, in turn lighting the coals which take some time to catch but, once aglow, release a heat of such depth and intensity that..."

    You can grill meat, as generations of Americans raised on a protein-rich diet have. Funny to see it spelled out not on the Food Channel.

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  20. Fisk Ellington Rutledge IIINovember 30, 2013 at 3:46 PM

    My wife and I like your blog a lot. I have a Pashley Roadster Sovereign. She has an Electra. Have you ever encountered a Taurus? It's Italian. Doesn't seem to have a presence here. I would pay serious money for this one:

    http://www.taurusbiciclette.it/index.php?option=com_jumi&fileid=1&Itemid=1&productNo=2

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  21. I have not ridden my bikes in earnest for a week and a half. Was just feeling wimpy towards the cold in the morning for the commute, then got sick from someone on the subway train (serves me right!). Going to be away for a week for work. Hopefully I will be in better spirits (if not in better shape!).
    I love the scent of my neighbor's fireplace. He has a small potbelly stove to heat up the garage when he wants to tinker away.
    I bought another Peugeot PX50 from France. I opened the box to see the rear steel rim looking like a half moon. I have no idea how Colissimo could manage to compress the thing such! Anyway, I got it for the frame as I am having wheels built at Bikeworks and am going to replace everything on it. The seatpost is not frozen and the headset turns, and most important, it's metallic red!

    Today is a nice crisp dry air day in NYC. Happy Thanksgiving. When all looks hopeless and dreary, we will get a nice sunny day out of nowhere. You'll see.
    vsk

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  22. Hemingway wrote by a wood stove in his otherwise damp/cold Paris apartment/office. He burned wood kindling. Perhaps if he had some nice warm coal he would have stayed out of the cafes and things could have been different.

    I stayed at a friends place in Scranton once and we picked up pieces of anthracite coal along the railroad tracks. Buckets of coal. Enough to heat her apartment for several days. Kind of fun but wouldn't want to do it in winter.

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  23. I apologize for going off topic. I would send you a personal email if I knew how. My question relates to the low trail Mercian you were writing about a year ago, in November, 2012. Did you ever report on it? I ask because I am in the process of ordering a lugged Boulder All Road frame.

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    1. I have the frame, but have not built it up yet. Feel free to email me at "filigreevelo at yahoo"

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  24. I went off to Stockholm during the American Thanksgiving break (my family doesn't observe it, and while I sometimes do an "orphan's feast" with local friends, lately I've just preferred to exploit the free 4 day weekend for some kind of adventure) I was trying to explain the "Black Friday" concept to an Englishman who had their interest piqued because "Amazon keeps sending me all of these emails about sales and what not" and so, I imagine that it won't be long before this actually turns into some kind of universal holiday separate from Thanksgiving (at least if US-based retailers like Amazon ever get truly global)

    He said, "oh, yes, we don't have a Thanksgiving in the UK so it's all sorts of odd."

    "You do have a harvest festival tradition don't you? I believe that's how we Canadians inherited it."

    "Oh, yes, there is a harvest festival, but it is earlier and it's more of a Christian thing."

    "ah, you know, Christians. Putting their stamps on pagan holidays and calling it a day."

    "you've a fair point there."

    In Sweden, the closest weekend to the beginning of December is marked with the opening of Christmas markets and shops setting up bonfires outside their store to cook sausages and serve mulled wine to passers by. It's not quite the same as Black Friday, but if I have to spend some time on the sidewalk outside of a store, I'd rather it be convivial hot drinks on a cold night than just queuing up for a 30% off sale.

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  25. oh, wow...was it a couple years ago you described yourself as an artist with a day job in academics? now it's life on a farm in northern ireland. wow. still making art? bicycles and art are the two mainstays in my life, for good or not....what a life!

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    1. Still the same, except now on a farm in Northern Ireland. Before moving to Boston, I lived in a rural area as well, so it's really not that huge of a departure.

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    2. so still an artist or do you keep that life separate from here?

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    3. I experience this post and the one before as tinged with a little melancholy and bewilderment(it could just be me)which I find reassuring(if that's the word)given that I'm feeling that way

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    4. Anon - it's an "and," not an "or"

      derf - I'm too tired for bewilderment at the moment, but maybe it'll catch up to me : )

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  26. WRT comments about stoves and fireplaces in N Ireland: Yes, it is legal here. People burn coal, logs and peat, often mixing them up. My understanding is that heating homes this way had at one time become much less common, but has regained popularity with the recent economic downturn. Central heating here is usually oil (rather than gas), and oil here is extremely expensive. It is much more cost effective to heat a home via fireplace or stove.

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    1. See, many states in the United have coal-stoked power plants supplying the majority of energy used to, y'know, turn on a light.

      It ain't a cut and dried thang.

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  27. Looks like you've got a very spacious dwelling!!

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