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  • Writer's pictureBeth Erskine

And Ode to my Woodburner

Spring has definitely taken root at Cotswold Farm. The shy snowdrops have given way to the unbridled enthusiasm of the daffodils, who faded into the early budding of the trees and flowers that will take us into the warmer months.

Winter this year was cold but not nearly as bitter as it was last year. We had no snow and only a few mornings of icy windshields. But plenty of evenings by the fire. We have a wood burner where a fireplace once stood. It was replaced just before we arrived with, as my neighbours describe it, a pokey little thing. I admit, we were sceptical when we arrived but thrilled to have it. Our flats in London had a series of Edwardian and Victorian gas fireplaces that failed their safety tests. So while we had beautiful fireplaces, we had no fire. I would walk around Fulham in the winter, jealous of the one house that had a wood fire. I don’t know that my husband had more on his list of requirements when we moved than ‘garden, fireplace’. My list was longer but fireplace was in the top 3.

We moved into the house in June, not exactly cold evenings, and we waited for the temperature to drop. The farm has a large woodshed with logs that have been cut to size for each of the fireplaces in the main house. The drawing room logs are 3’ long and it is a thing to behold when it is lit. We were told to help ourselves and found the scrappy little pieces that fit our wood burner. When the time finally came, my hubby built our first fire. We watched the flames for hours, congratulating ourselves and sipping Lagavulin. The temperature of the room slowly crept up and after 4 hours, it had raised 1 degree. It took some time before we knew to open the door. What can I say? We’re Cityfolk. Now that we know, it has been a great heat source for us, but much like energy efficient lightbulbs, it needs time to warm up. Before any party or visitors, he lights the fire an hour before they arrive, to take the chill off the room.

Taking the chill off the room. It’s such a British thing to say. There is a reason the English dress as they do in all those period dramas. The houses were cold, frigid in some rooms. Central heating was a luxury until the 60s and unless a fire was lit in the room, I can see how many rooms were simply unused in the winter. You covered the furniture, closed the door and hoped you remembered the room come spring. I find wool trousers and sweaters are creeping steadily into my winter wardrobe and I look ever more like a character in a Miss Marple mystery. I’ve drawn the line at tweed. The cottage does have central heating, but like all ancient houses, its wildly inefficient and as an architect, that’s particularly galling. Our bedroom is nice and toasty while the hallways can be ice chambers. The kitchen is easily the warmest room of the house, being in possession of the actual boiler, but the utility room next to it tends to be used as a second refrigerator. Which was handy at the holidays, I’ll admit. When my mother was here our first Christmas, she spent the entire time huddled in front of the fire, clutching a hot water bottle, trying not to leave the living room. It didn’t help that we ran out of heating oil while she was here. Yet another lesson to learn about life in the country.

But those evening curled up by the fire, playing Scrabble and sipping wine, watching my husband and mother laugh and joke together; it’s heady stuff. It is how we thought, dreamed, life in the country would be. Ok, we don’t have the dog yet and I still have no butler, but baby steps.

Now that the weather is warming and the days lengthening greatly, the use of the wood burner will taper off. Gradually at first and soon it will be a luxury to light a fire, then an indulgence, and finally, unnecessary. Soon we’ll be rushing outdoors in the evenings, more than slightly chilly but longing for good weather (of British summer?) We’ll work in the garden, nurturing seedlings we planted in January and February. We’ll walk though the budding trees, noticing changes from last week. And we’ll come home to the wood burner, happy to embrace its heat.

After one such evening last spring, I had a flash of inspiration and the next day tracked it down at an auction. We now have an outdoor fireplace on the terrace, complete with firedogs, an iron basket and a metal back plate. I can’t tell if people think it genius or insanity, but no one has refused an invitation to sit around the fire with us. This spring I will concentrate on finding the final pieces or our Summer Drawing Room. I hope to make it as comfortable as our living room. As soon as we have summer, that is. If we have summer. It is Britain and summer is not an unalienable right here. Whatever comes, we will await it in front of the wood burner. We will stretch the winter as long as we can, but eventually, we will move the evenings outdoor and the pattern will continue. Dinner with soft lighting, a roaring fire and a poorly played game of backgammon. Lagavulin will be switched for Tyrconnell, my summer whiskey, and the hubby will smoke his cigars. We will plan our vegetable garden and our summer holiday in front of that fire, under the stars.

Maybe I don’t need a butler after all.

Originally published by The American Magazine

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