Laying a fire is a faff, says Helen Walmsley-Johnson, but a real one’s a lot more satisfying than a ‘Feu de Bois’ candle.
Significant birthdays are funny things, aren’t they? I hated turning 30 because I felt obliged to grow up a bit. I remember being 16 and somehow getting it into my head that 30 was, y’know…old.
At 30 I tried not to think about being twice that and if I did ever think about it I imagined shuffling about white-haired, wrinkled, vaguely shapeless and sucking a sandwich owing to lack of teeth. What bollocks we frighten ourselves with. At 60 – yes, it was THAT birthday – I can state that entirely predictably, I don’t feel any different at all. Why would I? What I do have, however, is a thrilling sense of achievement that I’ve survived this long because there have been times frankly, when I wasn’t at all convinced I’d make it.
I’m rounder than I was at 30 but, taking into account that I sit about on my arse a lot researching, reading, writing and plotting, that’s hardly surprising. On roughly alternate days I conveniently (ahem) get mentally stuck and joyfully haul myself out to unstick my brain with a couple of hours spent splattering about in muddy fields and lo! my brain unbungs and I scamper back to the cottage to write it all down before it slips from memory. Walking works as a mental laxative.
“My favourite part of a chilly winter’s day is when dusk falls and I can sit with a book and Mr Pushkin Cat by the nurturing warmth of a proper fire – no radio, no telly, just a peaceful companionable silence with the occasional snap, crackle and pop.”
Rutland itself might be small but it has big skies and, high up where it’s exposed, big weather. Sometimes a freezing blast belts across from Scandinavia and up the Wash with a fury that whips your breath away. The hawthorn and gorse along one of my favourite paths bend arthritically away from the prevailing wind, crouching low into the stony ground.
Under these skies and hurtling clouds it’s the little things that make me feel big inside – tracking a puddle of sunlight as it slides down the valley to rest momentarily on Rutland Water, briefly a deep and thoughtful blue, or the thrill of seeing a sparrowhawk stoop. Last week a weasel tumbled out of a hedge right in front of me, landing with a furious squeak in the long grass and reminding me of a childhood joke: “How do you know it was a weasel and not a stoat?” “Because a stoat is stoat-ally different while a weasel is weasel-y recognisable!” (Boom, tish!)
Continuing along the track, which is an ancient one, I often pick up any small dry sticks I might find, and this despite having built up a seriously impressive log stack (a source of great pride and back-ache). There is something stirring and primal about collecting wood for an open fire. It is, after all, something the human race has done for millennia. There is so much more to a real fire than simply providing warmth. Yes, it’s a faff, what with all the raking and laying and sweeping and gathering and the dust and occasional smoky blowback from a capricious breeze, but that’s really the whole point.
When I lived in a sterile London flat I bought Diptyque ‘Feu de Bois’ candles to try to evoke the same feeling, but there is nothing quite the same as the smell of burning apple wood for example. It unlocks deep contentment and so, weirdly, does that thing peculiar to old houses of being toasty on one side and freezing on the other. It is also comforting to know that in the event of a catastrophic power failure the log pile and fireplace are my Plan B and I will not freeze, or lack for a warm cup of tea. My favourite part of a chilly winter’s day is when dusk falls and I can sit with a book and Mr Pushkin Cat by the nurturing warmth of a proper fire – no radio, no telly, just a peaceful companionable silence with the occasional snap, crackle and pop. And now that I’ve tracked down a completely wonderful extending toasting fork there will be ‘crumpets still for tea’.
“There is something stirring and primal about collecting wood for an open fire. It is, after all, something the human race has done for millennia.”
It’s much more than a self-indulgent exercise in nostalgia though. My family have a long association with wood and trees. When the Aged P (my late father) moved to Suffolk he took on the management of a copse and was heartbroken when one spring, thieves stole almost all the native primroses from it. He taught me how to recognise different trees and about climbing them. Childhood summers weather permitting, were largely spent in a convenient crook halfway up our garden chestnut tree in the exciting company of Narnia, hobbits or the Famous Five.
In later life the Aged P took up woodcarving and this little cottage I live in is dotted with examples of his work: a kingfisher, a wood sprite, a toadstool… When I walk I walk in the company of a walking stick he made, one with a shepherd’s crook handle, and I remember him as the countryman he was. When he died, two years ago, and as a family we began to think about how we might mark his life, some sort of tree-based memorial seemed the most appropriate way. So next week, as a family, we are planting a copse for him within the National Forest on a site that overlooks the north Leicestershire villages and countryside where he grew up, went to school, met and married my mother and began his life in the police force. And when we’ve done that I shall come back home, light my fire and have tea and crumpets.
Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear