It’s been cold in our house for a few days now. More than a week in fact. Our boiler broke down the weekend before last. We live in a cob house which is bad news when you’re trying to put up shelves, but pretty good if your heating decides to take the night off. It took a day or so before we realised anything had was wrong, and five full days for the house to lose its heat completely. This from the same walls which create a cool indoor oasis during the summer heat. Our house is over 300 years old, and those mud slingers sure knew what they were doing back then.
But once it got cold, it stayed cold. Left with just one big log burner, an electric shower and a kettle, the house became a different place to live in. Soon the only places we were spending time were in the front room feeding the fire, or in bed, more or less fully clothed. Those of you with a more fruity imagination might suggest at this point that a little vigorous physical exercise might have been just the ticket, but one of the most unexpected and gloomy realisations was how quickly we forgot about doing anything other than trying to stay warm. Stuff started to pile up in the other rooms which were too cold to spend time in. Drifts of clothes lay unsorted, almost unseen. The kitchen floor gained a crunchy coating of grit and sand, too bleak and chilly to sweep. The tradition of spring cleaning now began to make perfect sense. In a cold house, nothing gets done that isn’t vital to survival. Sweeping the floor can wait until the sun starts to creep back in through the windows.
My mum told me that when she was a girl they would wake up on Winter mornings and run downstairs to get to the coal fire, leaving glasses of frozen water beside their beds. That seems hard to believe, but for our family it’s one generation away.
It sounds almost laughable, and i’m certainly being over dramatic, but for us, in small ways, even physical well-being was relegated to non-essential status. Medications lay untouched for days. Dry skin began to crack and bleed. I began to get a sense of how the cold, or at least the prolonged inability to get warm, can kill. Maybe not directly, but slowly, by shutting down our ability to cope, to care, even just for ourselves.
For millions of people in the UK, this cold is a reality right now, a reality which poses a direct threat. One in six families live in fuel poverty, having to spend more than 10% of their household income on heating to stay warm. These latest figures, note, are from 2008, since when fuel prices have risen, a recession has bitten, and unemployment has begun to rise. How many families are out there now, feeling just a little colder than is comfortable? Meanwhile, the Prime Minister had to intervene to stop the annual Cold Weather Payment to pensioners and poorer families being cut from £25 a week to just £8.50 during the recent spending review. Good for him, but it’s sad to reflect that whilst this decision will help some of the most vulnerable in our society to stay a little warmer this year, it was likely made for political reasons.
Our boiler has been replaced now, and the cost to us will be a Summer holiday this year and a little belt-tightening. Our little stay-at-home winter break is over, but for lots of other people on our street and in our village, the cold is here to stay.