Keep the Home Fires Burning: The Evolving Use of Wood for Fuel

by Tortie Eveleigh

There’s nothing like a wood fire. It warms the body and the soul, inspires conversation and brings a home to life. Sitting round a wood fire, it’s easy to feel a connection with nature and our ancestors. From prehistoric times human culture has involved the use of fire. In fact, it seems that the ability to make and store fire allowed hominids to move away from Africa because they could populate colder environments.

Here on Exmoor the earliest evidence of man’s use of fire is at Hawkcombe Head near Porlock, where Mesolithic hearths and tools which are around 8,500 years old have been excavated by Bristol University and the Exmoor National Park Authority. These hearths are the remains of camp fires where hunter-gatherers would have sat to warm themselves. Many Exmoor dwellings were heated by burning wood or peat on a central hearth until the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when fireplaces with chimneys were built in most homes. Chimneys allowed houses of more than one storey to be built and – in theory at least – removed wood smoke from the building. Smoky chimneys seem to have been a persistent and worldwide problem. Chimney doctors, who professed to cure smoky chimneys, became widespread in Tudor times, and later, in eighteenth-century America, Benjamin Franklin spent a great deal of time trying to find a cure for smoky chimneys. He invented the Franklin stove and repeatedly spoke of the disadvantages of a large fireplace and the necessity of a chimney-cloth, which was a sheet placed across the upper part of the fireplace to lower the opening and prevent smoke from entering the room.

By the early 1700s coal had taken over from wood as the main heating fuel in towns and cities, but wood remained the primary source of heat in Exmoor homes until the introduction of coal-fired cooking ranges in the nineteenth century. First coal, then gas, oil and electricity took over from wood fuel because of their convenience and greater heating power, so that by the 1960s a lot of fireplaces had been boarded up and in many homes wood fires were lit only on special occasions.

The trouble with open fires is that they can be very inefficient, losing around 85% of their heat up the chimney and giving off large quantities of smoke. Also, open chimneys let cold air into the house. These problems have been remedied to a large extent with the introduction of woodburners. Their design allows wood to be burnt at higher temperatures so less smoke is produced and more heat is given off into the building. Some woodburners can also be fitted with a back boiler to heat radiators.

Several customs, especially those associated with Christmas, have suffered as woodburners and ranges have replaced open fireplaces. The most obvious is Father Christmas, who’s had to find new magical ways to deliver his presents. Another tradition is the Yule log. It’s thought that this is a Scandinavian custom which was brought to Britain by invading forces. A huge log is brought into the house and burnt for the 12 days of Christmas. The charred remains are then kept as a good-luck charm to protect the house from lightning and fire, and are used as kindling the following Christmas.

A West Country variation on this theme is known as ‘burning the ashen faggot’. There are slight differences throughout the area, but the general idea seems to be that it’s an excuse to drink as much as possible! With this in mind, it’s surprising that more pubs haven’t kept the tradition alive. The event usually takes place on Christmas Eve, but in some places it may happen on New Year’s Eve or Twelfth Night.

Two places which still burn an ashen faggot every year are the Luttrell Arms at Dunster (Christmas Eve) and The Royal Oak Inn at Luxborough (New Year’s Eve). The faggot is a large bundle of green ash, bonded with bands of ash or withy, which is placed on an open fire with a piece of the previous year’s faggot. The watchers choose a band around the faggot and make a wish. If the band that breaks first is that chosen by an unmarried woman, she will be the next to be married. With every break there are drinks all round. The bands tend to break with a terrific noise, which can be alarming for the uninitiated. Apparently an elderly visitor, fearing a terrorist attack, dived for cover as the withy bonds broke on New Year’s Eve in The Royal Oak Inn!

Richard Gedge’s woodchip store at Natsley FarmThere’s a saying that ‘woodmen sell the unprofitable to the ungrateful’, but that’s changing rapidly. Efficient new technologies and an increase in the price of fossil fuels have created a surge of interest in wood fuel, and this is encouraging further innovation. Modern wood heating systems now compete on cost with most other systems, and logs, woodchips and wood pellets are all cheaper than oil when measured in pence per unit of heat produced. They are also much more environmentally friendly. Even allowing for planting, harvesting, sawing, transporting and manufacturing wood pellets, it’s estimated that a switch from oil to wood pellets as a heat source will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90%.

If that isn’t reason enough for switching to a wood-fuelled boiler, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is due to start in April 2011. This means a fixed payment per unit of heat generated will be paid to anyone who installs a renewable heating system, provided an approved appliance has been fitted by an approved installer. This scheme covers wood boilers but not in-house woodburners. The icing on the cake for businesses is the Enhanced Capital Allowance Scheme (ECA) which provides tax relief for businesses investing in an energy-saving project or a renewable power or heat source.

The wood pellet boiler at The Calvert Trust ExmoorDifferent types of wood boilers can run off logs, chips or pellets, and a few can run off all three. There are pros and cons with each, but as a general rule log boilers are the cheapest but most labour-intensive to run and pellet boilers are more expensive but are highly efficient and can be fully automated.

All wood fuel for domestic boilers needs to be dried. Fresh-cut ‘green’ timber contains up to 50% water, while well-seasoned firewood and chips fit for burning ideally have a moisture content of less than 20%. Wood pellets have a much lower moisture content of around 5%. Logs and woodchips are attractive to landowners because they can be home-grown, but a lot of space is needed for drying and storing the fuel. For example, a 25kW log boiler will need about 10 tonnes of dry logs per year and the logs will need to be stored for two or three years, so a log store capable of holding 80-120 cubic metres of split logs will be needed if all the timber is home-grown.

There are now a few wood fuel specialists in and around Exmoor who will offer an on-site chipping service, and in some cases they offer a full woodland management package, from planning and planting to felling and preparing the fuel for the boiler. Growing your own timber may not end up cheaper than buying it in, but it’s very satisfying – a bit like growing your own vegetables.

Wood pellets are ideal for households with limited space and people who can’t grow their own timber. A few years ago pellets had to be imported from places like Scandinavia but now they can be sourced fairly locally. At present the nearest supplier is in mid-Devon, but it’s likely that more plants will open as wood pellet heating becomes more popular.

Tom Barlow filling the log boiler at Emmett’s GrangeExmoor’s woodlands and hedges are a huge and undervalued resource in terms of the wood they could produce for heating if they were managed properly. A few people have recognised this for many years. For instance, Chris Whinney, who used to farm near North Molton, pioneered short-rotation coppiced willow in the 1990s and worked tirelessly to get government backing, which never materialised, for energy forestry. Then, a few years later, several like-minded people formed an organisation called South West Wood Fuels. This did tremendous work before it ran out of funding. Unfortunately all these people were ahead of their time, because everything has changed in the past couple of years and we seem to be entering an exciting new phase in Exmoor’s history. People are beginning to realise that wood is an amazing natural substance which we can grow locally while improving our environment and our standard of living.

Trees store the sun’s energy and, when burnt, release it as heat and light. Wood is, in effect, conserved sunshine, and on Exmoor we need to conserve as much sunshine as possible!

Special thanks to Rob Wilson-North, Tom Barlow, Richard Gedge, Fiona Sim, Chris Whinney, Henry Fox and Mark Weatherlake for providing me with information for this article. Thanks also to Fiona Sim of The Calvert Trust Exmoor, who gave up her time to talk to me and even lit the wood pellet boiler specially.

Some useful contacts

Brendon Hill Stoves 
Brendon Hill Tree Services 
Dunster Heat Ltd 
Dunster Wood Boilers Ltd 
Eco Wood Fuels 
Enhanced Capital Allowance Scheme 
Exmoor Stoves 
Renewable Heat Incentive 
Richard Gedge, Natsley Farm Tel: 01598 710358
The Stove Centre, South Molton 
Wood Energy Ltd

From Issue 53, Winter 2010

© copyright Hoaroak Publishing Ltd 2012
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