All fired up for outdoor living

By Catherine Groenestein

STYLISH folk install jacuzzis and gorgeously tiled pools when they wish to indulge in garden living, but they generally don’t live somewhere where the term ‘garden’ is a euphemism worthy of a real estate agent’s spiel.
‘Garden’ is reminiscent of velvet turf surrounded by neatly-trimmed natives and perfect paving, a place where water fixtures and features blend with the planting and exude their owners’ excellent taste.
It’s not like that where I live. Our backyard can be termed a ‘garden’ in the same way that someone who dies violently in a car smash has ‘passed away’.
Our lawn, only recently tamed by a fence, still thinks it’s a paddock, and grows at high-milk solids-producing speed, so the ride-on mower has trouble keeping up. (The mower also conveniently manures the grass when he’s not at pony club).
To prepare the place for an onslaught of relatives arriving for Christmas, the trusty Useful Bloke, or UB, spent some hours slashing his way with a weed eater through the clumps left behind by the ride-on mower, raking up the clippings (we could have baled them) and then running a proper lawn mower over the stubble, thus bringing it down to almost lawn-like dimensions, so camping children wouldn’t get lost.
Indoors, we festooned the walls and a tree with decorations, baked and tidied and dragged out extra beds.
A fabulous whirl of festive eating, entertaining and making merry with said rellies followed, but as Christmas disappeared into the past, work loomed closer and we felt in need of relaxation.
As the departure of the rellies meant potential babysitters had gone, the unwinding sadly wasn’t to be at a beach somewhere, childless and fancy-free.
A lovely outdoor bath, heated for free by a fire, was just what we needed.
Luckily, there was a cast-off bath lying in a corner of the ‘garden’, awaiting transformation.
I’d got the idea months ago.
Setting up a fire bath sounded easy enough.

You simply find an old cast iron bath, fill it, dig a hole underneath it and light a fire. The water warms up and in you hop to enjoy a soothing soak whilst gazing at the stars.
"Stop," said the UB, "this must be done properly. A bath is very heavy and we must make it stable so it won’t tip. And what about the smoke – it must have a chimney up which to swirl."
"Oh," I said.
The old bath lay among the weeds for many moons while we periodically pondered the practicalities of the project.
Last week, a compromise was reached.
"Look," said I, "Forgo your concreting, safety signage and hazard warning tape for now. Forsooth, let us first see if it works, then you may labour to set it in concrete."
So we did. A site was selected in a corner with a lovely mountain view and a tin fence for shelter from the south.
The bath, long enough to fit a Tall Black comfortably, was levelled up with the help of some slabs of broken concrete. While the UB dug out the hole for the fire, I propped an old clay tile under the plughole to pipe the bath water under the fence into the ride-on mower’s paddock. We lugged rustic red bricks from a shed and stacked them up to make a chimney base, with a length of chimney pipe from an old wood burner set in the top. A quaint brass plug was procured to fit the plughole, and we filled the bath with the garden hose.
The test firing was carried out on a grey day with a wild wind whipping the flames.
While the UB took a carload of chattering children to the movies, I’d nobly stayed home to stoke the fire.
Smoke trickled out all of the nooks and crannies between the bricks and bath, but a lot of it went up the chimney.
It took some hours to heat the bath of water to a comfortable number of degrees, with periodical lifting of the corrugated iron lid to feel the water getting warmer.
After much anticipation, I gathered up a book, towel and cup of tea, slid off the lid and slipped into the toasty water.
You have to sit on a thick, folded bathmat to cushion tender body parts from the fiery iron, but the water stays hot for ages. I’d just got out, pink and wrinkled, when home came the family.
The eight-year-old slithered happily into the water and pronounced this bath well worth the effort (ours).
After some hesitation about the sense of bathing with flames only millimetres from her behind, the teenager climbed gingerly in, and deemed it a success.
"Have we got any marshmallows to toast while I’m in here?"
Two days later, we pulled the chimney apart and glued all the bricks in place with mortar. Doing this, I found, is a lot like icing and decorating a cake, except you’re not tempted to lick the bowl.
The UB found some timber in the shed and made a perfect ‘deck’ beside the bath while I fed the horde of hungry youths milling about the place. He decided to leave the concreting until another day.
After all that manual labour, the second bath soak was extra pleasant.
We’ve decided that our place is best seen at night from in a bath, with a roof of stars, wafts of wood smoke, and a cloak of darkness to hide the missing garden.

- Stratford Press

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