How to Heat your House for Free

by Stephen Middleton  

I’ve been doing it since 1985.  Its good exercise for the right arm.  It brings me a great sense of relief and so far its never made me go blind.  You see, I’m a very lucky man.  My house has come with a couple of legacies: an open hearth in the living room and water-heating stove in the kitchen.  Scrounging firewood is one of the best ways of keeping fit, keeping warm and keeping from worrying about the rising cost of fuel bills.

Of course, back then, it wasn’t exactly something that attracted the same smiling approval from an environmentally-aware community as it usually does now.  Oh no, to be seen grubbing about beneath a hedge with an armful of faggots in those class-conscious days would inevitably illicit the same ignominious contempt as rifling through the maggot-infested dustbins outside your local burger-bar.  In fact, the only takeaway you’d likely be associated with would be a soup kitchen.  However, one redeeming feature of the ostentatious eighties was if you ran out of firelighters you could always make-do with a pair of your sister’s designer shoulder-pads.  They burn well, you ask Michael Jackson.  How times have changed.

Collecting firewood well and truly puts you in touch with your primitive self.  You can almost smell the spirits of your megalithic ancestors.  It ignites those dormant instincts suppressed by modernity for thousands of years; the visceral urge to hunt and gather, hauling your quarry back to the mouth of your cave, lifting up your head to the heavens and roaring thanksgiving to the gods before butchering the carcass with your best stone axe.  Well, actually I stack mine in the front garden and I use a little bowsaw.  Whatever latent attributes my foraging might inflame I never for once thought it could be the rapturous sin of greed.

I’ve always considered myself to be more than selfless.  I donate to worthy causes.  I never shirk when it comes to my round.  I see myself as an alright man and not I’m alright Jack.  I’ll dip my hand in my pocket for someone rather than dipping my hand in the pockets of anyone.  Share and share alike, that’s me.  But when it comes to that stack of old timbers some builders just chucked out, well, I’m afraid to say, that if it was between me and a frail, sweet little old lady who’s just fallen on hard times there wouldn’t be as much as a cocktail-stick left that might squewer a lump of cheddar and a pickle at her wake.  I’ve become as protective of my sources as a scandal columnist for the News Of The World.

I know I’ve got more than enough for this winter…  and the next…  and the one after.  You ought to see the size of the pile.  I’m expecting to come home from work and find Guy Fawkes on top and an impatient mob demanding parkin.  God forbid if they lit the blue-touch-paper on all that. It would make Chernobyl look like a smouldering cigarette butt in a beer garden ash tray.  Aah, yes!  I can picture the scene: the Peak National Parks’ chartered helicopter slashes through the billowing smoke dropping bags of Blue Circle in the desperate hope of capping the raging inferno lest it burn through to the earth’s core.  Well, should that ever come to pass, it’d be a prosperous contract for I.C.I., an exemplary call-out for the Derbyshire fire service, and for the pilot an exciting departure from the Planning Board’s vital duty of reporting so much as a wendy-house that hasn’t been sprayed the appropriate shade of green.

Greed, however, does have its limitations.  In my case its 14 metres by 18 metres which is the approximate area of my back garden.  Although my neighbour does have that little bit of ground that doesn’t seem to be doing anything imbetween the serried rows of Florence Fennel and the hand crafted wrought-iron wormery she won in a raffle at the Rotary Club.  I wonder if I could…  No, no, lets not go there.

One place where I no longer need to go is grubbing-out rotten logs from the bottom of muddy hedgerows.  In fact I hardly need to get my hands dirty at all.  Recently I did something I should’ve done from the very beginning.  I asked a local skip owner if I could remove the refuse wood from the skips left in his yard and do you know what he said?  “I’ll deliver you a load if yer want so long as yer phone me up when yer’ve emptied it”.  What?  Did I hear him correctly?  Wow!  That’s like your electric company giving you the exclusive use of a sub-station saying, “Just post the keys off when you’re done.  Oh, and by the way, there’s no charge for the power”.

Applying life’s fundamental law: you don’t get something for nothing; the expense of salvaging firewood is so negligible as to be disregarded.  To be able to heat my home to 75 degrees F. for six hours every day of the week costs me, in terms of time and money for the diesel I use to collect it, about the price of a pint and a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Another subtle advantage of using an open fire is that it empowers you to commence divorce proceedings against your amenity suppliers.  Although I am loath to admit mine isn’t a decree absolute.  I still have an emersion heater in the hot water tank and a gas cooker plumbed into the pipe from outside.  But, just to show you how estranged we’ve become look no further than my quarterly statements.  The lowest bill I’ve ever received was for the princely sum of two pence.  Yes, you read correctly, two pence.  I have it proudly displayed in its rightful place above the mantelpiece of a stoking fire.  The frame cost twenty quid but its worth it for the laughs.

So then, apart from ski-salesmen and bobsleigh makers I must be the only person looking forward to a really severe winter because, like the poor old soul in charge of Hell’s furnace I really don’t give a damn how much I burn…  not me of course, I mean my fuel.  The only trouble is, if the skip owner dies and goes to Hell and burns forever then that might pour a lot of cold water on it but in the meantime all this talk of my free heat makes me feel very smug, so smug in fact I want to sing…

I’m dreaming of a white christmas,
Just like the one in ’62.
Where gas supplies are shut-off,
And electric power’s cut-off,
And the coal man simply can’t get through!

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