Dylan sang in 1964 – The Times They Are A-Changin’. As we come to terms with winter in the freezer, the rising cost of staying warm both to the consumer and the environment, and a new and looming threat over our fuel security, there is only one way to go. Perhaps it is time to tap into our most primitive and elemental instincts for survival and become cavemen and women again and start thinking about a nice roaring fire, 21st Century style.
The good news is that things have moved on a bit since our ancestor’s first rubbed two sticks together. Everyone is buying beautiful wood burning stoves from iconic British companies such as AJ Wells under the brand Charnwood.
Charnwood is a British manufacturing success story. Today the company is based in a purpose built plant in Newport, on the Isle of Wight. But its roots and heritage firmly belong in Niton, a craggy coastal village, partly veiled by the Undercliff on the south side of the island, in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Niton is a place characterised by fertile, agricultural downland and hill farms clinging to awe-inspiring cathedral cliffs.
From small beginnings, the company has become a world leader in creating an authentic, real fire experience for people who no longer have the time to carefully make an open fire from kindling and bits of origami newspaper as my mother once did when I was a small child. A Charnwood is a state of the art wood burner with a patented airflow system to trap heat in the room – all wrapped up in a functional and rather mesmerizing vitreous enamel, steel and glass chamber. The company’s latest innovation is the Cove 2 Smoke Reduction – featuring a double combustion chamber which produces virtually no smoke and means it will soon be taking pride of place in homes in smoke control zones in the centre of our cities. The fire is back.
I like the idea of rediscovering the fire as the heart of our homes. After all, I haven’t noticed that it’s usurper, my whiz-bang television has either the ability to keep me warm when it is minus six outside, or enthralled anymore, except when Jeremy Paxman plays grand inquisitor with Lord Mandelson!
The modern incarnation of the wood burner is a seductive thing. It can go virtually anywhere in the home, all you need is a chimney or an outside wall for a flue. There is also something rather democratic about it’s clean, functional good looks. It’s like wearing denim. A Charnwood would look good in a palace, or a cute two up two down terrace; its appeal is universal.
Of course, anything this good doesn’t come cheap. The starting price is £587 for a compact wood burner suitable for a small house or flat, rising to £3290 for the largest state-of-the art model which captures otherwise ‘lost’ heat in the flue to heat domestic hot water. But a wood burner is for life, it’s an investment. Charnwood guarantee their models for thirty years and I can happily attest that one of its earliest models is still merrily working away at my favourite pub The Taverners, in Godshill, on the Isle of Wight.
Even better, there is another positive side effect to ownership of a wood burner. I could sit and gaze at the flames dancing through the door of the Island – a sleek, compact model available in clotted cream for hours; it is better than meditating and induces a dreamy feeling of blissful contentment.
It seems I am not alone. Sales of wood burning stoves have increased by three hundred percent in two years, according to a news report in The Daily Telegraph last week. The rush to find a cost effective way of heating our homes has become a stampede. Plus there is far greater awareness of the effects of global warming, and we are all looking for inspiring ways to be greener.
If the wood burner is becoming the centre of the home in the 21st century – this comes as no surprise to Ced Wells, a thoughtful man and the highly talented Creative Director at Charnwood. Ced is the grandson of the founder of the company and his flair for photography and visual communication has helped to propel the brand on to the editorial pages of influential magazine such as: Elle Decoration, Country Living and Coast.
“My grandfather Alfred Wells moved back to island in 1972 and set up an engineering firm with his two sons, Alastair and, my father, John. I guess you could say that Alfred was quite eccentric and clever. The company became experts in welding and they repaired tractors and made fire escapes for hotels on the island. Then Dutch elm disease hit the country and this coincided with the oil crisis of the late seventies. So the trio came up with the idea of making a small, domestic version of the industrial stoves that were imported from Scandinavia. These stoves were very large and cumbersome, and not the sort of thing you would have ever aspired to put in your front room.”
Ced’s grandfather took his prototype stove to a small agricultural fair and was amazed when a man came over and placed an order for twenty stoves. ” What he did brilliantly at the time, was to come up with a stove which could fit into a typical British fireplace, which is smaller than its Scandinavian counterpart. Then he added some aesthetic appeal and it just snowballed from there.”
Now as the company approaches its fortieth year in 2012, there is a Queen’s Award for Export, one hundred and seventy employees and a full order book. “Last year was our most successful year ever. We had six months waiting lists for some models, because we simply couldn’t keep up with demand. It’s funny. We’ve gone from three men and a shed to hundred and seventy people; and people are most important asset.”
While Ced is a modest man and very much a creative whiz at heart, he attributes the remarkable success of his family company to three important attributes: firstly, the company is very much a family business and new and innovative ideas come from Ced, his uncles, his three brothers, and assorted cousins who represent the third generation. “When I joined the company the stoves were aimed at people with a farmhouse or a country cottage; then we brought out the Island, a model that looks very retro now, but at the time it was a huge departure and a great success.”
Secondly, the company champions ethical business. After winning a grant from the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) to study design anywhere in the world, Ced chose Cambodia and went off on a great adventure that included setting up a craft project in a local village. The project provides stable employment for fifty local people and produces the beautiful, tactile and ethically made basket wear, tiles and accessories, which are hugely popular with Charnwood customers. Finally, the last attribute is about a passion for sustainability and a desire to live in harmony with nature. Ced sums it up very well. ” It might sound a bit over the top, but when I put a wood burner into the cottage I had been renovating in Ventnor, my life changed. Suddenly, there was a focal point to my home, and it wasn’t the television, because I can’t get a reception at the foot of the downs! It was just beautiful to watch the flames dance around the room, and I never felt lonely, even in the depths of winter. I would come home to a house that had a focal point and it always felt warm and cosy. Now my wife Marie and I sit by the fire and play scrabble and there’s something of the modern cave man and woman about it all – we’ve got our fire and it sustains us, and everything is alright with the world.”
AJ Wells & Sons
Bishops Way, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 5WS
Over 150 stockists nationwide – call 01983 537780 or www.charnwood.com