The art of the riddle

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 16th November & the Gazette & Herald on 14th November 2018


In Dad’s column from 18th November 1978, he reports that it was unseasonably warm, a bit like it has been this year, which prompted him to mow the lawn behind our cottage one last time, a full month later than normal. He also battled with the bushes and shrubs that needed a good tidy up and, as a result, ended up with a healthy pile of logs which would come in use for our open fire over the winter.

A real fire is one of those things that we all love to enjoy on a cold dark evening. The sound of the crackling embers, the glow of the orange flames, and the warmth thrown out by the burning logs cannot be replicated by an artificial fire, no matter how realistic it looks.

Sadly, the house I now live in doesn’t have a real fire, and I do miss one, especially now that winter is so close. In my last house, we installed a multi-fuel stove and although it was expensive, it was possibly one of the best things we did in terms of making our house feel like a really cosy home.

But if you are going to use a stove, then you do need to learn how to manage it, what fuel to use, how to keep the stove glass clean, and also to master the art of ‘riddling’. Some of you might remember (or even still use) solid fuel Aga and Rayburn stoves, like the one in my godmother’s kitchen. The warmth emanating from that custard-yellow beast was something else, and when I stayed with her, she would read me bedtime stories sitting in front of it.

She was an expert riddler, which is the word for sieving out ash and embers from the bottom of the fire to enable the air to flow through. Stoves have a special handle for this, while my dad used a poker to do it on our open fire. If you don’t riddle enough, then air can’t circulate, and your fire won’t last. Over-riddle, then you allow too much air flow, which can also put your fire out, so you have to master the art of the riddle.

It also helps to know the best wood to use, as different logs behave in different ways. Ash is one of the best, as it dries quickly and produces a steady flame with decent heat. Oak can also be a good choice, but needs at least two years to dry out. It burns slowly, so is best if it is mixed with faster burning wood, such as birch or ash.

In 1978, we didn’t worry too much about the moisture content of logs. If they felt dry, they ended up on the fire. But the logs that my dad mentions from his garden would not have been any good for today’s wood-burners, as they wouldn’t have been seasoned for long enough.

‘Seasoning’ means drying out, and there are several reasons why you should buy properly seasoned or kiln-dried logs. Wood that contains too much moisture won’t burn as well, it will release higher amounts of ‘particulates’ that pollute the atmosphere, and, as the moisture is released, tar and soot will not only coat the inside of your stove glass to obscure the lovely flames, but they will also coat the inside of your flue or chimney. If this is allowed to build up, it can lead to chimney fires, so you should have your chimney cleaned once a year, even if you do use properly dried out wood.

Beware of those that claim to be seasoned, but haven’t been dried for long enough, and the easiest way to check for this is to use a wood moisture meter which you can buy for less than £20, a worthwhile investment if you have a stove. Properly seasoned logs have a moisture content of less than 20%.

It isn’t difficult to season your own logs as long as you split them and stack them correctly. They need to be raised on something like an old pallet so that the air can circulate. Cover them on three sides, leaving one open, but try to ensure they are not exposed to the elements. Once your moisture meter reading shows your logs have less than 20% moisture, then they are seasoned and ready to burn.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

ENDS

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