The satisfaction that I still feel when I am tending a good bonfire is something that has been with me for most of my life. I am intrigued by it’s origins and have no doubt that our distant ancestors must have felt the same way. For them fire was probably also associated with the act of cleansing. Living on the edge of Dartmoor with a host of Bronze Age settlements, stone rows and circles I have read that large fires were made within the stone circles. I like to imagine that this was their way of cleansing the corruption of a dead tribal member.
I grew up in 7 Wansunt Road, in an area of Bexley known as ‘Cold Blow’ and we were lucky to have about an acre of garden. My mother was a trained horticulturist and the garden not only supplied much of our fruit and vegetables but provided plenty of corners for our ‘gang’ of small boys to make their dens. A garden of this size produces plenty of material that is easier to burn than compost and as a child, I watched as these bonfires were assembled, lit, fed, controlled and finally allowed to die.
I’m sure we must have poked the embers the following day and discovered that under a seemingly dead layer of ash, the heart of the fire lived on and could be revitalised by feeding with suitable small dry twigs and lots of blowing. Getting this close and personal with fire was neither encouraged nor discouraged. The smell or some say ‘reek’ of bonfire smoke must have permeated our clothes and hair so mother was well aware of our activities but did not chastise us.
The concept that a flame lives on, even though one is not attending to it is brought back vividly by a memory. I am sitting on the windowsill in our upstairs bedroom looking out over a dark garden but focussed on a single flickering flame under one of the gooseberry bushes. I know exactly what it is, but am excited all the same. Earlier with parental help I had placed a candle in a jam jar under the bush. It is signalling to me that all is well and after an eternity and getting cold I climb into bed knowing that something I did carries on ‘living’ whilst I sleep.
Not really a ‘den’ more a sort of Red Indian Tipi was a structure built from long bean sticks and dried grass in which my younger brother played, blissfully unaware of events about to unfold. I must have been old enough to have a box of matches or was it a ‘camp fire’ in the corner by the ‘snicket’ that provided the deadly flame. However it was started, it was definitely me that did it and the dried grass caught extremely rapidly. Brian was able to get out without harm and the tears that flowed had no effect on the flames that consumed the structure in less than a minute. I do not recall a punishment but would be amazed if I wasn’t sanctioned in some way for such an early act of vandalism. I have to say, almost 60 years later that it might have been jealousy but my memory tells me that I wanted to see how well it would burn.
As children we soon learned that a fire could be encouraged by more than just blowing till one felt faint. I poured some of the contents of a tin of ‘Bluebell’ polish on one small twig fire – it roared in approval, but where on earth did the idea come from ?
In the 1950s and later many homes had paraffin based heaters. A specialised delivery lorry would regularly do the rounds. It had a large tank of the fuel on the back and the driver would dispense into spouted containers brought out by householders. Our gang got to know ‘Dan, Dan the Paraffin Man’ as we called him. Without much persuading he would give us small quantities of the ‘magic liquid’ in containers that we supplied. Modern attitudes would perhaps say that we were being ‘groomed’ for something more sinister but I remember him as a happy, open kind man who enjoyed hearing our tales. This paraffin was used carefully to help along fires that were struggling because the wood was wet. I remember that it gave off an unpleasant smell as it burned and was no substitute for a properly prepared fire.
Fire building is something of an art form and we honed our skills with competitions, learning in the process to build a structure in which the air could easily enter. The wigwam shape with a small bundle of paper in the centre, a cone of thin, very dry twigs followed by further layers of sticks getting increasingly thicker as one built outwards. The heat from the inner layers was capable of drying damp sticks so that they too were ready to burn after a while.
The idea of trying to make a miniature fire alighted in our midst seemingly from nowhere but was probably triggered by an article in the ‘Scout’ magazine to which my father contributed the occasional Natural History article. A miniature fire needs to be contained in some way and we used a tin – Lyles Golden Syrup being ideal. A fire door was cut in the bottom front using a hacksaw (under supervisions from Jason’s elder brother) and a chimney made from an offcut of copper water pipe was jammed into a hole formed in the lid. It was then possible to light and keep burning a truly miniature stove with smoke pouring realistically from the chimney, fuel of small dry twigs being fed down the same.
Some forty years later when I had rediscovered my childhood friend Jason, now living on a smallholding in the Peak District National Park, I was amused and delighted to see a full size version of our stove being used to prepare pig swill !
Now that I am nudging my 65th year, I still enjoy a bonfire and the challenge of burning dampish material through the heat generated by having a good solid fire going underneath. I no longer feel faint from blowing but have discovered that it pays to wait for a strong south-westerly wind to do the work. Staring into those flames and leaning on a pitchfork invokes a mental state that is relaxing, pensive and nostalgic all at the same time. I am back in the Bronze Age and dreaming of inventing the chimney. Anyone who plays with fire can see the principle in action if they watch and ponder the dancing, spiralling, twisting movement of the flames. So why did it take man 2000 years before he found the solution ?