The time has come when I can no longer send my children into our little wood to collect kindling. This is partly because they are no longer the obliging creatures they used to be, and why would anyone want to be picking up twigs when they could be on Facebook, and partly because it’s November, and even after a mostly dry autumn the twigs are damp.
So earlier this week I had to go out and buy kindling, on the very same day that Jane was out buying eggs for the first time since March, our 10 chickens having more or less shut up shop for the winter. Collecting your own eggs and gathering your own firewood are among the great pleasures of country living, but there is commensurate pain in having to shell out for them, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Speaking of puns, a friend suggested that if I wanted to buy logs or kindling in bulk I ought to visit a company on the other side of Hereford called Certainly Wood. Their wood is kiln-dried, he told me, which makes it burn longer, at a higher intensity and with less smoke than stuff that has been allowed to dry naturally. I said I certainly would. Apart from anything else, why should hairdressers and florists have all the fun with wordplay? It’s a curious thing, but practically every town in Britain has at least one florist or hairdresser with a punning name, and it’s not just a British phenomenon; I know of a salon in France called Le Monde Imagin’Hair, which is far cornier than my personal favourite, The Best Little Hair House in Hereford.
Anyway, I turned up at Certainly Wood, on a farm near a scenic stretch of the Wye, expecting to find a pretty modest operation. Instead I was astonished, and gratified, to find the biggest producer of firewood in the country. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find dynamic entrepreneurs firing on all cylinders in the glorious Welsh Marches countryside, and yet I always am, even though it was a Herefordshire company, Saunders Valves, who invented the valve used to operate flush lavatories on supersonic aircraft. Anyone who ever sat on the loo on Concorde, enjoying what I suppose could be called a sonic boom, owed their comfort to Herefordshire ingenuity.
As for Certainly Wood, when I registered my surprise at the size of the enterprise to a fellow called Nic Snell, one of the co-owners, he offered to show me round. As he did so I expressed my admiration for the company’s name, and he told me that when they set up four years ago they’d wanted to call themselves Special Branch, but couldn’t, because a tree surgeon in Oxfordshire had got there first. Shame!
Whatever, Nic assured me that theirs was the first company in Britain to kiln-dry its wood, and is the only one operating on such a huge scale - 12,000 tonnes this year. They’ve also worked out a way of burning sawdust rather than oil in the kilns, which makes the whole thing admirably eco-friendly, especially as the trees are felled as part of the local woodland thinning process. Apparently, 80 per cent of British woodland is not being thinned properly, and that wasn’t the only useful information I came away with. I also now know what a vertical reciprocating saw looks like, and will spend the rest of my life trying not to get my hand caught in one.
The most impressive bit of equipment at Certainly Wood, however, is a contraption that old William Heath Robinson would have dismissed as improbably outlandish. It chugs away all day splitting long poplar planks into kindling, and was designed by a bloke called Keith down the road, who apparently can solve just about any practical problem you confront him with. That would be enough on its own to win my custom; I love the idea of Britain’s biggest firewood company relying on a bloke called Keith down the road. But I‘ve also been won over by the "kiln-dried" dimension. Nic told me that Certainly Wood’s wood certainly wouldn’t blacken the glass fronts of our wood-burning stoves, and it certainly didn’t.
Moreover, we’re suckers for compound-adjectives in our house. I got home to find that Jane had bought “barn-laid” eggs, which is all very well, but it still means they’ve been laid in confinement. As we country folk know, any old shed can be called a barn.
This article appeared on the Independent on 12 November 2009: