It’s all about the fire

Sitting on our warm and cosy boat and staring into the fire as the ice in the marina gradually melts made me realise just how important our stove is. So important I thought I would write about it.

I have fond, if somewhat rose-tinted memories of growing up in a council house with basic central heating. I don’t mean central heating in the modern sense of the term, what I mean is that we had a coal fire and it was roughly in the centre of the house. It may have been central but it’s role of heating the whole house was plainly unachievable and our levels of comfort were indirectly proportional to how far away from the fire we were. In the depths of winter I recall changing into my pyjamas in front of the fire before attempting to get up the stairs, into my bedroom and under the bed clothes in less than five seconds, and then attempting to warm the bed up with what was left of my meagre body heat. A hot water bottle may have been deployed in extreme conditions I admit. Eight warm, snugly and peaceful hours later I would awake to find ice had formed on the inside of the bedroom windows while I had been dreaming of long hot summer holidays. Now, approaching retirement and in an era of sophisticated, thermostatically controlled, touch of a button activated heating systems I find myself once more scraping ice off the windows from the inside. It sounds grim I know but I’m actually loving it and I think I know why. I think it’s all about the fire.

Baby it’s cold outside (photo by Gill Pearson)

The option to heat your entire living space to any temperature you choose, to control which rooms are heated and when, and to be able to adjust and monitor the system from your phone seems like the ultimate convenient heating solution. The alternative of filling coal buckets, emptying ash pans and attempting to ‘move’ heat from a single source around fifty seven feet of ice clad steel tubing couldn’t possibly be seen as preferable or even acceptable could it? So why am I enjoying it? Well it’s all about the fire.

Maybe it’s the whole effort, reward cycle. After all setting the timer and thermostat on a modern central heating system doesn’t require much effort and even if you overcome the challenge of a wireless system it’s still only a momentary sense of satisfaction. It doesn’t last. You stay warm but there isn’t any sense of earning that warmth. Tending our solid fuel stove on the other hand is a never ending task that requires real physical effort and a degree of skill and organisation. Carrying a full coal scuttle the length of the boat whilst it rocks from side to side is a brilliant core workout and those 20kg bags of fuel don’t move themselves either. When it comes to keeping the fire in it will burn for ten hours without attention but during the day a little more tending gives us more control. Feeding the fire with coal, emptying the ash pan, cleaning up the dust and adjusting the ventilation to fine tune the heat output means that there is a real sense of effort and involvement in order to achieve the reward of warmth. Then there is the cooking! There is always a kettle on the go and more often than not there will be a stew or curry simmering away, filling the boat with mouth watering smells. The stove has become a crucial element of day to day life that provides warmth, hot food and a good deal of satisfaction.

The true meaning of mult-fuel

Apart from the sense of reward there may be another reason why I am just a little bit obsessed by this simple metal box. Fire has been at the heart of living for a couple of million years now so in the scheme of things our modern ways of controlling it in the form of cookers, boilers and other heating methods are new inventions and maybe in evolutionary terms we haven’t yet left the hearth behind. Nearly everybody enjoys a bonfire or a campfire and who doesn’t love a good barbecue. The idea of sitting around a fire is so ingrained in our species that it drives us to create excuses for doing it and cooking on a fire takes us back even deeper into our roots. Huddling around an open fire and baking potatoes in it couldn’t be described as practical but its attraction endures beyond far more convenient methods of preparing food or staying warm.

We’ve put several pictures on social media of our stove blazing away with pots and pans on it and I have been amazed by the level of attention these posts have attracted. It seems that food and fire are just as critically connected and central to our existence as they ever were. Despite the unbelievable technological advances that we have achieved in the past few hundred years we are still essentially driven by primitive needs and emotions and maybe that is why I am looking forward to finishing this post and putting a bit more coal on the fire. Maybe the novelty will wear off eventually but for now, it’s all about the fire.

I know: the glass needs cleaning

Towpath temptations

The lack of progress of our plan to live on a narrow boat has been pretty depressing when combined with the dark winter months and without actually discussing it we have refrained from walks along the local towpaths. In the same way that you might avoid walking past endless confectionery shops during a self-imposed abstention from sweet eating during lent, we have avoided the temptation of bumping into sickeningly contented and blissfully happy live-aboards enjoying the lifestyle that we so envy but can’t yet have. But you can’t avoid temptation forever.

Peaceful Lancaster Canal

Signs of Spring

It may have been a bunch of daffodils or snowdrops that did it but something lifted my spirits and gave me the urge to get back out there and start dreaming again. Come to think of it, it may have been those loveable thespians Timothy West and Prunella Scales who were back on the telly, bumping into various obstacles on the Leeds and Liverpool canal and oozing love and contentment as they casually destroyed locks and jetties on a borrowed narrow boat. Better TV might have been to view the owners of said boat watching the program Goggle Box style and weeping quietly into their Pinot Grigio as their pride and joy bounces from one side of the canal to the other.

Whatever it was that spurred me on, it resulted in a lovely walk along the Lancaster canal. It’s not the busiest of canals at any time of year so in the depths of winter we knew we would be unlikely to bump into many occupied craft. As it happened we only saw three boats and whilst they all looked beautiful and homely I was relieved to see that none of them bore a For Sale sign or sign of life so we were safe. Safe from conversations about living on a boat that inevitably end with the well-meaning but frustrating advice to ‘just get on with it’ without any acknowledgement of the fact that getting on with it costs money that we don’t currently have. Fortunately there were plenty of distractions of the feathered, flowery and woody variety to keep us more than occupied spotting early signs of spring, or more accurately, the end of winter.

A male goosander taunted us by waiting patiently for us to get within about twenty yards of him and then just as I raised the camera he would take to the air and fly just far enough along the canal to be out of photographic range before repeating the process.

Not so close up goosander

Being teased by a Goosander

I got bored in the end and turned my attention to a much more obliging swan who seemed to think that I was a photographer from the avian equivalent of match.com or something as he paraded up and down like an over inflated gigolo.

What a splendid chap and didn’t he know it.

As far as we could see he was wasting his time as there wasn’t another swan anywhere in sight; unlike the female mallard that seemed to be enjoying being diligently followed by not one but two hopeful suitors. I’m not sure how she was going to make her mind up because it looked to me as if she was being pursued by identical twins. We had a really close up view of a moorhen next and what a stunning bird it is.

Look at those feet! (Photo from http://www.nerjarob.com/)

There is a perception amongst those not interested in such things that all British birds are small brown jobbies. Well this beauty is brown, black, white, red and bluish grey with huge striped yellow feet. I mean how exotic do you want?

We joined the arm of the canal that links it to the river Ribble and the rest of the national network.

Deep scary locks

A set of deep locks takes boaters down onto the branch and under the main road to wind through the suburbs of Preston.

Under the road

Canals in these situations are a haven for wildlife and it was a delight to see grey wagtail and long tailed tits busy amongst the budding trees and catkins. We took to a woodland path alongside the railway to get back to the Lancaster itself and make it a circular walk avoiding a stretch of boring tarmac. The trees are all like coiled springs at this time of year, just waiting for another couple of degrees of warmth and another hour or two of daylight to spur them into a frenzy of leaf production.

‘Now you see me’ nest.

Just a few more weeks and the stark outline of naked branches will be transformed into a rich vibrant green canopy hiding the nesting birds and providing food and shelter for a wide variety of life. The abundance of summer will be here before we know it and those that live all year on the canals will be joined by the weekenders and the holiday boaters. Fingers crossed we will be joining them.

 

Long Tailed Tits and narrow waisted trousers

The problem with being of slim build is that there is nowhere to hide an ever expanding waistline. I’m currently shaped like one of those fishing floats that are long and thin with a large bulge in the middle. It took a wedding in the autumn to force me to pull my head out of the sand when I realised that none of my trousers that were remotely suitable for such an occasion could actually be buttoned around my waist. Two months on and I am finally getting round to doing something about it.

Now that I am able to walk a reasonable distance again without any significant pain there is no excuse so it was out again this morning for my regular two mile march around the streets and into the countryside as the sun struggled to get out of bed. The route I took today is about fifty percent main road, thirty percent housing estate and twenty percent country lane. It’s fine for getting a little bit of exercise but not brilliant for scenery or bird watching so I don’t usually bother to take a camera or binoculars. It’s more a case of head down and quick march while I mentally run through my wardrobe of narrow waisted trousers and try to summon up the purpose to walk faster and harder. This morning was different though and an abject lesson in stopping to smell the metaphorical roses and regret leaving the binoculars at home.

For a start it was cold but blissfully calm after several days of windy weather and the sky was magically lit by a reluctant winter sun. We may have turned the seasonal corner now that we have passed the solstice but the sun is like a sulky teenager at this time of year. It unenthusiastically peers over the horizon and attempts to perform its daily duties whilst barely leaving its bed. It doesn’t get up any earlier either for the next few weeks; it just goes to bed a bit later but those extra few minutes of daylight are already filling me with anticipation of what is round the corner. There were other early signs of a change too; a Robin and a Dunnock were singing enthusiastically as if nobody had mentioned to them that spring is still a good few months away.

What a cutie. The Long Tailed Tit. (Photo by Craig Smith)

Along the short stretch of country lane a Long Tailed Tit caught my eye as it flew into the bushes next to me and as I looked around for more (they usually come in small flocks) my eye was caught by the frenetic and constant movement of a pair of Gold Crests.

The Gold Crest. (Photo by Tairi and uve Pixdaus.com)

These are stunning little birds with their brilliant black and yellow head stripe and they are a joy to watch as they acrobatically search for small grubs and eggs in the nooks and crannies of trees and shrubs. They are constantly on the move prompting the question of whether they might not need quite so much food if they ever sat still for a minute or two. They are actually quite common, similar in winter numbers to Robins but being Britain’s smallest bird and rarely appearing out in the open, lots of people have never seen one. The final birdy treat was provided by a Blue Tit that flew past my face so close that I actually heard its wing beats.

The last stretch of the walk is through a housing estate and back to the main road. It didn’t mean there was nothing to see though. Starlings, Blackbirds, Gulls and a flock of Gold Finches all added colour and sound to the otherwise dull scenery while the sky continued to flaunt its silvery winter splendour.

Winter sky and a chance to find out where the birds nest.

Oh and I nearly forgot; I saw sixty seven pigeons as well.

As I walked the final stretch to home my thoughts turned back to those frantically busy Gold Crests and I realised where I might be going wrong. I’ve never seen an overweight Gold Crest you see and come to think of it; I’ve never seen one slumped in a chair drinking beer either. I’m not planning to start doing acrobatics in the bushes but maybe less beer and more walking might go some way to alleviating the problem of a wardrobe full of trousers that don’t fit me.

In the eyes of the gloomy beholder

Well we nearly got out on the bikes yesterday. It was discussed briefly but the gloomy skies and cold blustery wind were all it took to convince us that a walk would be more fun. It wasn’t. It’s quite shocking sometimes how your mood can smother every glimmer of brightness.

We headed for the nearest access to the canal about three miles from home and as we drove down the quiet country lanes a succession of cyclists in brightly coloured winter outfits acted like a powerful search light exposing our guilt at having left the bikes in the shed. Each rider we passed seemed to drive home the message that there was absolutely no reason for not being out cycling. I think that’s where the rot set in for me. Once on the towpath it quickly became clear what the effect that so much rain has had in the last few weeks and we were squelching through glutinous mud almost ankle deep. After a few hundred meters we turned back in the hope that the path in the other direction might be a bit drier. It was slightly easier underfoot but the cold wind was now squarely in our face making it difficult to stay warm even at a brisk walking pace.

There were three brief encounters with wrens which fluttered into the undergrowth like tiny little balls of rusty fluff but other than them, even the birds seemed to have deemed the day to be not worth bothering with. A few ducks huddled in a field adjacent to the water but the remains of ice floating on the surface was obviously enough to put them off going for a dip. The narrow boats moored along the bank looked sad and neglected as they listed in the water; lifeless and unloved under a blanket of last autumn’s debris. Branches ripped from the trees in the recent winter storms rose from the water like the dead arms of cadavers frozen in a last desperate cry for help.

Library photo reflecting a better mood

Library photo reflecting a better mood

I’m sure that in other circumstances I would have noticed all manner of signs of spring but the grey, damp blanket of sky casting it’s  gloomy shadow over everything seemed to blind me to such things. All I could see was black mud, dark sinister water and bare boned trees reaching up and touching the drab ceiling with skinny skeletal fingers. It was a bleak, hopeless scene almost entirely devoid of life. Or so it seemed to me.

After about a mile we turned tail to get some relief from the cutting wind and made our way back to the car and the promise of warmth, home-made soup and a lazy afternoon listening to the rain rattling on the windows. Sometimes it’s just hard to see the beauty and I brought the camera home unused for the second day in a row. I know the splendour is there, I’ve seen it before, but sometimes on a day like today, the problem is in the beholder.

A winter walk in the woods

We are taking a break from cycling having emptied the tank on last years epic journey. It’s the ideal opportunity to get back to doing some walking and we have been going out regularly pounding the local streets at a brisk pace to maintain a modicum of fitness. Finally, this weekend we were promised a nice sunny day so the question was where to go for a slightly longer and hopefully more inspiring walk.

Where we live on the Fylde coast is pretty pancake flat. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely area with picturesque villages and a network of quiet country lanes ideal for leisurely cycling. The only problem is, particularly when walking, you need hills to get perspective. To get a view of the landscape you need height and it’s height that we lack. However just a short drive from home we are blessed with what, in mountaineering circles might be referred to as a pimple on the landscape. At 266 metres Beacon Fell doesn’t do any of that ‘rearing up’ kind of stuff that the likes of Scafell Pike, or Annapurna do, but it does give spectacular views over the Fylde and butts up nicely against the slightly more impressive hills of the Trough of Bowland. The conifer wood that covers it looks like a warm hat when you view the hill from any distance and at this time of year it gives it an appealing, comfortable character that draws you towards it. Its modest height makes for a fine, gentle winter walk, especially if you approach it from Brock Bottom rather than driving up to the car park near the top. The Met Office promised us unbroken sunshine but what we got was cloud and a heavy snow shower but that just added a little spice to the walk and when the sun did make it’s appearance it was all the more welcome. This is a great time to spot an abundance of bird life but today the highlight was the close up view of both hare and roe deer. Sadly I wasn’t quick enough with the camera. Fortunately the trees and landscapes tend to remain conveniently still.

 

Tall Trees in Brock Bottom

Tall Trees in Brock Bottom

Moss covered wall

Moss covered wall

A glimpse of that promised sunshine

A glimpse of that promised sunshine

The promise of spring

The promise of spring

 

Catkin profusion

Catkin profusion

 

Just before the snow shower

Just before the snow shower

The dizzy heights - 266m

The dizzy heights – 266m

There are sculptures too!

There are sculptures too!

A glimpse through the trees

A glimpse through the trees

Enchanted forest

Enchanted forest

Fairsnape and Parlick. Big brothers in the Trough of Bowland

Fairsnape and Parlick. Big brothers in the Trough of Bowland

Blue sky at last

Blue sky at last

Another hint of the coming Spring

Another hint of the coming Spring

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