Count Your Blessings #33 – The Smell of Burning Wood

Lancaster Canal

Over the weekend Sue, Emily and myself (Jonathan was away on a youth weekend) went for a walk along the Lancaster Canal. It was one of those Sunday afternoon walks, which for us means – short.

While we were walking a barge passed us. I love to see barges. This one had something extra though. He was burning his log stove.

The smell of burning wood always brings memories flooding back. All sorts of memories.

When I was young we had a real fire at home. It was really a coal fire, but it burnt wood just as well. We had central heating so we didn’t need to light it for the warmth, we lit it for the experience.

Lighting the fire always bought with it a sense of achievement, because everything that we burnt we had worked to gather.

People around us knew that we burnt wood (because they could smell too) so every time they were doing something with a tree in their garden they knew that if they asked us we would come and do it for them on the condition that we took the wood. This was in the days before the health and safety people really took a hold on our society. We didn’t use chain saws, we used a bow-saw. Sometimes this was a one man operation but often required two of us; one on either end and loads of teamwork. My Dad also understood the theory of pivots. Most people wanted the tree out – roots and all. Having first attached a rope to the top of the trunk we would often chop off the branches of a tree; leaving the main trunk. We would then proceeded to dig the tree out pulling on the rope to make sure that it fell the right way. Every now and then one of us (usually Stephen, my brother, or me) would climb up the trunk to provide a bit more leverage. I remember Stephen being up one particular tree when there was an almighty crack and the tree came down with a thud. We both learnt when to jump. In modern speak we would call these occasions male-bonding times; we were just having fun.

When I was a child the popular Sunday afternoon activity was to go walking along the East Yorkshire coastline. We would often use this as an opportunity to collect drift wood. Drift wood burns in a different way to other woods because it contains loads of salt; this makes it cackle and hiss, but it also makes it glow blue and violet. One time I remember us biting off a bit more than we could chew and carry this huge log between us for what seemed like miles only to find that we couldn’t fit it (and us) in the car. There’s only so much you can get in a Morris Marina.

Saturday’s were reserved for a different type of fun – the allotments. We had two. For some reason which I have never understood (because you don’t ask those questions when you are younger) there were at opposite ends of Beverley; where I was bought up. You can’t have an allotment without having a fire. There is always something to burn. Even if there wasn’t we would make sure that there soon was. In the Autumn a fire wasn’t just fun, it was essential I remember sitting in front of it trying to warm my hands up so that I could feel them again. An Autumn fire brings another delight – fire baked potatoes. There really is nothing like the smoky, nutty taste of a potato straight of the embers.

We have a chiminea in the garden these days which burns reconstituted wood because it’s too smoky with real wood. It doesn’t quite smell the same but the memories are still as powerful.

The joy of a wood fire seems to have passed down the generations too. Jonathan always has a story to tell about the fire whenever he returns from Scout Camp.

Smell is a powerful sense. The way that it connects together memories is a real blessing.

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