Today I am living in hope. The men are installing our new central heating boiler. The old one finally died more than a month ago, and although it may be May, the Yorkshire spring has been more than brisk.
I have had to get used to Being Cold. When I am cold something in me diminishes and all I can think about is Not Wanting To Be Cold, which has given me my the subject for this History Girls post.
One afternoon I saw a ghost. Admittedly, it was a ghost in my mind. I found myself wandering the house still wearing the coat from when I’d come back from shopping three hours before. The ghost that appeared in my mind was my own grandmother, who often wore her coat indoors. Suddenly, in my icy home, I understood why. She’d been keeping in the warmth.
Being comfortably warm is a modern experience, a luxury accomplished by merely the flick of a switch. It isn’t a sensation shared by everyone or everywhere, even now. Heat is, in truth, costly and hard to come by but Being Warm is central to the idea of people and community.
Our childhood images of early man – ignoring those “hunting a mammoth with spears and fiery torches” scenes – is likely to be a group of skin-clad people gathered around a blazing fire, both for safety and for heat.
The remains of ancient homes show they were built around the hearth-stone and the fire which would, if possible, be kept burning all the time. Fuel for the flames, whether wood, peat, dung or coal, was always needed to be collected. A possibly risky task when it took you away from your village alone.
The Orange Tree, a favourite tale for telling, describes how the young girl, having finished an unfair burden of tasks, sets off to gather firewood alone. She arrives late so all the fallen branches have been collected by others and must return to face her stepmother’s wrath. I find it hard to tell this section of the tale without, at the back of my mind, remembering the girls and women living in regions dominated by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
There is always the matter of to whom the fuel belongs. In England, Magna Carta records the right of estover, which gives a man the right to collect wood for his personal needs. The lord of the land could also allow dead wood to be collected on his land by, as the saying goes, hook or by crook, assumed to mean the reapers bill-hook or by shepherd’s crook.
The Roman centuries may have brought plumbing and heating, but an old way of keeping warm was to staying close to other people. In the past it was usual for several people to sleep together, whether in a round-house or a castle hall or a cottage or the servant’s bed-chamber, sometimes with guests or extra people hopping in alongside.
I imagine that some people might welcome a favoured dog or two, especially if it was a lord in his less-crowded bed, despite all its bedcovers and bed-curtains. Further down the social scale, a cow and donkey stabled at the lower end of the croft would give warmth to the humans, who slept at the higher end to protect themselves from stable end seepage.
Cold makes us value plenty of clothing, Although central heating now allows us to wander around wearing very little, we are often amazed by the layers of garments people wore in the past. I was certainly glad to pull on extra items.
My house is quite a large old-fashioned stone house, built in the 1920’s and over this last month it has sometimes been warmer outside than inside. There is, I am informed by him who knows a word for this phenomena: hysteresis: the thick stone makes the house hard to warm up when it is cold but also makes it slow to cool down when it is warm. We had just ended up in the wrong part of the equation. Was it one of the Mitford sisters who complained that English country houses were always, always freezing?
If so, no wonder we had centuries of night-clothes & night-caps, layers of undergowns and overgowns, petticoats and padded jackets. No wonder poorer people just slept in their already warm clothes. No wonder it was better to sleep sitting up beside the fire than in a chilly bed.
The hearth fires grew grander too. Once we were content with holes in the roof. Then we had chimneys. There is an impressive chimney in the warming room at Fountains Abbey, where you can stand in the fireplace and stare straight up towards the sky. Alas for the monks, the warmth of the warming room was the only hearth in the abbey and their brief time beside it was because it was their turn to be bled. I am not sure that knowing the huge chimney also warmed the important document room above would have felt consoling.
In late Tudor and Jacobean times, brick replaced stone, enabling those wonderful twisted creations outside, while inside the chimney-piece itself burgeoned into a prestigious structure that included heraldic beasts and mythical characters and coats of arms and so on: the chimney-piece as prestige.
No matter how fine, the work of the home fires would never have let up. There was always the dust and the soot to cope with, from the blackened roof-ceiling of the hall-house to the invisible maids-of-all-drudgery who carried scuttles of coal and laid the Victorian’s fires. Not to mention those who earned from it, like the master-sweeps with their under-sized climbing boys.
Learning how to light and keep a fire going has been an essential skill, seen as important and manly enough for Baden Powell to want it taught to cub scouts. Is it still, I wonder? Do children now know how to light fires – with the cub’s allowance of two matches? – or does “health and safety” triumph?
I will soon have a gently purring boiler but fire has always been a dangerous friend. Hearths need damping down at night. You had to watch what you left drying on fireguards. Women who sat too long and close to the fire ended up with shins scorched and mottled by the flames and worse. There was also the exciting trick of holding a large sheet of newspaper across the fireplace, creating a kind of suction that would “bleaze up” the fire - and blaze up the paper as well if held there a second too long.
Fire is something we know we should not take for granted, but here in the west, many of us take heat for granted. Heat gusts from open shop doorways, even in winter. Adverts parade people in thin or minimal clothing. All we have to do is flick a switch, and it’s instant.
Until, like this last month - and maybe in times to come - it isn’t.
A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury) out in paperback now.