The Log Burner
When you fall in love common sense flies out of the window. This is how it was for David and Doris Johnson when they found a down-at-heel mini chateau in the heartland of France. A three year restoration began - and with it a journey of discovery.
In the large room downstairs I had bricked up the fireplace with breeze blocks and rendered it, but as we were about to decorate Doris was struck with a moment of genius.
‘What about a log burner?’ she said.
‘But we’re putting central heating in,’ I said.
‘Yes, but it would add character to the room, and it would be insurance against power cuts. We could light it when it’s not cold enough for central heating.’
‘Just brilliant,’ I said.
Wood burners are hugely popular in rural France, not least because mains gas does not reach the countryside. As electricity is possibly the cheapest in Europe, visitors are often surprised to learn that most French homes have a back up (usually bottled) gas supply. Additionally there will often be a second (gas) hob fitted in the kitchen near to the electric one because electricity supplies are so regularly interrupted. We were not so concerned about the cooking – we had an ‘emergency’ kitchen in the caravan. Indeed, the caravan was still our only kitchen. All the same, we just had to have a reliable method of keeping some heat in the property before winter flexed its icy claws.
We had considered bottled gas which is racked up in cages at most garages and supermarkets, but this was not the best solution for us. Doris was absolutely right; in Entrechoux many of the houses had their winter woodpiles stacked up alongside, and the surrounding area was heavily wooded. Surely this was the way to go.
We soon learnt that the burners themselves come in all shapes and sizes, but are measured in output. The supplier does a standard calculation based on your general requirements and the size of the room where it is to be installed. It was determined that we needed an 11 kilowatt heater.
Logs generally come pre-cut to size, our load aperture was 54 cm which meant logs were to be cut to 50 cm. I rang around for quotes from wood suppliers. Larger loads are cheaper pro rata: so the equation was all to do with storage and seasoning. We bought two lots; one seasoned and ready to burn (relatively pricey), and another which would be ready in 12 to 18 months. Time will tell if we got the quantities right. I also feel that we will find cheaper suppliers – probably a couple of likely lads with chain saws and a white van – in the course of time.
We had been told that the Charente evenings become chill enough for background heating from mid October. We also knew that serious chill would arrive hard on the heels of Santa Claus. We arranged to have the burner delivered in early October and the central heating installed the following month. The cast iron burner came with the ten metres of flexible chimney lining we had ordered. Kevin climbed onto the roof and dropped a length of rope down the chimney. We tied the piping to the rope and up it went. Apart from putting in some packing around the top of the chimney, that was it. Installation complete.
Since our arrival in August we had slept in the caravan, but by the beginning of November it was time to move out. We moved into the sitting room to sleep. Electric cables still dangled like black spaghetti from the ceiling and the holes remained in the walls where we had ripped out cupboards.
But it was the floor that took first prize for vile. The timbers had accumulated years of filth and the perfume of dog was ingrained. We knew that the Colditz fence around the back of the property had been erected by the previous owners who bred huskies; we had presumed that Arctic sled dogs would have been happy enough outside. But obviously not. Indeed our neighbour, Bernard, had confirmed that the pack – which was estimated at 21 – spent their evenings indoors.
‘The problem, you see Monsieur,’ he explained, ‘is that the husky is an animal more like the horse than the dog. They are good for pulling the sled. They are good for fighting the wolves. But they fill the house with shit.’
Doris has always had the ability to make us comfortable and her sleeping arrangements were immensely practical. Each night we put down a large plastic sheet, on top of this went blankets, camping mattresses and sleeping bags. We were nice and warm because the wood burning stove was now fully operational.
One of our nearest neighbours is a widow called Marie. In the French way of things there is a constant stream of family to see her; as one car leaves another arrives. In the school holidays, there is always a small posse of grandchildren around.
Her house is also warmed by a big log burner. The logs, which are kept in the cellar of a property across the road, invariably arrive on an open wagon driven by her son. The street is so narrow at this point he is unable to turn and back the wagon, so he dumps the lot, as quickly as possible, at the roadside.
The drill then is that the family shift the wood by the barrow load to the storage yard. This year the only hands on deck were the son, his wife, and two teenage boys. I was therefore pressed into service.
It had been a suspension-sagging delivery – a year’s supply all at once, so there were half a dozen of us, sleeves rolled up, loading logs into barrows, trundling the barrows to the cellar and tipping, or throwing the logs into the store. As it was more than an hour before the last log was dropped down the hatchway I was absolutely done in.
At some point, during the log shift, Marie spoke to me.
I thought that she said, Vons aimez du pain?
To which to I replied ‘Mais oui, Madame’.
She promised to bring some the next day and I looked forward to a home-baked delivery.
Sure enough, the next day, there was a knock at the door. Marie and one of her grandchildren were standing there smiling. Marie thanked me again for the help with the logs and the small boy handed me a plastic bag. I took the bag, which was pleasantly warm to the touch, to the void that was the kitchen area, where I opened it. It was a very freshly skinned rabbit.
‘You deaf old fart,’ said Doris gently. It was never ‘du pain\ but ‘lapin’. We should have guessed when we saw her walking down the street this morning. It was half an hour earlier than the normal time she goes to feed the rabbits. That was because it was the rabbit’s turn to feed us.’
Doris held the rabbit up to the light.
‘And this one’s so fresh that if you gave it the kiss of life it could be back on its feet in no time.’