Autumn. That time of year when Helios, the god of the sun, gives way to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. The season ‘of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. And in our case, also of fires and fragrant woodsmoke. For although Mr Blue-Shirt has a well-developed regime which allows him to indulge his pyromaniac tendencies all year round, autumn is the season in which his lifelong fascination with fire really comes to the fore. Some might think that this fascination derives from some deep-seated association with early man’s need to provide (in the form of food and light) and protect (from cold and predators). And while I think there may well be some truth in this, I suspect that there is probably also a less esoteric explanation, namely Mr Blue-Shirt’s scouting background. It was as a nine-year old cub scout in deepest Dorking that he was first introduced to the magic of firecraft and to the art of cooking sausages on whittled-down sticks and baking campfire breadsticks over the crown of glowing embers that he himself had created. These skills, which he honed further as a boy scout, then as a venture scout and finally as a soldier, have given him an unfailing ability to start a fire from almost anything that happens to be lying around, even if this is little more than a discarded shopping list and a couple of soggy twigs. Needless to say, modern firelighters – those small white crumbly cubes doused in chemical accelerant – are anathema to him. He sees them as tantamount to an admission of defeat, and for use only in extremis (and even then, preferably under cover of darkness).
No, for a purist such as Mr Blue-Shirt, it is all about wood, and so he is always on the lookout for sources of fire wood (or legna da ardere, as it is called here), whether it can be found on our own land – in the form of last year’s olive tree prunings, for example – or donated from someone else’s. While we were based in Lincolnshire, Mr Blue-Shirt only had to hear a chainsaw roaring into life somewhere in the village and he would be off with the 4×4 and trailer, offering to take any unwanted wood off our neighbour’s hands, thereby saving him or her the cost and faff of disposal. By this and other similar means, in fifteen winters at the forge we spent a grand total of £20 on firewood: a couple of tenners slipped to a contractor felling trees where road widening works were about to start in return for a trailer full of wood.
Of course, once Mr Blue-Shirt has sourced the wood, he then has the perfect opportunity to deploy his vast armoury of tools and equipment for felling, cutting and chopping it. This consists, among other things, of a full-size chainsaw for felling trees and cutting their trunks into shorter lengths, a smaller arborist’s chainsaw (that can be used one-handed) for lopping off branches, a long-handled axe and log-splitter for chopping the drums of tree trunk into logs, a short-handled axe (hand-forged for him by a former employee) for chopping kindling, as well as a couple of different hand saws and an old machete. Then there are the second-tier tools and equipment: a chain sharpener and tensioner, a sharpening stone, bolt-croppers, a bill hook, and sundry secateurs, as well as ear defenders, a hard-hat-and-visor combo, and even a pair of Kevlar-filled safety trousers – the arborist’s attire of choice that stop you cutting your leg off if you drop your chainsaw while using it up a tree.
Then having sourced, felled, cut and chopped the wood, it needs to be stored. Naturally, just stacking the logs up against a sheltered outside wall, or even erecting a simple shed is nowhere near enough fun for Mr Blue-Shirt. No, he has elevated wood storage to another level by designing and now building a bespoke five-metre-long, galvanised steel woodstore. Complete with a traditional Italian tiled roof, it features mesh shelves down both sides, with separate sections for large and small logs as well as for green and seasoned wood, and has the additional function of hiding from view the above-ground workings of our eco-friendly waste-treatment system. To some all this effort may seem excessive, but it’s not at all in light of the array of all the different types of fire we have to feed. As they hark back to those early scouting experiences, I think the outdoor ones are closest to Mr Blue-Shirt’s heart: the chimenea for extra warmth on crisp spring evenings, the barbecue that between May and September is probably in action at least three times a week, and his current favourite, the clockwork rotisserie whose brass workings are housed in a pretty cast iron casing and for which he has built a small neat hearth from old bricks. Then inside the house there is the open fire in the sitting room. Slightly raised and set across the corner of the room, it very much looks the part, but last winter provided a lot by way of smoke while offering little by way of warmth, despite burning through wood at a ferocious rate. So in late summer Mr Blue-Shirt carried out an upgrade by installing a fire insert – essentially the innards of a woodburning stove that fit into the pre-existing fireplace and flue – that has already proved to be far more effective and far more economical. And last but not least, there is the tall, barrel-like wood-burning stove that Mr Blue-Shirt has now installed at the end of our long thin dining room that right from the warm late spring day on which we moved in we designated as ‘the snug’.
So, with every possible preparation complete, and as the sunlight softens to the mellow bronze of autumn, the morning mist clings to the trees in moist swathes and the purple dusk creeps in earlier by the day, the time has come to close the shutters, draw the curtains, and satisfy our primal need to cast out the darkness and ward off the cold according to Mr Blue-Shirt’s life-long ritual. Kneeling in front of the hearth, he piles balls of screwed up paper into a pyramid and lights them with a single match, and surrounds them with a wigwam of ‘licky’ sticks (a term coined by our eldest nephew when he was a toddler and couldn’t quite get his tongue round ‘little’). Then as the flames take hold, he adds a lattice of bigger sticks. Lastly, once a crackling blaze is fully underway, he selects a couple of neatly chopped logs from the basket, and carefully places them on the top. And finally, we snuggle into the sofa and, losing ourselves in fire’s timeless mystery, we watch the flames dancing and flickering in the grate and give silent thanks to Hestia.