Olivia Fane

The joy of cold houses

The joy of cold houses
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Will the news that energy bills could double usher in a little common sense when it comes to our obsession with central heating? One of Britain's biggest energy firms has been forced to apologise after suggesting that thrifty customers might want to put on a pair of socks before whacking on the thermostat. 

But we've only been namby-pamby about heating for a generation or two. Before then, we wrapped up warm, unashamed. Even when we’re told that Covid is far less transmissible with a bit of extra ventilation, you'd be thought mad for opening a window in the middle of winter. Our schools nowadays are like orchid greenhouses: the wall of heat greeting you as you walk in makes you wonder how anyone does any work at all. But open a window? Not on your life.

So yes, I am now going to show off: in the way that young people say they’re saving the planet by being vegan, I save the planet by only using our central heating when the pipes are on the verge of freezing. That is how virtuous I am.

This peculiar habit began over two decades ago as one of those sacrifices middle-class parents make to send their children to private school. My three elder sons had their boarding school education paid for by a childless uncle, leaving us with the two little ones to fund. To that end, we allotted ourselves a food budget of £60 a week, second-hand clothes only, home-hairdressing and one hell of a lot of making do and mending. And the easiest way of saving money was to learn to live in a cold house. After all, our ancestors managed perfectly well: why couldn’t we?

Both my husband and I grew up in large, freezing houses when winters were truly cold and we had to regularly chip the ice off bedroom windows in the morning. We would feel a sort of moral victory over the elements and a delight in whatever warmth we might find, perhaps crouching over a tiny fire or leaning up against an Aga. My youth was chilly and happy. So winter, thrust whatever you like at me — I will survive. 

Children are easy to indoctrinate too. We told them that people who lived in warm houses got colds (none of us ever did) and were slightly soft and puny, poor things. And we taught them that the real pleasure of food lay in the fact that it was hot: not only did it fill you, but it warmed you through and through. Wretched lot, most people never knew the delight of holding a hot bowl of soup in your hands and that tingly feeling you get when your fingers thaw.

After supper, it was time for bed. A hot bath was a siren call for pure luxury; bed was not a punishment for bad behaviour, but a necessity and a joy. Not once did I hear, ‘Oh mum, it’s only six o’clock, surely we don’t have to go to bed now?' We could barely wait to be in a large bed three duvets thick. My husband and I would wear woolly hats — gosh, how the heat leaves your head if you don’t: those Victorians in their nightcaps were not making a fashion statement.

We were lucky. Our windy valley might have been two degrees colder than our nearest town, but at least we were without the internet and social media. We would therefore never get found out in our ploy. We could even mock those who lived in an ‘ambient’ temperature with impunity — what could they know of genuine happiness? If they were warmed through all the time, what would they know of the pure joy of becoming warm?

The difficulty came when we played host to those who didn’t know the script. To our closest friends, we had no anxiety about inviting them, fully clothed, into our bed, for cups of tea, conversation and good films. But it was difficult to know what to do with everyone else. I was a Latin tutor among other things and children would come to my house. I would quickly usher their parents away from the front door before they noticed the frozen breath emanating from their dear child's mouth (when my own children were small the sight of this was more exciting than bubbles). To this day, I don’t know whether they let on to their parents quite what happened next. I have a cupboard for old coats and another for old blankets and they would be plied with both. But above all, I can thank my dear old dog Rick, who was covered in thick warm fur. I trained him to jump up onto the sofa between my pupil and myself when I said the words, ‘Do you want to learn some Latin, Rick?’

My five sons have now left home. It’s proved hard to persuade their partners that a cold house is a healthy house. But we’re all eco-warriors now: is there just a glimmer of hope that our children can re-learn to put on a few layers of clothes? Perhaps I can persuade them that wearing coats indoors is a small way to help to save the planet.

Written byOlivia Fane

Olivia Fane is a former Latin tutor and probation officer. She lives in West Sussex with her husband.

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