There’s a new aroma in the air of our towns and villages, one that is both emotive and evocative for those of a certain age. Until now, it was a smell long forgotten, absent for decades and only remembered when a neighbour had a bonfire — it’s the smell of burning wood.
In the 1960s, with the memory of post-war smogs in mind, people started to remove the open fireplaces in their homes. Previously, most houses had at least one open fire and some had one in every room. Walk down any suburban street and look up at the dividing walls between terraced houses: you’ll see eight and sometimes more chimneys in a row.
Imagine them all lit. Imagine the smoke that poured up and out of them and imagine the air changes that they facilitated within the home. No wonder that many ‘modernised’ older buildings now suffer from damp — those air changes used to nullify damp and condensation.
I remember in my childhood that very few homes had central heating. Certainly almost the first task my parents undertook when they went downstairs in the morning was to light the fire in the lounge and the stove in the kitchen. In the 1960s when I was an estate agent (shhh, don’t tell anybody), most homes didn’t have any form of central heating, relying instead on open fires or the ‘modern’ glass-fronted fires (I recall the name Parkray), which often had a back boiler to heat the water.
Then, as the decade wore on, some form of central heating began to be introduced. It wasn’t unusual for this to be described as ‘partial’ central heating, typically consisting of one or two radiators running off the back boiler.
The first home that Mrs Snell and I built in 1970 had partial central heating. It was an oil-fired system; the boiler was centrally situated and warm air was ducted into the ground floor rooms. There was nothing upstairs; we relied on heat percolating upwards. Neither was there a fireplace — in that period they were considered ‘old-fashioned’.
Only two of the 13 homes we’ve self-built have featured fires and, in both those cases, they were for decorative purposes rather than to provide warmth. We weren’t alone. Most new homes built in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s didn’t have a working fireplace. I can remember being quite scathing over the thought of having such a ‘filthy thing’ in the home. We were marching forward into the modern era of clinical cleanliness, with full central heating providing for all of our needs.
But, rising fuel prices have contributed to the re-emergence and renaissance of the fireplace. Those with older homes are opening up their bricked-up fireplaces and reinstating the chimneys. Those with gas coal-effect fires are ripping them out, realising that these things are impossibly expensive to run.
The biggest winner in all of this is the woodburning stove. These are undoubtedly efficient and provide long-lasting warmth, and with modern control systems can operate in one room without making the rest of the house cold. They’re not cheap; you don’t get a lot of change out of £2-3,000 for a full installation, including the necessary work to (or construction of) a chimney.
I have to admit that my long-lasting antipathy has been overturned; I look forward to lighting the woodburning stove. It gives one a feeling of satisfaction and, for me, it’s become akin to taking charge of the barbecue.
Meanwhile, the night air with its wood smoke aromas extends the sense of wellbeing and comfort that fires are once again creating in the home — although doing so more efficiently this time around.