Lessons from a coal fire

Looking back at learning

In the 90's I bought my first house. A 1900's terraced house with, as it's sole source of heat, one gas fire in the kitchen. During the Summer, not a problem. But as the colder weather set-in the single-pane windows frosted up, on the inside.

The other thing it had was an open fireplace in the Living Room. I decided to use it. Roaring "real" fires here I come.

Preparing the way

My Dad (a one-time British Gas fitter) checked to make sure that it didn't have the remains of gas fire conversion. With no old flue pipes or fittings hanging around I had to find someone to clean it.

Before the internet there was the Yellow Pages. A big book full of the phone numbers of local business. Dropped off to every house, wether you wanted it or not. So a couple of phone calls later a chimney sweep turned up. I had to schedule him between wedding appearances. Large cloths, rods & brushes, and an industrial vacuum cleaner made sure it was good to go. But I still needed hardware.

Bits & Bobs

You can't pile up combustable material and light it. Luckily my elderly next-door neighbor had seen the sweep, asked if I could make use of her old 'fret', guard, and tools. Snapping these up I asked if she knew where I could get "the thing the coals went on".

She pointed to the hardware shop at the top of the road. This was one of those old places you could find one of almost anything. New kettle lead, spare pulley parts for sash windows, etc. Also carried Stoolgrates (I learned the name later) to fit our fireplace.

Now I had assembled the hardware I needed coal. Back to the big book of numbers. There was a local coal merchant who had to talk me through how much coal I'd need. I found out coal is very dirty. They had to walk it through the house to the garden and dump it out.


Next thing I needed was newspaper. Quite a bit of newspaper.

Learned knowledge

One of my Nan's showed me how to make these braided fire starters from newspaper. Like an origami stick, these would burn longer than using just crumpled up paper. Helping the to coal catch is a trick. I also need a large piece, preferably from a broad sheet, to cover the fireplace and help "the draw". Partially covering the opening of the fireplace causes the chimney to suck (draw) more air from the room through a smaller space at the bottom, under the coals. This makes it burn hotter and speeds up the coals ignition.

Practice makes...

I was ready.

I'd spent the previous night folding newspaper sticks. Brought in a bucket of coal from the garden, and made sure everything assembled.

Placing coals around the edges. Adding my paper in the middle, couple of coals on top of that and...remembered I didn't have any matches. Lighting a paper stick with the stove, I brought it in like the Olympic Torch and placed in on top.

I had FIRE! A small one , but fire even so. Kneeling, I placed the large sheet over the front. Holding it with a hand on each side I met with a load roaring sound. The paper wasn't tight enough. It moved into the flames, caught fire and went speeding up the chimney like an inverse comet. A blast of heat then made me sit back with a start.

Giving it another go I made the paper was as taught as I could make it and slid it from the top down. This worked a lot better. Soon the coals had a glow and flames of their own. The room got nice an toasty, so I turned on the TV and settled in. But it kept getting warmer. And warmer. Soon I was sitting in the hall, watching TV through the doorway.

Come 11pm and the fire had no intentions of dying out. I had started later than I should, with way too much coal. I removed everything that could combust away from the fireplace already, so decided to go to bed.

The bedroom was above. It was warm. I felt the boarded up fireplace there. It was warm. I could also feel the hot air rushing up the chimney. That felt the longest night ever.

Going forward

Checking in the morning nothing had burnt, but the coals were still warm. I did enjoy having the fire over the Winter. Sipping Port in front of it on those long darks was, comforting. I sold the house a little while later and have never had a coal fire since.

It'd be glib of me to cite this as "the one event" that lead to my career today. But looking back it made a mark. Researching, listening, and experimenting. All to experience something new.