A seat at the fireside
"Finally he lit his pipe, and sitting in the inglenook of the old village inn he talked slowly and at random about his case, rather as one who thinks aloud than as one who makes a considered statement."
- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear
Sherlock Holmes knew the value of comfort as well as hardship - from the luxury of his sitting room, complete with pipe, cocaine and violin, to the harsh weather on Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Trust him, then, to find the snuggest place in the inn when relaxing.
The word inglenook has one meaning, with a variety of styles - in all cases, it's a seat by the fire, although the setting and exact nature are variable. At its simplest, it is a wooden seat adjacent to the hearth, or a settle built against the sides of the fireplace. At its most elaborate, (and especially the case with the grander fireplaces) it was almost a small room by itself, a couple of padded seats nestled in the recess next to the chimney breast. Given the size of some 17th and 18th century European fireplaces, an inglenook could be a fair size - certainly enough for a traveller with a tale to tell, and a small and attentive audience.
The word is of Scottish origin, ingle being a fire burning on a hearth (from Gaelic and Irish aingeali, and possibly via Latin, igniculusi) - a nook is a small space. In the colder climates of Scotland, there would be a need for this word, and the associated furniture, not to mention the mulled ale or wine needed to take the chill from the bones at the end of a hard day.
Warm the cockles of your heart
As chimney-breasts and hearths shrank in size, due to improved flue technology, so the inglenook changed too. Instead of the six-foot-wide edifices of the 17th century, we now have more modest fireplaces.
That said, the inglenook retained its popularity - after all, why waste the heat from the chimney itself? A large brick or stone fireplace will retain heat long after the fire has cycled through embers to ash, and a couple of benches alongside are a comfort zone ideal for that end-of-day drink, whether tea, whiskey or beer. Close to the source of the warmth, but out of reach of the burning heat to the front, and not as worried about stray sparks in one's deerstalker. As the Scots themselves would say, "Lang may yer lum reek".
The word has dropped out of use in recent years, as we have come to rely on central heating. No more cosy fireside chats, snuggled in the warming glow of embers, no more warm evenings in the pub, with the unwalked dog at our feet, and a warming winter brew in our hands. Now our feasting is done to the cold light of the television set, and next to a radiator or heating duct. I bet Conan Doyle is turning in his grave.
unperson says re inglenook: We still use the term Inglenook, it's just that now it refers to cheap wine... I guess it can probably still help warm you up. :-/