The Cottage Smallholder

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Guest spot: Winter Firing by Huw Woodman from The Bushcraft Magazine

copse at sunsetDo you remember our review of The Bushcraft Magazine at the end of November? Since then I have been nibbling their back issues. Our copies are living with some great books in the loo. When the magazines surface they are a joy. Well written, packed with inspiring articles and always a good read. This is the first article on The Cottage Smallholder from The Bushcraft Magazine. One to whet your appetite and give you a flavour of this excellent quarterly. Hopefully the start of many articles to come.

The Bushcraft Magazine also runs foraging and cookup day courses and their new ones are listed here.

Incidentally I found this poem during the late summer in a local house and loved it. I was planning to post it on the site but the months have rolled by. Huw’s article is a revelation as he can link this poem to the trees in his very own copse! The copse in photograph is not Huw’s. It’s a copse that I found one evening last summer.

Winter Firing – Huw Woodman has been looking through his wood-pile!

I’m sure you’ve heard the old firewood rhyme which goes like this:

Beechwood fires burn bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year
Store your beech for Christmastide
With new holly laid beside
Chestnut’s only good they say
If for years ’tis stayed away
Birch and firwood burn too fast
Blaze too bright and do not last
Flames from larch will shoot up high
Dangerously the sparks will fly
But ashwood green and ashwood brown
Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.

Oaken logs, if dry and old
Keep away the winter’s cold
Poplar gives a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes and makes you choke
Elmwood burns like churchyard mould
Even the very flames burn cold
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread
So it is in Ireland said
Applewood will scent the room
Pearwood smells like a flower in bloom
But ashwood wet and ashwood dry
A king may warm his slippers by!

I first met this rhyme as a child and have been fascinated by it ever since. It comes to me when I’m working my wood in Egerton, Kent and it haunts me again when I sit by my fire.

I’ve got a typical bit of ancient woodland that consists of overstood ash and hornbeam coppice and some other native trees. To be a British native tree, you have to have been established in these islands when the ice melted at the end if the last Ice Age, some 9,000 years ago. There are some 35 of these and include the two native oaks, ash, hornbeam, holly, hazel and hawthorn.

One of my favourite trees is ash. This fast-growing tree is good at taking knocks, which is why it is traditionally used as handles for tools, but as a firewood it is in a class of its own. It is a low sap wood, which explains the old rhyme – it doesn’t need to dry out before it can be burnt. It cleaves well with an axe and can be chopped into sizes best for your fire.
There’s lots of chestnut (not a British native – but introduced by the Romans) in Kent and this is another low sap wood, but although it’s great for fencing (the low sap content means it’s slow to rot in the ground) it’s also like a firework show when it goes on a fire. It spits and bangs and before you know it, the cat’s fled and your mat is smouldering in three places. As the old rhyme says, it need to be dried for years before the wood is capable of coming in the house for an open fire. Having said that, it’s OK on a wood burner – the closed doors means that the firework show is contained.

Conifers don’t make good logs either and for the same reason – Larch is another sparker. So if you’ve got to choose a pine – choose a Scots Pine. It sparks the least and has a rich piny smell that is very satisfying.

Of the broad leaved trees, willow isn’t bad for a soft water loving tree, but poplar and rowan don’t do much for me as logs. They moulder on the fire and soon need replenishing.

At the hardwood end of the spectrum, oak when dried for a year is excellent – little smoke and flame and bags of heat. Hornbeam is another good burner, but it is so hard that it blunts a chainsaw before you know it, which probably explains why it was traditionally used as teeth on the wooden drive wheels in a mill.

We use hazel and hawthorn sticks in our old ovens as faggots to bake bread by and this is great fun and on our bushcraft courses here in Kent, we do a clay oven version of this which has been used since Neolithic times.

So choose your logs and enjoy them. Farmers and woodmen always reckon that you get warm twice when you go logging: once when you cut the wood and once when you sit beside it!

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  1. J Walker

    Informative site much enjoyed. I believe the firewood poem was written by Celia Congreve, is believed to be first published in THE TIMES newspaper on March 2nd 1930

    • Fiona Nevile

      Hello J Walker

      Thank you so much for taking the time to drop by and leave this comment. Great to know the author. It’s a beautiful and informative poem.

  2. My first edition of The Bushcraft magazine has just arrived – it is brilliant!!

  3. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Polly

    I think that I enjoyed Huw’s post as much as you.

    Their guest posts increase the Cottage Smallholder knowledge base and also opens awareness to this great magazine. It’s a trade where everyone benefits. Perfect.

    Thanks so much for your extra information about wood. Much apreciated. Just nipped onto your blog and loved it!

  4. Polly Bathe

    Yes, I do remember your November posting on the Bushcraft Magazine. I loved it and spent hours looking at the magazine which I am thinking of subscribing to. I pick the ash twigs that fall from my huge ash trees and can use them as firewood straight away. Thanks SO much for the poem. I will learn it off by heart. But I didn’t know that elm burnt with a cold flame! That is fascinating. I had a posting a while ago about trying to get rid of an elm stump by burning. It’s still sticking up there.

    My actual elm logs go into the Rayburn, so I don’t suppose I notice how hot or cold they are. I get about one dead 18 foot elm in my hedgerow per year. This is the height that today’s suckering elms get to before they die, so they are very good measuring poles. Does anyone want to make some staithes?

    One other thing: it’s very true about the Scots pine — our native pine. I have to put those logs onto the cool end of the hot plate for an hour or so before they go into the Rayburn. They perfume the whole house with an extraordinarily lovely smell.

  5. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Amanda

    Yes I found this article very interesting too. I have learnt a little about wood since moving here 15 years ago – we have an inglenook fireplace and a wood burning stove. It’s great to have so much information about the qualities of different types of wood.

    Hi Mildred,

    I loved that poem when I spotted it framed in a friendâ„¢s house last summer.

    Hi Kate(uk)

    I think it’s a brilliant idea combining the poem with the article. Thanks for dropping by.

  6. Kate(uk)

    Years since I last heard that rhyme too- just the thing for such a miserable wet and windy day as this!

  7. I love this poem which I think dates from the 1930’s. I came across it when I was in my teens (many moons ago)so thanks for bringing back memories.

    On this very rainy Tuesday, I just want to sit by the fire with a big stack of logs, and the latest issue of Bushcraft Magazine 😉

  8. This is excellent, really informative and the poem is beautiful (I’d not heard it before).
    Thanks for sharing Fiona and Huw.

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