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12/06/2004 Archived Entry: "Log fires"
I am often asked about the rhyme which highlights the qualities of logs we might be considering for our winter fires. There is no doubt a warming log fire is a wonderful asset to the home in winter, and especially so during the Christmas season. There are several verses which provide information about the varying qualities of fireside logs, these being the result of our forebears' long experience.
For one of these verses, I am indebted to a friend who lives in Barnard Castle; he spotted it on the wall of a hostelry in Norfolk. It is a shortened version of the following:
Oak logs will warm you well, if they're old and dry.
Larch logs of pinewoods smell, but the sparks will fly.
Beech logs for Christmas time; yew logs heat so well;
Scotch logs it is a crime for anyone to sell.
Birch logs will burn too fast; chestnut scarce at all;
Hawthorn logs are good to last, if cut in the fall.
Holly logs will burn like wax, you should burn them green;
Elm logs like smouldering flax, no flame to be seen.
Pear logs and apple logs, they will scent your room
Cherry logs across the dogs smell like flowers in bloom.
But ash logs all smooth and grey, burn them green or old,
Buy up all that come your way, they're worth their weight in gold.
The clear message here is that ash is by far the best timber for our log fires, while the wood of fruit trees will produce a pleasant scent in the room and that of conifers will send sparks flying. Elm is probably the worst because it smoulders with little or no heat; indeed, one verse says is like churchyard mould. I have another verse which reads:
Birch and fir logs burn too fast, blaze up bright and do not last.
Make fire of an elder tree, death within your house you'll see.
It is by the Irish said, hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread,
But ash green and ash brown, is fit for a Queen with golden crown.
Yet another verse says that ash wet or ash dry is fit for a queen to warm her slippers by, while poplar gives a bitter smoke which fills your eyes and makes you choke. It seems that lime will make an excellent firewood too, provided it has been cut and stacked for three or four months.
So far as the elder tree is concerned, this used to be the focus of lots of superstitions and it was always considered unlucky to bring it into the house, and extremely unlucky to burn it. In some parts of England as late as 1938, it was believed that if elder wood was burnt in the home, it heralded the death of a member of the family, although it was also thought to ward off lightning strikes. Elders were often grown near a house or farm buildings because the tree was thought to provide protection from lightning and other evils.
I think the origin of superstitions about elder may be that some people believed the Cross upon which Christ was crucified was made of elder wood.