slow living: build a bonfire


Technically it’s still a month or so off traditional British bonfire season, but this time of year it’s still warm enough to be tempted outdoors for an early sunset. What is it about a bonfire that is so pleasurable to watch? We have an open fire at home most nights, but the novelty of flickering flames and woodsmoke still hasn’t worn off for any of us.

We pack a rucksack with the essentials: matches, water, old newspapers, a blanket, R’s folding saw, half a bottle of red wine & a couple of enamel mugs, and head to the lake.

I say lake, but in our case it’s really more of a reservoir – the man-made variety, with sandy, silty sides. This one has an old farm sunken at the bottom of its murky depths, a small pine forest along its edge.

It’s immediately colder by the water, and windier too. I can tell R is beginning to feel a bit dubious about spending his Sunday evening out here, so I set about gathering rocks to make a stone circle, like I’ve seen in films and books. I know once he sees the orange glow, his caveman instinct will kick in & he won’t be able to resist. &, of course he doesn’t – but strangely we found Orla, too, was completely drawn to it – far more than she ever is at home. We were sure to hold a hand at all times & talked a lot about the consequences of getting too close, but she was completely adamant that she was going to poke it. In the end we gave her a long stick and lots of supervision, and hoped for the best. For all it was terrifying, it felt right, too. As she waved it around to make shapes in the night sky, it occurred to me that this probably builds better respect for fire than the annual splash of fireworks and sparklers on November 5th. It felt strangely timeless.

How to build a beach bonfire

Step 1: Make a circle of large rocks to block out the wind and stop your fire from spreading. Dig down in the centre a little if necessary.

Step 2. Make a small mound of kindling – small dry twigs, paper, pine cones and very dry leaves – in the centre of your pit.

Step 3. Layer thicker sticks on top of this to form a low pyramid-shaped cage around the kindling. Aim for 1cm gaps between sticks for air flow.

Step 4: Drop a lit match or two into your kindling nest. Gently encourage the mound to take, adjusting your rocks as necessary to keep the wind out from the baby flames.

Step 5: Once the fire is burning well, begin to add gradually thicker logs as needed. If they’re long enough, lay them so one end sits on top of the rocks and one end in the fire; as it burns away, simply push the log further into the flames.

Step 6: Before you go, obviously ensure the fire is completely extinguished and the embers are cool enough to touch. Douse in water and wet sand as necessary.



If you want to cook over your fire, build it in a pyramid shape to make a concentrated heat point in the centre. If it’s just to keep warm, a flatter shape is better.

Focus on warmth more than size. There’s a (supposedly) Native American saying along the lines of ‘Indian builds small fire and stays warm; white man builds large fire and stays warm collecting firewood”.

Stay within the law, and, of course, be careful – we kept a big bottle of water (and, uh, a huge reservoir) handy, and R was so sensible he got a special song (‘I’m the firestarter; responsible firestarter‘. Yes, I’m hilarious.).

Do you have somewhere to head for an outdoor fire when the urge hits? Got any tips or campfire recipes you can share?