Wood, glorious wood!

Essential winter accessory

One of our autumn rituals is cutting and stacking the wood that we will burn over the winter. We use a lot of wood, despite the fact that we also have central heating.

As I have said in previous posts, no one tells you before you move here how cold it can be in the winter. Although it doesn’t happen often, we have experienced several cold snaps during our time here when the temperature did not rise above zero for a week or more. Night time temperatures can easily descend to -12ºC and we have experienced -16ºC on a couple of occasions. We are told that in 1986 or ’87, it got down to -26ºC here.

Our central heating can keep the house at a certain temperature. But, if you are sitting at a computer for much of the day, the central heating is not always sufficient to keep the temperature at a comfortable level, particularly when the outside temperature doesn’t rise above zero all day. In addition, our living room, which doubles as our office, is 40 feet long. Even with double-glazing, our stone walls are not heat efficient.

How did the people who lived here manage before central heating, double-glazing, insulation and all the rest of it? I suppose they were just tougher than we are. A French friend, now in his early sixties, who was born and raised in the region, says that when he was a boy the ambient temperature in their house was around 12ºC in the winter. The only room with any heating was the living room/kitchen, where there was an open fire.   

When we moved in, there was an open fire in the living room – a simple plaque at floor level on which the fire was made, with a large chimney. The disadvantage of this system was that all the heat was drawn up the chimney and people’s fronts burned while their backs froze. We soon realized that we would have to do something about this.

The answer was a wood-burning stove. After some research, we bought a Jøtul, a Norwegian brand. The Norwegians ought to know, if anyone does, how to manufacture heat-efficient appliances. This is probably the best investment we have made in our 13 years here. When the stove is going full blast it produces 13kW (that’s what the book says, anyway) and raises the temperature in the living room by several degrees.

The stove takes logs of a length of 50cm maximum. We therefore buy split oak wood in 1.2m lengths and cut each log into three ourselves with a chainsaw. We have christened our local wood supplier, who has an unpronounceable local name, Benny Woodman.

Wood is sold here either by the cubic metre or by the tonne. It’s probably best to buy it by weight, since you can then be sure that you are getting reasonable value. In that case, it’s important that it is weighed at a weighbridge and that you see the receipt. If you buy by the cubic metre (known as a stère) you are buying only volume and it’s more likely that you will be palmed off with rotten or over-seasoned wood, whose calorific value is less. The price varies depending on whether you buy it already split or cut into short lengths.  

However you buy it, the wood should have been cut at least the previous year or it will be too green. Conversely, if it has been hanging around for several years it will be too dry and will burn up quickly.   

Ready for winter

Stacking cut logs is an art. Having done it for so many years, I pride myself on my ability to make a wood stack. The key is to ensure that the base of the stack is stable and composed of large logs. After the first few layers, it doesn’t matter if you use large, medium or small logs, as long as the stack doesn’t lean outwards as it rises – that’s a recipe for disaster, since it risks toppling forwards. The best thing is to mix medium and small logs as the stack rises, so that you have a good mixture of wood when you come to light the fire.

A woodburning stove needs to be lit with crumpled up newspaper, torn-up cardboard and small sticks – kindling. Once it has caught, you add medium sized logs and then large ones to keep it going. And don’t forget the chimney needs to be swept once a year. The chimney sweep provides a dated certificate, which the insurance company will want to see in the event of a fire. (Yes, I know, the certificate will have gone up in flames with everything else; but the sweep has a copy.)

Et voilà. These are the subjects that exercise us country folk. 

When we sit in front of our wood burner on a cold winter’s night, it’s very difficult to imagine those evenings in the summer when we perspire in the shade and then take a dip in the pool before going to bed. Similarly, in the summer, it’s impossible to imagine sitting in front of the wood burner. But wouldn’t it be dull if all the seasons were the same?

We might just wish, though, that the winter were a little bit more like summer – especially last winter.

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