When I moved house in 2014 I was pleased to find a wood-burning stove, a mark of worldly success similar to owning an Aga, endorsed by arbiters of taste such as Lily Allen and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. One hundred and eighty thousand people had their chimneys unblocked and stoves installed that year, five times higher than in 2007. Around two hundred thousand are now sold every year.
I felt lucky; they look lovely, and we were all told that burning sustainable logs was good for the environment and cheaper than gas. They cost about £300 a year to run, but I read about a man who used recycled off-cuts from local joineries. A neighbour told me he found lots of free wood on skips.
Then I stumbled on yet another difference between the sexes; men are happy to hunt around skips for fuel, women aren’t. The first months of winter with my stove were not easy. I was often cold, sometimes wet, and frequently covered in ash. My cat refused to lie in front of it, as it was not as warm or constant as the gas fuelled kitchen radiator.
Although I tried hard to convince myself that every home needed one, what could be more hygge or gemutlickt than a neat pile of logs on the drive, carefully laid down to season in their own little shed, or the stack indoors, in a basket waiting to be piled onto the flames? But I felt the chill of loneliness as I realised that wood-burners were a two- person job; one to make the rabbit stew while the other, the man, to collect the wood, every few hours. I didn’t relish going out in the night when the fire started sinking, which it did often did as small logs burn quickly, while big logs often refused to light at all. It became stressful. I tried fire-lighters, and a strange implement placed on the outside chimney. A Spanish shop assistant suggested using Doritos.
After a year I got rid of it. When I told people they often looked shocked as if I’d got rid of the indoor loo. Today I felt gleefully vindicated when I heard that according to Michael Gove at the Department of the Environment, stoves and open fires are now the single biggest source of particulate matter emissions, and there will be a ban on the sale of all but the cleanest by 2022.
This follows research by Dr Gary Fuller, at Kings College’s London Air Quality Network. His report, The Invisible Killer: the Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution and How We Can Fight Back, spotted something many of us vaguely suspected; wood-burners are a stupid mistake.
He noticed that levels of laevoglucoson, a sugar that derives from burning cellulose, intrinsic to wood, rose steeply at weekends and on winter evenings. This seemed unlikely as we’ve had Clean Air Acts and central heating since the 1960s, but he found the connection in our new fad for wood burning.
According to Fuller, the stove creates the same amount of particle pollution as around eighteen new standard diesel cars.
‘We estimate that wood-burning in London emits five times more particle pollution than was saved by bringing in the first two phases of London’s low emission zone,’ he says. ‘We have to ask if home use of solid fuels has a part in the city of the 21st century.’
The answer is surely, no. Damage varies according to what you burn. I could never find wood on skips that was not already painted or treated. Burning scrap wood that had been used in construction can also release additional chemicals into the atmosphere. Wet or damp wood massively increase the amount of pollution you create through soot and smoke. There is to be much more control over the sort of cheap wood now sold at petrol stations. One kg of cheap logs, the sort often sold by garages, can hold a pint of water giving a slow, smoky, highly polluting burn.
I am relieved to think I got rid of my polluting fossil burner ahead of time and I can only hope that other people, even men will soon be enjoying their freedom from the pot-bellied tyrants. No more driving to scary industrial estates and distant shopping arcades to find wholesalers. No more combing ash out of my hair or going around looking like a ship’s stoker with red eyes and a cough.
This news is not going to be easy for some men to hear; many will find it hard to believe that their newly discovered instinct to forage can possibly be connected to the evils of fossil fuel, but they can at least put their combustible yearnings into barbeques when that season comes again, unless by then Gove the Stove has got there first!