(C) Copyright 2017-2022 Paul Mobbs & The Free Range Network; released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license (Version 4 International).
Created: June 2017.
Updated: January 2022.
Length: ~1,500 words.
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The Stick Fire Grate is (as people who like to quibble about words point out) technically not a ‘grate’ (where the fuel goes on top – though we have done that too!); it’s a ‘cooking trivet’, which separates your saucepan or kettle from the coals of the fire below. Just as the finer details of what you might call it, using the ‘grate’ is equally a practical and legal conundrum too.
Unlike the The Kelly Kettle (below-right), where the fire is completely contained, using the grate requires building a fire on the ground. This means you have to take a lot more care how you build the fire because of the damage this causes to the land!.
The law in England and Wales discourages the lighting of fires, but there is no specific criminal prohibition of it (in Scotland the ‘right to roam’ legislation is wholly different, and welcoming of well-tended fires).
The Countryside Code is itself contradictory on the issue. The only general prohibition is the lighting fires on access land (which practically means you lose your right of access, not that you are breaking the law by lighting a fire). In short, on anything but land on which you have the ‘right to roam’ (unless it's specifically designated public right of way) is off-limits to fire-lighting.
By ‘stick fire’ what we mean is any woody biomass which is 1cm (⅜”) or less in diameter; stuff you can snap with your fingers – no saw required.
In most areas of the country there’s a plentiful supply of fuel for the grate available, just lying on the ground to be picked up. That could be: Small wind-fall twigs from trees; the thatch that collects at the bottom of a hedge when it is flailed each year; or in late summer, it could be handfuls of waste straw gathered from a field and given a twist to form a ‘faggot’ (a word which evolved from the era of English history when everyone cooked on sticks!).
Sticks burn quickly. That means you get through quite a few. However, sticks are far more plentiful in the countryside than thick branches, logs or large lumps of wood – and take much less effort to collect. Most importantly, you can gather sticks without having to remove them from any standing tree or shrub. What’s more, while logs and branches are an important habitat for bugs and beetles, small sticks (less than 1cm/⅜” diameter) are not.
As sticks burn quickly, the heat produced changes quickly in response to how many sticks are put on the fire. This allows a certain level of heat control; certainly more quickly than with heavier cut/split logs.
To begin light a fire in the centre of the grate. When you have a bed of red embers to keep the sticks you add burning, you can start cooking. Controlling the heat you apply to one or both pans involves varying the amount of sticks burning under each/both pans:
Here are a few simple rules to ensure that your small stick fire doesn’t cause damage:
If you cook regularly on wood you begin to appreciate how fire is a ‘living’ thing; that you must learn to negotiate with by using different tactics. When you set-up you need to be aware of the wind – which will affect both the heat, and also the speed at which the fire burns. You might set-up a wind-break to protect the fire if the wind is too strong, perhaps weaving it from sticks and grasses.
You must also learn about wood, how to identify different trees, and the ‘heat’ value of trees and shrubs. Oak gives a good ‘clean’ heat; pines (and pine cones) or birch burn ferociously with some black smoke; hazel or ash burn more slowly, with clean smoke; shrubs like elder burn badly, producing rather noxious smoke.
Even if it is raining, provided that the dead sticks are not in contact with the ground, they will still be relatively dry inside – certainly dry enough to burn when heated over the embers. Inside the base of a hedge, or around the base of a tree/shrub where it is sheltered by the leaves above, you can usually find enough sticks and dry leaves to start the fire.
This is the other great advantage of the Stick-Fire Grate over a gas stove:
The mistake of those who try and restrict camp fires is that they assume they are likely to cause damage. In fact, to use a camp fire well you have to engage with nature – and take care over it. In reality, across England and Wales (it’s legal in Scotland), people regularly use camp fires, and camp overnight on land to which they have no right of access. The fact you don’t hear about that is that they were doing it ‘properly’, with little perceptible impact.
The problem is, by making all such activities unlawful in civil law, it prevents people openly engaging in such actions, allowing the skills and knowledge to be passed on, to allow anyone who wishes to do this ‘properly’. Hence their prohibition is more likely to lead to damage as people try and covertly use camp fires.
The fact people are discouraged from lighting fires when camping in England and Wales prevents people from learning how to be resilient in extreme conditions. But more than that, it’s denying people the freedom to exist naturally in the landscape, as natural living beings, purely because of England’s near-thousand-year attitude to people residing on the land. That attitude can no longer persist if we are, as a nation, going to survive the inevitable ecological collapse of the consumer society.