The weather in early December was poor with heavy rain, low cloud and strong whistling winds. As the evening temperatures dropped considerably it became clear we could avoid the fireplace no longer.
When MadAlex owned the place he used the fire extensively, but it drew badly. Our builder replaced much of the external chimney but was still unhappy about the construction of the fireplace itself. The upper horizontal plane is entirely level rather than sloped. As such there’s a real chance of smoke trickling back into the room. Having spent a considerable amount of time dealing with the smoke damage from MadAlex’s tenure we were reluctant to cause similar problems. As evening temperatures dropped we took to putting on another pair of socks, or a sweater, or both to avoid the fireplace conversation.
About a week before Christmas we gave in. One of the reasons for buying the house was the fireplace; if we were to use it over Christmas then we needed to bite the bullet and test it. Until that point we simply wouldn’t know if the remedial works had been enough to solve the long standing problems.
While the builders were onsite and busy inside the house we spent a huge amount of time trying to tame the garden. It had been allowed to grow at will. Did you know that pruning breaks the spirit of a tree? No, us neither. At the risk of having spirit-less trees we set to work with secaturs, loppers and even a gardening saw.
The bougainvillea grows so strongly, and had been left unchecked for so long, that it needed the most work. One of the two external staircases was blocked by the plant. As we chopped and cut and sawed we held back some of the larger pieces of wood intending to dry them for use on the fire. For almost a year they remained, propped neatly in the garage, drying out in preparation for our winter fires.
So, having decided to test the fire Ian was despatched down to the garage to turn the unweildy branches into manageable logs. That evening he tentatively prepared and lit the fire and we both watched nervously. It caught and burnt well, with only a tiny amount of smoke dribbling into the room. Happy that it burning well and that our fears had been foundless we carried on making dinner and the like.
However, within an hour the gentle trickle of smoke had increased and the living room was distinctly smokey. And the smoke … it had such a pungent smell to it and it was almost possible to taste it. Horrified at how the first open-fire situation had deteriorated Ian did his best to rake out the fire and we spent the remainder of the evening icy cold with the doors open, trying to disperse the smoke.
The following morning things were no better, in fact the smell seemed worse. For the entire day the doors and all the windows remained open, despite the chilly weather. We lit numerous candles, placed bowls of freshly sliced lemons in all the rooms and even resorted to placing a 50% vinegar/water solution in the middle of the fireplace to try and draw the smell out of the room. None of these made the slightest difference; the smell just hung in the air. In the end an old fashioned remedy came to the rescue; a pan full of vinegar kept on a low simmer for a couple of hours. It was almost as pungent as the smoke but was surprisingly effective at leaching the smoke from the air.
It wasn’t until the next day, when we could bear to be back in the house for any length of time, that we were able to do some research. Just why had the smoke been so pungent? The answer took a little tracking down; it seems that the sap of the bougainvillea is toxic. It’s most widely known as a skin irritant that causes dermatitis although there are numerous references online to people who had to seek medical treatment to deal with serious infections from embedded thorns or splinters. There are plenty of horror stories should you wish to go in search of them.
How bougainvillea behaves when burnt doesn’t seem to merit much discussion online, but we can report that it really, really isn’t a good idea. Now, perhaps you’ll excuse us so we can head outside and clear the garage of all that (now useless) stored wood.