Friday, 23 January 2015

Do You Know Where You Live?

Yesterday was more than a little bit foggy, all of our daily jobs were finished and I had just finished reading my book. My mind started to contemplate what to write for the next blog, and hoping for inspiration I started looking on the internet. Out of idle curiosity I put the village name into the search bar, just to see what would come up. There were a couple of my own blog articles, and also some news items from a couple of years ago. It was in one of the news items that I came across a small statement from our Kmet. In it she said that she was pleased that foreigners had found this little village, but often wondered how we had come to discover it. We were fortunate, as it was our lovely estate agents who brought us out here when we were house hunting. Admitedly, the village is small and quite remote, hence the name for the blog, and it doesn't appear on every map. I can safely say that I only know of one road sign which actually points to the village. So I decided to do a bit more digging, and this is what I found.

The village itself is located in the Veliko Tarnovo region, and comes under the municipality of Gorna Oriahovitsa. It is up in the hills, but actually sits in a small valley. This is quite convenient as all too often by the time that weather has noticed that we are there it has bypassed us and just carries on. If we do get hit by the weather it most often stays above us until it has worn itself out. As an average, the village itself sits at a height of roughly 262 metres above sea level. Seeing as how we are surrounded by farmland, forests and lakes the air is always fresh and clean. Although during the winter it has been known for the village to be cut off, fortunately there is a doctor in the next village 5kms away in case of emergencies. By and large it is a peaceful village, and often the only things you hear are the occasional tractor puttering away in the fields, village dogs barking, or chickens clucking and scratching in the dirt. Sometimes due to the age of the people living here, their hearing might be going a bit, so if they are working in their gardens (most days in the Summer) then their radios might be turned up a bit louder. Houses here seem to have quite decent size gardens, so no-one lives on top of each other so nobody really gets disturbed by other people's musical tastes. Which is quite fortunate as I have a habit of playing some distinctly 'English' music, including various Punk groups.

As I previously mentioned we are very rural here, and you can see the percentage breakdown of how the village area is utilised. Most is taken up by fields and trackways, followed by woodland and trackways. One day I might even find out where allof these various tracks lead, I do know that once upon a time they were the main routes between the various villages, and tend to be more direct that the present day roads. It is a very pleasant place to be, and when the weather is good it is nice to take a slow wander to one of the dam lakes around the village. We have two main ones, Great Spring and Shtirkov.

One of the first  things that I noticed in the village, was that to my mind the houses don't look typically Bulgarian. I had often wondered why, and finally I might have found an answer. It would appear that once upon a time workers for the Governor of a neighbouring village, Varbovka, settled here. They were generically called Albanians , but could have come from anywhere in that general area as it was a larger country than it is now. They were not even the first settlers here as traces of both Thracian and Roman settlements have been discovered, as well as traces of a Roman road. It is not surprising as the land is so rich and fertile, and being in a hill top valley protected from a lot of the weather.

It wasn't until a decree made on the 23rd May 1934, that the village changed it's name to Paisii. As far as I am aware this is the only village in Bulgaria with this name. Prior to that it was known by the name of Arnautlii (Арнаутлии). These Albanian settlers built a small school and church, along with their houses. Even today that school is used for the Kmet's offices, as the school is no longer used as the children get bussed to neighbouring schools. At one time this village was quite a thriving little place, it had its own library. community centre and even a small cinema. Up until people started to get lured away by work in the towns and cities, there was a village population of 872. Sadly this has now dwindled down to about the 200 mark.

It would appear that at one time there was a military presence here as well. They took over the management of the school during the 1970s, by which time it was no longer a school. Maybe I am putting two and two together but perhaps it had something to do with the president's former hunting lodge, which we pass on the ridge road, or at least that is what we have been told that it was. Up in the woods I have found what appear to be tank berms, there is a short runway which is now used by the crop spraying aircraft, and in Strelets there is what appears to be a military style bunker. All very Cold War'ish.

No matter what the history of the village actually is, it is a pleasure living here. The air is clean, the peace and quiet can't be beaten, and the villagers are second to none. Everywhere you look you are surrounded by beautiful countryside, wildlife and birdlife abound. This really is a little slice of heaven, and I consider myself lucky to live here. It might be called Paisii, Paisiy, Arnautlii, Arnautli, Паисий or even Арнаутлии, I am just pleased to call it home. Hopefully I haven't bored anyone too much with my findings about this little hideaway.


Sunday, 11 January 2015

The First Blog Of 2015

First let me wish each and every one of you a very Happy New Year, and I hope that 2015 is all that you hope it to be. Most of you I haven't seen since last year, and thanks to you all the figures on the blog were far beyond my wildest expectations, from a starting point of 30,000 you all helped push the figures to just over 91,000. Now here we are into the second week of the year and already that figure has risen by over a 1000. So once again I can only convey my thanks, but you didn't come here to be dazzled by figures, you came to read the blog and see what has happened so far. I think that I can safely say that the weather has been variable, in the past three weeks it has gone from almost t-shirt weather to being bundled up and looking like the Michelin Man, and now back again. We have had sunshine, sleet, snow, rain and wind, possibly everything in between too.

As usual I have tried cultivating my icicle of doom, this year it managed to get to almost a metre long before a sudden thaw caused it to part company from the  downpipes on the guttering. Fortunately it didn't impale anyone or anything, although at daft o'clock on New Year's Day I wouldn't have minded if it had. Once again the village children were out and about with their decorated twigs and wands, tapping you on the back and saying the little rhyme in exchange for small gifts. I'm trying not to cover old ground here as this tradition has been covered in previous year's blogs. Each year I am surprised by the number of children who trudge through the snow to our gate, and yet they are not in evidence throughout the rest of the year. So they are either alien abductees given time off for good behaviour, or they are visiting family. The previous evening we had made up 20 little goodie bags, each one containing fruit, sweets and loose change. I thought that 20 would be plenty, but they all went, maybe next year we will have to make more. I have yet to work out at what age the village youngsters will stop coming round.

Earlier this week, the 6th, it was Yordanov Den. This is the day when young men of the village gather at rivers and lakes and casting caution to the wind plunge into the icy waters to retrieve a cross which the local priest has thrown into the water. Supposedly whoever retrieves the cross will be blessed with good health and good fortune throughout the coming year. Although it doesn't seem to happen here, I think that the closest event to us would be at the Lion Bridge in Parvomaytsi. There the winning man not only got blessed but he also gained 100 Leva, and a 20kg piglet. It would appear in some areas that some of the local gypsy lads have been trying to shoe horn their way in just to get the prize money.

Once again due to the road conditions we were unable to get out of the village to go and observe. Normally when I renew the car insurance at the end of the year I would get the new vignette at the same time. Sod's Law meant that the Post Office wasn't open so that put the kibosh on that idea. Which meant that I resorted to the village bus, this now seems to be like an annual pilgrimage for me. Net is left at home tending fires and exciting things like that and I am sent out into the wintry wastes armed with a to do list and a shopping list. I was surprised that the bus fare had remained the same as last winter, unfortunately I think the smell of the bus was also a hangover from last winter too. Either that or someone didn't get any soap in their Christmas stocking. Apart from the whiffiness the bus is a safer option on these village roads, especially when logging lorries have plastered mud everywhere, leaving frozen ruts behind. Where there weren't ruts the snow and ice had been compacted down making for a skating rink, even the back end of the bus drifted on some bends.

By the time we got to the main road you wouldn't have realised just how slippery the village roads were, as it was totally devoid of either ice or snow. Looking at the fields, as we made our way closer to Gorna, they were having less and less snow in them. Arriving in Gorna itself, apart from some small piles of snow at the roadsides and minor patches of ice on pavements, you could easily think that winter had passed the town by. The first stop was the post office to mail some bits and pieces to the UK, and to get the new vignette. Once again the annual cost has not risen, as it is still only 67 Leva for a full year. I seem to remember it has been that price for at least three years, unlike the road tax in the UK which always seemed to increase. Post Office done, bills paid and that just left sorting the TV package out with Vivacom and the shopping. Due to the length of time in Vivacom sorting everything out, including house phone and mobiles as well as the TV which I initially went in to sort out, I only had enough time for a quick visit round CBA before getting the bus home again. I have had a further trip into town on the bus, as you are limited to what you can get shopping wise by what you can carry, and cartons of milk take up a fair bit of room. So I have had shopping trip mk2 to enjoy, I even managed to find time for a coffee in town.

Over the last couple of days the temperatures have certainly been on the rise. I even took the chance of driving down into Draganovo to refill one of our gas bottles. Today I was outside building my wood pile back up without having to wear 93 layers of clothes. To say that it was quite pleasant would be a slight understatement, there were even bees flitting round. Heaven only knows what they expected to feed on. We have been quite lucky so far this winter, we have only had about four nights where the temperatures have dipped down below -15C. So far all of our water pipes have survived, I did have a bit of an ice build up on the kitchen waste pipe as it exits onto a North facing wall, but that have been sorted out now. The thaw has come quite quickly so now the garden is a bit of a boggy mess. If I', unlucky I will be mowing the grass before I realise it.

So far this winter has been very pleasant, reading in the warmth of the cellar of an evening with a big mug of coffee, the animals contentedly basking in front of the fire. Each morning I do the log run, and sort the fires out for my bit of winter exercise. Soon we will be back to work in the garden so it is worthwhile recharging the batteries while we have the chance.

As to whether the winter has finished with us, I very much doubt it. Everyday the sun is rising just that little bit earlier, and setting a little later, we have had cloud but we have also had blue skies too. The weather can be a fickle thing. Looking on the bright side of things the Martenitsa stalls will soon be out in the main square of Gorna, and apparently Storks were building a nest in the village last year so hopefully they will return again this year.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Traditions

Believe it or not, today is Christmas Eve and I am sat here wearing a t-shirt, no jumper or jacket. The fire isn't lit, and even the gas fire is sat idle. We seem to be having a little bit of a warm spell at the moment. The last cold days that I can remember were at the very start of the month, it has been otherwise damp and foggy, up until about a week ago. Now we have sunshine and clear blue skies. The only ones making use of my snow shovel at the moment are spiders using it to hang their webs from. To say that the weather is a bit odd is an understatement, it is nearly as odd as one Christmas spent in Florida when it snowed for the first time in over a century. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something.

I have seen Bees trying to hunt for any available flower, but they seem to be in quite scant supply. Every so often you see a fly drift past, and you think that can't be right. Here we are as the end of the year draws closer and insects are still out and about. Until I had seen the weather forecast I was slightly concerned that these mild temperatures might have meant that we would be inundated once the summer months get here. I think that we can safely say that we are not going to be getting a white Christmas this year, the New Year might be a different story.

In the meanwhile all we can do is enjoy the weather, the firewood pile is slowly going down but nothing like in previous years. All of the stocking up we did in case of bad weather is still there, so we are still fully prepared should we have to face a prolonged cold spell. Who knows I might have to evict some spiders before the year is out, as I might find it necessary to once again wield the snow shovel. The dogs are enjoying the sunshine, as they drag their beds and blankets round chasing the sun. They still head in front of the fire as soon as they come in, even though it hasn't been lit. The cats, especially Billy, will soon move them out of the way if they feel that there is a dog where a cat should be.

Anyway I digress, today is Christmas Eve, although in many traditional Bulgarian homes it signifies the start of three days of celebrations. Today goes by the name of Бъдни вечер, and depending on who you listen to some say badni vecher while others say budni vecher. At least everyone seems to agree on the vecher part. Not only is it known as Christmas Eve, but either Little Christmas or Incensed Eve can smetimes be used too. All too often the preparation work for the meals which are an important part of the traditional celebrations got underway yesterday. On the table itself you will often see both pine and ivy, and underneath it you will notice straw has been laid.

Tradition says that the dishes laid on the Christmas Eve table should be an odd number, and they should be meat free. Many of the dishes are made from the crops which the villagers grew themselves earlier in the year. You will see various dishes with beans, stuffed peppers, stuffed vine leaves, fruit and nuts, garlic and onions, quite often honey and ritual bread. Perhaps many ideas hark back to more pagan times. For instance honey is meant to symbolise a sweeter life, garlic to drive away evil spirits, nuts and seeds for health and luck and the fruit to symbolise fertility. Also a lot of the dishes are used as they swell during preparation and cooking, this is also something else used to symbolise fertility and pregnancy.

Perhaps more so in villages, this is a time for the family gathering together. You will often find many different branches of the same family in just the one village, although some have now moved away to seek a better life for their families. If they can make it back they do so, as this is an important time for families. The festivities start early with incense being burned thoughout the house, this is also meant to drive away any evil spirits. Once the table has been incensed and blessed the oldest member of the family breaks the ritual bread. Traditionally this is homemade and often decorated with crosses, circles and flowers, a coin is also baked within the bread. The first piece of bread goes to the Virgin Mary and the families ancestors, the next goes to the house, then to the animals and the finally a piece of bread is given to each family member from oldest to youngest. Whoever gets the coin will be blessed with health and luck for the coming year, should it be in one of the pieces given to the Virgin Mary or the house then everyone will be healthy and fortunate. On sitting at the table everyone moves a place to their right which is said to leave room for family ancestors and benevolent spirits. Even when the Christmas Eve feast is finished the table is not cleared away. There are two thoughts behind this, there is always something to offer an unexpected guest, and also it is these for those departed ancestors.

They do say that there are two different groups who come round to the villages houses singing Christmas songs. The first group is made up of boys who go round during daylight hours, once nightfalls the men take over. As you might expect for doing the difficult job of blessing houses and households certain small items are passed their way. However if you are in a small village such as this everyone is busy with their own families, so marauding bands of carollers are something which we have yet to witness. Many say that the Christmas Day church services are worth attending, but when you have a village priest responsible for several villages it can be difficult to know where such services are being held. Maybe we will just get the bells this year, and when the church is only a stone's throw away they can be hard to ignore. So the celebations often continue onto what we would call Boxing Day, or St Stephen's Day on the 27th. There are some familiar traditions too, such as the Yule Log (badnik), which is normally Oak and is placed on the fire on Christmas Eve, and is supposed to keep burning until Christmas Day, the ashes are then gathered and used in rituals in the coming year, as is the straw from beneath the table. 

Finally all that remains is for me to wish you and your families a very Merry Christmas. Also to pass on my heartfelt thanks to you all for your support of this blog. At the start of the year it had been accessed 30,000 times, which I thought was no mean achievement. Now come the close of year that figure has moved up to 90,000. None of which would have been possible without people reading these blog articles. Thanks to you all, this blog has far exceeded my wildest expectations. 

So once again wherever this blog may find you I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May the coming festivities bring you all that you need, and some of what you wish for.


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Surviving Winter - A Dozen Helpful Hints

Perhaps you have noticed that along with the days getting shorter, the temperatures are also dropping. With this persistent damp spell that we are having at the moment it perhaps feels a bit colder than it actually is. You can rest assured that the temperatures will continue to decrease going into the New Year. Hopefully it won't be as harsh as some years, and maybe it will be just as mild as last winter. One thing that we can safely say though is that in the time we have been here no two winters have been the same. Supposedly we have experienced both the coldest and mildest winters on record. We are still here to tell the tale, complete with all fingers and toes, so if we can survive the winters here then anyone can. Hopefully some of the things which we have learnt along the way might come in handy for others, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and what might work for us might not work for others. As the adverts tell us all, "Every little helps".

1. Leave taps dripping when the temperatures drop. It is harder for moving water to freeze rather than static water. Just think the surface of a lake on pond will freeze before a stream or river. If you have water supplies for animals outside try floating a couple of tennis balls in their water troughs. I did read somewhere that a couple of drops of olive oil on the surface of the water might also help. Its also worthwhile finding out where your water pipe run, just in case you do end up with a frozen pipe somewhere. Try increasing the ambient temperature in the relevant room, that should help thaw your pipes out before you end up with a burst. If you are going away during the winter, drain down all waterworks before leaving.

2. It is worthwhile sorting out torches and candles now, rather than when you actually need them. Every year there are reports of villages without power for days on end. So it is also a good idea to stock up on spare batteries too. If you do end up losing power can you still cook and make yourself hot drinks? One of the first things which we were advised to buy was a dual fuel cooker, two of the top rings are electric and the other two run off of bottled gas. Some of the villages are quite remote so getting work crews there to fix the power supply problem can take a bit of time. For those who dislike silence might I suggest a battery radio, even if it is just on in the background for noise.

3. Many of us, certainly those living  in villages, seem to adopt a bit of a siege mentality. Villagers were busy jarring and bottling at the end of the summer. We do it the easy way we buy extra tins, packets and jars as part of our normal shopping. When we were cooking we did extra, this was then frozen. As a result we have full freezers and cupboards. Extra basics have been bought and put away, such as flour and other bits for baking bread. One good thing about village life is that there is still a sense of community, and everyone looks out for everyone else. No one is in danger of starving, even if the local shop fell down. Don't just stay indoors, even if you just go for a walk round the village or checking up on elderly neighbours, you are seeing as well as being seen. Not a lot escapes the watchful eyes of the village Buba network.

4. Check for draughts, before we put double glazing in, this house was like living in a wind tunnel. Breezes and gusts of wind were easy to detect but the smaller draughts were more difficult. We found that joss sticks were ideal for this, as a slight draught would disturb the smoke plume. It also has the added benefit of making the house smell nice, fortunately neither of us felt inclined to play finger cymbals or chant Hare Krishna as we searched for draughts. We also found that putting insulation up in the roof space really made a difference. I have to admit that getting it right the way to the edge of the eaves was a pain in the backside but it was worth it. One downside to eliminating the majority of draughts is that it can make your fire harder to light, so sometimes we have to vent a door or window to slightly open to increase the airflow.

5. When we first got here we found it really difficult to get rock salt for the paths. We also discovered that salting paths degrades the concrete, and we ended up with ours cracking up and faling to pieces. The next year I watched the villagers, and they use the ash from their fires. If you intend using ash I would strongly advise keeping it in a metal bucket, as there is always the possiblity of a red ember being thrown out when you clean your fire. At least a metal bucket won't burn or melt. You do end up with ash footprints throughout the house, as no matter how often I show them the dogs and cats stillhaven't got the hang of wiping their feet. With the ash being a darker colour and sunshine is absorbed by it faster and so helps thaw out paths, steps, driveways and roads. If you are using it on the last two try and make sure that there are no nails from the firewood, before you spread it round.

6. Everyone knows that metal conducts heat, but few consider that it will do the same with cold. Think of those metal door handles on an external door, they have a metal bar which connects the two handle portions. So -15C outside is also brought indoors too. Round about that temperature skin sticks to metal and you can get cold burns. To get round this we wrap out kichen cloths round the inside handles, as its fair to say that my brain doesn't want to fully wake up first thing in the morning. This is also one reason why we don't leave keys hanging in door locks overnight. Another reason is that if your car keys are in that bunch, the chip inside the keyfob bit can be killed by the cold. Any padlocks are sprayed with WD40 to displace any moisture which might freeze.

7. This probably isn't as much of a concern for those not living in villages, but what would you do if the front glass cracked and broke on your wood burner. It wasn't a concern for us until someone tried to combine the temperatures of Mount Vesuvius erupting and the Towering Inferno. As Sod's Law dictates this happened when the village was cut off and nothing was getting in or out for two days. Fortunately we do have alternate heating, but as a consequence I now hold spare glasses for both wood burners. The Prity fire is the easiest of the two as in their spares catalogue the dimensions are given. The other fire is a mystery fire with no maker's name on it anywhere, so the only way to get that replaced is to actually get it measured. You've already guessed which glass broke, to get it measured it was a case of getting as many pieces as we could and try and make up a jigsaw. I also had to make sure that it was fire resistant glass, or what I would call Amber Glass, just in case Junior Assistant Arsonist fancies re-enacting Krakatoa erupting.

 8. Whilst I am mentioning fires always keep a supply of both firewood and kindling close at hand. Somewhere that it can remain dry and out of the weather. If the weather does turn bad overnight at least you will have a ready supply to tide you over until you can go and replenish your come in handy stock later in the day. At least by the time you have moved firewood and kindling over from your main supply your house will be nice a warm.

9. Something which might seem obvious is all too often overlooked. We often get snow here in Bulgaria, and to enable ourselves to continue to move about we need to clear snow away from paths, steps, driveways and roads. To do this many of us use a humble snow shovel. The first time people want to use it, they discover that it is still in their shed. So they then have to wade through knee deep snow to get to their shed, where they have to clear the snow away, so that they can get in there to get the snow shovel. If the snow shovel was kept somewhere close at hand it makes digging these various snow trenches so much easier. It might not look wonderful propped up against the side of the house, but not only does it mean snow clearing operations can start much quicker but it also provides a handy perch for some  of the local birdlife.

 10. If you do have to go out and about chances are that you will be confronted by ice. We might not be allowed to use studded tyres here, but we can sometimes find these devices which slip on over shoes to provide additional grip. We do have to remember to take them off before going into a shop or a cafe, as they prefer not to have perforated floors. Another method, which is popular in villages are the oversize wool socks. Again these are pulled on over your normal footwear and provide some extra grip. As an added bonus they don't mark floors, and are probably easier to find than their modern day counterparts.

11. A lot of people jokingly refer to their mobile phones as their lifeline. During the winter, in a village, they can be exactly that. So it is worthwhile making sure that you know the phone numbers for the various emergency services, better still stire them in the phones memory. Also it is important to make sure that while power is on that you ensure that your mobile phone has a reasonable amount of battery power. We also have an in car charger too, so that in an emergency the mobiles can be charged that way.

12. Finally what can we do to help keep ourselves warm? It isn't necessary to put on one thick heavy coat and look like the Michelin Man, layers of thinner clothes will probably work out just as effective. This is because layers of warm air get trapped between the different layers of materials. Wool hats, gloves and scarves are also important, as even when its wet wool will still warm. The tips of the ears are very thin skinned, and don't have a great deal of blood supplied to them so keep then tucked up inside your hat if you have short hair. My winter shoes and boots are bigger than my summer footwear, and this means that I can comfortably wear eaxtra socks. During the winter I tend not to shave every day, and sometimes I look like a cross between Stig of the Dump and Santa's deranged cousin. If I do shave then it is done of an evening rather than in the morning.

Hopefully someone will find at least one of these hints helpful. If you can think of any more then please make a comment below. Remember anyone can be uncomfortable, but it is up to us to pass on information to help each other.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Stay Warm, Stay Safe

The other week there was talk in the Facebook group about fire safety (cheers Ian), and what people actually knew about it and tips that they could pass on. The only downside to something like that is that all too soon it disappears as new topics come up and push it further down the page. As it is such an important thing I thought that perhaps it might be worthwhile putting something like that in here, where it is easier to find. As we are approaching the winter it is possibly more important than at other times of the year. The days are getting colder, the nights colder still, and in an effort to keep ourselves warm we try to heat rooms in a variety of ways. Unfortunately with the heating attempts there is always the possibility of fire. Most of us have seen news reports about the devastation which fires can cause, but how many of us realise that we can actually take steps to help ourselves prevent such a mishap.

As many of you know we live out in the middle of nowhere, and if we did suffer the catastrophe of a fire by the time that the alarm had been raised and a fire crew had arrived on scene all that would be left of our home would be some charred timbers and smoking rubble. To our minds that is certainly a very valid reason for getting the house and contents insured. Hopefully it is something which we will never have to claim on, but for peace of mind it is a necessary expense each year. As I previously mentioned there are various steps which we can take to help minimise the risks. We do have the wood burners, but they are not our sole means of heating. We also have gas fires, oil filled radiators,electric fan heaters and circulatory fans built into most of the ceiling lights. One of my first jobs in the autumn is to make sure that everything is clean and that it works properly. If it has got a power lead, the lead is checked to ensure that mice haven't been taking bites out of it or that it is not damaged in anyway, paying attention to the plug. For the gas heaters the connection units are tested to make sure that they work properly, and in turn they are used to check that they cause the valve units om the gas bottles to open and close. The flexible rubber hoses seem to go a bit porous over the course of a year so I replace them and any worm drive clips necessary. The ceiling fans get switched over so they are now pushing the warm air from the light bulbs down into the room.    

Like many people though our prime source of heat comes from the wood burners, we have them at either end of the house. Every year I dismantle the flue pipes and check them, especially along the seams. If I am even slightly dubious they get replaced. The whole run gets thoroughly swept and cleaned, paying particular attention to the 90 degree bends. Bearing in mind that these flue pipes do get hot it is worthwhile taking your time when deciding where they will run. Even though it looks close to the wooden roof beam in the photo, there is about a two foot gap. Anyway I dismantle the flue pipes and clean them on roughly a six weekly cycle, depending on what I am burning, and how often the fires are lit. Talking of which try not to burn rubbish (especially plastics) and green wood in the fires.

People might think that wood is wood, and that it all burns the same. Fresh wood still has a lot of sap and resins in it, which is why you can smell freshly split timber. If you burn this fresh wood the fire is not as efficient. For one thing a lot of the heat is used to boil off the sap so that the wood becomes dry enough to burn. The resin and gases are carried along the flue pipes of chimney until they start to cool. At which point they will start to stick to the sides as a tarry creosote type substance. If you do that often enough and then burn good dry seasoned wood it is possible for the creosote to then catch fire and you end up with a chimney fire. Green wood is also harder to light and produces more smoke. It makes sense to get smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors fitted. Personally I prefer the battery powered ones as opposed to mains powered, as you never know when you are likely to get a power cut. Test them on a regular basis and keep spare batteries in stock. We can count ourselves as very fortunate in that twice we have been woken by them going off to find a house full of white smoke.

Its easier to see the funny side of it looking back on things, but at 3am wearing only a bathrobe and a pair of flip flops with all windows and doors open at -18C it was a definite sense of humour failure. Now we don't put any more wood on the fire after 9pm, and at bedtime all of the embers are raked together and then all the fire's vents and doors are closed. The good thing about our lounge being down in the cellar is that the stone walls are 2 feet thick and act as a night storage heater. Many of us live in traditional Bulgarian village houses which we have modernised. Perhaps the fitting of double glazing has cut down on a lot of the draughts which used to be there. Apart from being a pain in the backsides these draughts used to help start the fires with a constant air flow, now sometimes I have to open the cellar door or a window to create that airflow. Another reason could be that it is getting towards the end of my six week sweeping cycle and there could be a build up of soot. I now have a complete spare set of flue pipes, so in half an hour the old run is dismantled and the new lengths are fitted. I can then do my Black and White Minstrel audition up in the barn where its out of the wind and snow as I clean the old flue pipes at my leisure. If the glass is blackening then that could be another indication that you are in need of having your chimney or flue pipes swept.

When you look at one of these wood burners you can see that all they are is a metal box with fire bricks inside. Ours in the cellar also stands in its own metal tray. The heat is conducted down the metal legs and starts to warm up the metal tray which in turn warms up the ceramic floor tiles. No wonder that area is so popular with the dogs and cats.The heat from the metal sides radiates out and helps to warm the room, and due to convection the heat also rises straight up and the travels across the ceiling until it starts cooling. So that is how your room gets heated. Hopefully you can see why it is a good idea to keep flammable things a safe distance away from your wood burner. Logs might look good stacked up alongside in photos, but unless you are constantly moving and rotating those logs radiated and conducted heat are constantly drying them out. Logs are flammable, which is why we burn them in the first place, so always try and leave a sensible air gap between the fire and any combustable material.

You might even have heard about the traditional brick built Djamals, and how wonderful they are. They are very efficient burning at temperatures of something like 1000C, so there is not even any ash left, the bricks just act like a night storage heater. We have some Djamals in our house, and when we moved in we were told that they are perfectly safe to use. The one shown was in our kitchen, and we wanted to increase the size of the kitchen and let more light in so that wall and the Djamal had to go. Now I have no doubt that originally it was wonderful and probably provided all of the cooking and heating needs. However when we took the wall down we found so many burnt and charred timbers that it kind of put us off lighting any of the others, so now they are kept purely as part of the charm and history of the house.

The purpose of this article is not to cause worry, but hopefully to point out a few steps which we can all take to help make our winter evenings a bit safer. It is up to the individual how much attention they pay towards fire safety, and the steps that they take. We might well be the exceptions rather than the rule, but we also have fire extinguishers and a fire blanket up in the kitchen. Although we don't do fire drills we do know safe evacuation routes just in case the worst should happen. It always pays to plan ahead.

On the cold dark winter nights the wood burners do come into there own. There is so much rubbish on the TV that it kind of makes sense curling up in front of the fire with a good book. If the animals will actually let you get anywhere near to it.