Defying the darkness

The Danish idea of hygge – cosiness – might well be a noughties fad that’s come and gone but surely now is when we really need it. The idea of snuggling and nesting has never been so important. Recently, our clocks went back an hour, meaning it’s getting dark after five and there’s a sense that winter’s around the corner. That’s when my house changes shape – the downstairs that was gloriously cool in summer becomes uncomfortably chilly in winter, the upstairs that was too hot in summer becomes a welcoming warm retreat in winter. When we added this Jekyll-and-Hyde upstairs floor, we had to block the chimney downstairs and forego our wood-burning stove. It used to fill the house with a glorious warmth that no gas or electric heater can replicate, and probably added a smoky carcinogen or two, given its cast-iron body had warped over time and become a little leaky. In its place I took to lighting candles, trying to replicate the cosy flickering light that a burning log once gave us. And now I’m there again, lighting candles in the sitting room as I cook in the kitchen each evening so I look up from the stovetop and think: ah, how very hygge.

Photo thanks to Flickr/Marijasrats

I love candles. They’re the mood-setters of interior design, the finishing touch to a warm and inviting space. Once, when I was at Designers Guild, I visited a candle maker with the company buyer who wanted to check out a place she’d heard about in deepest Hackney. We arrived at a tatty little workshop next to an Orthodox church where they made an array of candles of all sizes, mainly for churches, from slender tapers to huge pillars. And while that was all very interesting, what I remember most were the legs of the woman who made the candles. They were totally encased in dripping wax, as though she was turning into a candle herself. It was hard to look anywhere else.

Some years later, when I ran a French shop in Fulham with a friend, we visited a candle maker in a shuttered and windblown village in Haute-Provence, one of those deserted places with an ancient stone washhouse and the mistral whistling along the streets. The candle maker worked in the sort of ancient atelier I’d only seen in magazines, all chestnut wood shelving filled with blocks of coloured beeswax and tallow, everything unchanged for a century or more. It felt like an alchemist’s den, creating fire from fat.

Later again, I was working for a company selling gorgeous Indian antiquities, and we had church candles in the shop as a kind of while-you’re-here purchase. It was the beginning of that candle moment, when people filled empty fireplaces with creamy candles and pine cones, and everyone had at least three in the bathroom. I remember how actor Pierce Brosnan would stride in to quickly grab an assortment, all pouty and gruff as though he was embarrassed to be observed showing his sensitive side. And Annie Lennox, in a tailored tweedy jacket, would carefully select an armful before retreating to her Range Rover, the very model of a country lady. Regardless of fame, I don’t think anyone ever left without a candle.

Now it’s just me with a pack of Ikea tealights, some flickering in glass jars on the deck, a couple on the coffee table inside. I’ve got some beautiful beeswax candles that I light when I really need the whiff of antiquity and the steady light of tradition. I like scented candles, too, so long as they’re subtle, but Anthony poo-poohs them, even when I say they use natural oils. Last night in my office I lit the remains of a Gardenia candle (Zara Home, cheap and cheerful) and oh, it was glorious. Fake scent, maybe, but hygge through and through.

Are you a candle lover?



Categories: Design, memoir, TravelTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Colin if you can keep Ikea tealights going for a full burn, iI’ll buy you a beer. But, yes. I love candles. At the Ekka, they sold bees wax candles which still bring a tear to my eye as a reminder of the cosiness of my childhood bedroom. Reading books, comics, and anything else I could get my hands on, it is evocative. Like dining at a table, I fear it is something that is almost lost.

    • I reckon you owe me that beer… I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with them. Proper beeswax candles cost a bit – I get mine from Queen B in an eco shop – and you’re right, they’re so evocative. How lovely you read by candlelight! Next you’ll be telling me you eat at a table…

  2. Absolutely love candles, and the whole cozy indoors thing. Hate scented ones though, unless extremely subtle or maybe in a spa where I’m about to get a massage. 🤲 Mostly they go to my head or conflict with something I’m eating or drinking. Have trouble sourcing the really nice ones though. And those eponymous Ikea tealights! Cheap and cheerful but mine only ever burn for a little while before sputtering and going out.

    • I’m thinking of renaming myself Brother Colin of the Blessed Ikea Tealight, given I seem to have no issues with them not burning to the end… I totally get the scented issue. Most are vile but there are some that perfume the air in the lightest way. Absolutely nothing beats good beeswax, though.

  3. Not particularly – though, having said that, no celebration in this house is complete without candles, either on the cake or the dining table.
    But what I did not know is that you, my Darling, as so keen on candles.
    Just when you think you know everything about a person …
    Lovely, thoughtful, scented, warm post. Thank you.

  4. I 🤍🤍🤍 candles. Didn’t know you did too! Scented or not, love them all. Recently I was given a ‘Feu de bois’ scented candle. Waiting for winter to settle in before lighting it. Will let you know about it.

    • Ooh, Feu de Bois always sounds gorgeous, let me know if it lives up to its promise… I remember passing the Diptyque shop in Saint-Germain and knowing then that nowhere is possibly as stylish as Paris!

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