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Gathering winter fuel in Spitalfields

November 5, 2009
by the gentle author


In common with everyone else these days, I am feeling the pinch, so last winter when my boiler broke, I gave up on it and relied upon fires instead. There is plenty of scrap timber lying around the streets of Spitalfields in the form of abandoned broken pallets from deliveries to the stores here. Also, the constant renovations provide an endless supply of firewood that just needs to be salvaged from curbside skips.

Now it is time to start lighting fires and gathering winter fuel again. If you see someone struggling with a pallet on their shoulder around Brick Lane over the coming months, do not just stand and watch, please give a hand –  because that person is me! Last winter, friends would keep a look out on my behalf and sometimes in the morning I found pallets kindly placed outside my house in the night.

My neighbour lends me his powersaw and I lay the pallets down on the pavement and cut them up. After months of practice, I have learnt to do this expertly with the minimum number of saw cuts. Like a master butcher slicing through the ribs of a prize bull, I make four cuts with my saw the whole length of the pallet, traversing the slats, and then flip it over to cut through the base supports. I make short work of these pallets and in no time at all, I am sweeping up the sawdust from the pavement and stacking up a satisfyingly neat woodpile. A couple of pallets only provide a few evenings’ worth of heat, so this is a constant task for me during the winter months.

To keep warm in the depths of last winter, I lay in front of the fire on my couch under a large sheepskin blanket, with a hot water bottle cradled underneath and Mr Pussy on top of me, too. It was cosy lying there watching films by firelight and I feel quite sentimental about it now. The first thing I did last Christmas Day was to go out into the frost and cut up pallets.

The truth is I grew up in a house with no heating, my family regularly wore overcoats indoors and I remember visiting my grandmother in Chard one Christmas to discover her in her fur coat and hat, mixing ingredients in a bowl on the kitchen table. My other grandmother was confined to a Tuberculosis clinic in Bovey Tracey during the nineteen twenties where they believed that fresh air was curative, to the extreme that she once wrote in a letter of waking in her bed to find a blanket of snow upon the covers. The snow had blown in during the night from Dartmoor through the open door and windows. It is no wonder she died a year later, aged twenty three.

My own discomfort rates as nothing beside this, but I did find it hard to wake to see my own breath in the bedroom and then heat water in pans before going into the cold bathroom for a wash, as I did all last winter. Now my boiler is repaired but I will still be collecting firewood because, in spite of the work and dirt entailed, I love fires  – and I should rather gather wood in the streets than pay any more than I can avoid to the power companies, currently profiteering off our human need to be warm.

When I came to live in an old house in Spitalfields, I certainly did not anticipate it could mean living in historic conditions too!


3 Responses leave one →
  1. January 2, 2010

    I’m right with you in spirit! Our central heating boiler does work but we can’t afford oil deliveries any more.Luckily we found a place that still sells Kerosene by the litre.We get 20 litres a week and make it last by using the open fire as back -up. Again we can’t afford to buy coal or wood or turf so we scan the beach everyday for driftwood.I’d love a chainsaw so that we could attack the many dead trees that was up regularly on the shore.Having a fire lit every day is a real treat, there is magic in the dance of the flames and the play of the shadows on the walls.
    Great blog by the way-like Arnie, I’ll be back!

  2. January 5, 2011

    having a fire is certainly a treat – i didnt realise that you could have open fires in london

  3. Stuart the Time Traveller permalink
    April 4, 2023

    Hi, time traveller from 2023 here again.

    I read some of your first few words about ‘feeling the pinch’ and wondered what it must be like for you now as the whole country find their fuel bills almost unaffordable! Eat or heat is the big question for so many!

    I also wonder if someone comes back in years to come and makes a more positive comment about the cost (or provision) of fuel…

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