Frost, but not in May

Having been off for over a week now lounging about recovering, I have masses of stuff charging about in my head, and think it's best some of it is offloaded soon.

The lounging about was due to my having been much more tired than I thought I was going to be after my nose op. The op itself went well. The only alarming thing was a tendency to sneezing fits, which, when the inside of your nose is held together by whatever is the modern day equivalent of catgut, are worrying. My surgeon could obviously teach Matron a thing or two about good strong sewing, as I am still in one piece. It's just as well I was not the one doing the sewing: needlework is not one of my skills, and it was the exam I failed most spectacularly in my school career (26%).

But back to the frost. This week fuel prices have shot up enormously. During previous increases, husband and I have talked about what we might do: turn heating off in the bedrooms; rely on the woodburner; strap ourselves to the Aga. The difference is that this time we really mean it.

Thinking about it, it's not that long ago that central heating over the whole house became normal. I was born in the 1960s, and it wasn't until I was just about to leave home in 1980 that my parents had full central heating. Before this, we had huge brown storage heaters, which sat in most of the rooms; great heavy useless toads, sulkingly keeping any warmth they'd generated during the night to themselves. They had stern messages on forbidding us from putting anything on them; not, we thought because this would stop any warmth from coming out: it was far more likely the heaters would suck in and destroy anything left on them. That was the sort of beast they were.

So, we used to retreat in winter. Most of the house was unused, and we would hole up during the day in one room, which had a solid fuel boiler, and just about enough room for a sofa and a table. And there we stayed until the weather finally warmed, surrounded by the 1970s splendour of a glass fibre brown carpet, our lovely sofa: a virulently green and yellow thing my father's ex-wife had chucked out, and curtains in fetching blocks of ochre and orange.

There was not a lot of choice about family togetherness then: we scrapped and fought, did homework; painted, read but unless things became intolerable we put up with each other as it was better than facing the freezing wastes of the rest of the house.

The house was achingly cold in winter. I used to have six blankets and two quilts on my bed. Baths were interesting in a bathroom with a huge 1930s cast iron bath which our hopelessly inadequate water heater could spittingly manage to cover to a 2 inch depth, while the temperature of the rest of the room was affected not at all by one of those wall mounted radiant heaters which look as if they're doing a decent job, but aren't. We had ice pictures on the inside of the windows all the time (though even this chilliness wasn't as bad as one of my student houses in Sheffield: my hot water bottle froze, and it was still in the bed with me). But ice pictures were beautiful: they were something we looked forward to in winter.

Heat, or the lack of it, had its place in literature. One description I remember with particular fondness is from Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse. During the bitingly cold journey to Moonacre:

"Maria clasped her hands sightly inside her muff, and Miss Heliotrope clasped hers under her cloak, and they set their teeth and endured."

Which is a far cry from the heated luxury we travel in now.

"...the fireplace was the tinest she had ever seen, deeply recessed in the wall It was big enough for the fire of pine-cones and apple wood that burned in it, filing the room with fragrance.

But when Maria started to explore her room she found that it was not without luxuries. Over the fireplace was a shelf, and on it stood a blue wooden box filled with dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on them, in case she should feel hungry between meals. And beside the fireplace stood a big basket filled with more logs and pine-cones - enough to keep her fire burning all through the night."

To me, as a child whose bedroom fire was never lighted (but neither was anyone's: we all shared the spartan chill), this was the ultimate in luxury. I absolutely knew how marvellous it would be to come into your bedroom; not just a downstairs room, but your bedroom, and find it warm, warm all the time, and with provision to keep it that way.

The sort of biting winter cold in Keats' The Eve of St Agnes certainly meant something to me when I read the poem for the first time for A level. We were lucky enough to be able to afford to heat at least one room, but I could imagine easily what it would be like for the upstairs chill to be permanent, and everywhere.

"St Agnes' Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seemed taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith."

Cold doesn't make much of an appearance in modern literature unless it's a travel book and the chill is one reason why you went there in the first place, or unless disaster has befallen you. So, I suppose with the coming cold, we will at least have a much keener appreciation of Mrs Norris' witchiness in keeping Fanny Price's room at Mansfield Park unheated, and maybe books yet to be written will have more lyrical descriptions of being warm, and the horror of grinding cold about which you can do very little.


Juliet said…
Hey, good to have you back. Glad the op went well. And what a great offload! Seems like another era, we've become so soft. But I remember when frost pictures on the *inside* of the windows was the norm in children's bedrooms in the winter. We would dress in front of an electric convector heater which was switched on for all of half an hour in the mornings. I'd pull on some underwear and then plunge back into bed to recover and warm up before venturing out again to pull on some tights. Solid fuel boiler in kitchen, radiators in downstairs rooms only. I simply can't imagine my kids putting up with it, but I suspect it will soon have to become the norm once again. (I can't say with hindsight that such spartan living did us all good, though - I seemed to spend long tracts of every winter in bed with ear infections!)
mokey said…
I marvel at my northern hemisphere friends' descriptions of winter, I must say! Your description is far more eloquent than my New York friend's, who takes great delight in assuring people that "You don't know winter 'til the snot has frozen in your nose", LOL!!
Me - I deal with hideously melting summer temperatures here in Australia. My only equivalent anecdote happened when we drove north to a place called Exmouth one summer (where summer temperatures hit 50 degrees C (122F, seriously!), and the airconditioner broke in our 20 year old Range Rover. By the end of the trip the adhesive that kept the fabric glued to the ceiling of the car had melted and the whole lot hung down brushing our heads!
Anonymous said…

I loved reading your blog entry!! It also made me smile - we live in a terraced cottage and have a solid fuel esse (scottish rayburn) in our kitchen which is our only cooker, heats our water and runs the radiators in all of our four bedrooms. Solid fuel being what it is (1) unpredictable, and (2) costly ..... the reality in winter is freezing rooms!!! We keep the esse ticking over with scrounged wood during the day - stick a couple of buckets of coal on aroudn 4pm to cook with - this means that the esse gets lovely and hot - we have hot rooms etc etc. But, by the time we all go to bed the heaters have gone cold. I can always judge the outside temperature by how frozen my nose is in the morning and its amazing how many layers one can wear in bed at night not to mention duvets and blankets. In really cold weather my children sleep in a sleeping bag with a duvet on top and I keep reminding them that its "healthy" (not too sure why) to have unheated bedrooms!!! Ali
Jane Badger said…
Juliet - I remember the ear infections too. Olive oil and Auralgicin were my constant companions in the winter. I grew out of those only to develop a nice line in chest infections. I can't imagine my children being particularly stoical about the cold either, but I'm not sure they'll have much choice!

Mokey - I think 50 degree heat would finish me off entirely. I loved your story about the Range Rover and can just imagine you driving along, festooned with car upholstery.

Ali - no, I'm not quite sure why it's healthy to have unheated bedrooms either but it's something I've started telling my children! I don't envy you at all having to feed your Esse every day, but it sounds a lot more sustainable than our Aga, which is gas. Easy, but worrying. I wonder if there'll be a rush of Agas being converted from gas/elec to solid fuel, rather than the other way round?
Unknown said…
Now I grew up in the 70's in centrally heated houses that were warm enough. However, since leaving home, I've dealt with living in near-freezing conditions, including ice on the inside of my bedroom window.

To heat my flat, I was relying on plug-in electric heaters in the bedrooms and living room - I used the oven to warm the kitchen and there was no heating at all in the bathroom. And being an attic, this place is *cold* in the winter. Until a few years ago, it had rattley sash windows too.
After contracting the council, who declared the lack of heat a health hazard, I've got partial heating. Fan heaters in the kitchen and bathroom, and storage heaters in the other rooms. My landlord tried to save money by only installing two heaters but the council made him put heaters in all the room. Which must have cost almost as much as central heating, which would have been nicer.
The heaters still don't have proper timers on, so need to get that sorted if possible.
Jane Badger said…
Gillian - I just hope storage heaters have improved since I knew them. Please tell me they have!
Unknown said…

I haven't used the storage heaters yet, but info seems to be that they're better than they were. I surely hope so.

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