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Logs and Language
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We'd seen a cheminée showroom on the outskirts of St. Gaudens. Perhaps they could help us. Or failing that, know where we could buy coal.

It was a large showroom, abounding with inserts, ranges and mock fireplaces of every description. Surely they had to have one like ours?

We checked them all, knelt down, opened them up and stuck our heads inside for a good look. What kind of flue did they have, what kind of grate, how did they arrange the ash box.

In hindsight we must have looked pretty strange, knelt down in front of fires and ovens with our heads inside, looking more like opportunist suicides than potential customers.

But we made some interesting discoveries. The first one being that our fire was not normal. All the shop's inserts had the flue placed at the highest point of the fire-box. Ours was not. Its highest point was at the front by the doors. Which might explain why the smoke was directed forwards and into the room.

And no other design had six small flues or that ridiculously small grate. They used every inch of the fire box - after all they were designed to burn logs not twigs.

But most important of all we found a catalogue containing all the latest design research on cheminée technology. This was exactly what we wanted. It showed us how to install an insert. It had diagrams. It had words we could translate. Words unfettered by interlocking 'r's or extraneous questions.

We didn't bother to ask for coal after that. After all, charbon, pourquoi?

Back home, I studied the cheminée designs in greater detail.

Instead of using up the warm air in the lounge, they suggested taking cold air from outside and ducting that into the fire. Very sensible.

Didn't we have a strange hole in the outside wall behind the fire?

We went outside to check.

We did.

Or, more accurately, we had. We'd noticed it the first day, couldn't work out what it was, couldn't think of a good reason for having it, came up with several good reasons for not having it. And blocked it up.

Could that be why the fire smoked?

More tests. Ash box in, hole unblocked, brick out; ash box out, left leg in...

Thirty minutes later we staggered into the sunlight like a pair of kippers. Clouds of smoke hung eerily about the lounge, flies coughed on the window-sills.

But we had noticed a difference. With the hole unblocked we could successfully channel cold air from the outside directly into the lounge. The ash box cleverly prevented it from reaching the fire.

The more I looked at the design of the fire the more I came to the conclusion that I was looking at the log-burning equivalent of the toilet at the bottom of the stairs.

This was not a commercially available fire.

This was the product of a creative householder and his tool box.

A creative householder of rare genius. Someone who'd managed to bring all the ingredients of state-of-the-art cheminée design and made it his own. He'd taken cold air from the outside, fed it into the lounge, let it circulate for a while then exchanged it for smoke.

The only item he'd missed was the recuperator system to pump the smoke throughout the house.

Perhaps that was next year's project?

The inventor of Meccano has a lot to answer for.

But the evenings were getting warmer. Or was it the fact that we'd discovered the joys of wearing two pairs of trousers? With my track suit bottoms over my jeans and two thick sweaters, it was almost pleasant.

In the latter weeks of March we remembered our ski clothes - even better. We would watch TV in our salopettes. Luckily no one ever rang the doorbell on those nights. I'm not sure what they'd have thought, having the door opened by a couple who looked as if they'd just stepped off a ski-lift.

But we were warm and gradually the nights were becoming warmer too.

But we were not going to spend another winter with that fire. It had to go. And it did. A few months later with the help of a sledgehammer.

We now have a log-burner and have reintroduced the word warm into our winter vocabulary.

(next chapter: Pipes and Plombiers