On Fires and Hearths

I no longer have a fireplace now that I live in Australia. I have a gas fire, which is efficient but doesn’t convey the sense of comfort that a real fire does. In fact, for most of the year it is stored beneath the stairs.

When I was a child, in England, we had a fireplace and a chimney and a hearth. It was the focal point of the living room. Methinks this is a throw-back from stone-age times when the clan would gather round the fire to eat and socialize and for the protection it gave from wild animals. Not that there were any wild animals in our living room. We had a budgie, but he was quite tame.

Coming from a coal mining area, we burnt black coal in the fireplace. I say black, because the coal I’ve seen in Australia is brown. The coal was delivered in hundredweight (112 lbs) bags by the coalman, and tipped into the coal-hole which was situated under the stairs. The coal-hole had a sturdy door to keep the coal out of sight.

The coalman was naturally covered in coal dust from head to foot. The only clean bits were his eyelids and his lips. He would carry the sack of coal in on his shoulders. Health and safety regulations would not allow that these days.

The fire was used for several things besides keeping us warm, and there were rituals involved in starting and keeping it going. The first of these rituals was the making of paper ‘twists’. Well, really they were ‘folds’. This was a job for us kids. Sheets of the evening newspaper (a broadsheet) were folded over and over lengthwise to make a long strip. This was then folded in the middle to make a <strong>V</strong>, then each side was folded one over the other to make a sort of tight concertina thing. These were used for the foundation of the fire. Kindling was placed on the top of these, and then a few small lumps of coal were added. A lit match was applied to the paper and then the next ritual was performed – by mum or dad.

A metal dustpan with a wooden handle was propped up on the fireplace front and a sheet of newspaper stretched across it to cover the hole. This caused the air to be sucked up through the bottom of the grate, making the fire roar. Sometimes the sheet of newspaper would catch fire and had to be quickly stuffed into the fireplace before it set the house alight. Once the small lumps of coal were glowing, bigger lumps could be added.

In winter, before she went to bed, mum would cover the fire in ashes so that it wouldn’t go out overnight. It would smoulder all night long and then, in the morning, dad would rattled the ashes through with the poker and add more fuel so that we got up to a warm room…………………..and porridge in the winter. Dad went to bed early and got up early and mum stayed up late and got up around 8 am. Dad would make a large pot of porridge in the double boiler so that it didn’t burn and was ready for everyone as they appeared from their rooms.

Chestnuts were roasted and potatoes baked in the ashes beneath the fire. The chestnuts had to have their skins pierced to stop them from exploding, which was scary and destroyed the nuts. Mum would push large potatoes into the ashes to cook. They were delicious – especially the ash-covered skins.

Toasting forks were all the go when I was a kid. Every family had one. They had four prongs and a telescopic handle, and the bread and crumpets they toasted over the fire were much more delicious than electrically toasted ones. Electric toasters weren’t even on the radar back then. They were still a futuristic dream. If they’d been available, we wouldn’t have been able to afford one anyway.

We had a hearth rug made of wool. This is because wool will smoulder rather than burn. There were a few burn holes in the rug where the odd cinder had leapt out from the fire, but we generally had a fireguard in front of the fire to stop this happening.

It was pleasant to sit with the lights out and fire-gaze. I suppose it was a form of meditation. Legend had it that if the fire burned with a blue flame it would be a cold, cold night.

Having reminisced through rose-coloured glasses, I have to say that it was not an efficient way of heating the place. Door sausages had to be employed to stop the draughts which could cut like a knife in winter. The front of you could be toasty warm while your back was like ice.

Occasionally there would be some excitement in the neighbourhood when someone’s chimney caught fire. This happened when built-up soot ignited in the chimney. Flames would leap out of the top and sometimes the fire brigade was called out.

The chimney-sweep’s visit was a treat, too. He would come with his flat, circular brush and all his bamboo poles. We’d wait outside whichever house he was at and all cheer when the brush came out the top of the chimney. I believe it was quite messy, even though the fireplace was covered over for the duration of the job, so people tried to keep their chimneys soot-free by having big fires.

Eventually, of course, everywhere became a smokeless zone and instead of burning coal people had to burn coke. Not much fun in that, but at least the air was cleaner.

Sue Jorgensen  –  http://toastedknees.wordpress.com/


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