When we were first moving to England, now over 3 years ago (yes, wow!), they asked us what we wanted in our house. Having been in and out of Houston, Texas for many years, the first thing we asked for was air conditioning. That request drew many a laugh from the various real estate agents, leasing agents, and human resources people dealing with our move “across the pond”. We did know, through years of television and movie conditioning, that England was probably cold and damp and rainy but we just assumed it would be hot on occasion too. The cold and damp far outweighs the warm and sunny or hot.
So obviously we didn’t get a house with air conditioning. There are some available but well beyond our price means and few and far between. We actually found our house by ourselves. We got three days with an agent who drove us furiously around burrow and dale and roundabouts to various houses in one village or town or another with us usually having no clue where we were in relation to my husband’s job or in relation to anything. We found a house on a hill in a lovely neighborhood and a great back garden and fantastic master bedroom and said we wanted this house. Well, took two weeks with the owner putting more and more obstacles in our way until we said forget it and had about 2 weeks left on our allotted time (before our furniture and household goods arrived via sea) to now find a house. We found this one in the paper and fell in love with it immediately. It backs up to a golf course down a long driveway and few neighbors. Not the best kitchen I wanted but private and enough room, we thought, no air conditioner – ha ha – but nice, really, really nice. And luckily, the owner was willing to get out in time for our shipment to arrive.
So we moved into the house and we are still here. Some winters we have been dealing with a really flaky boiler which we have learned is the British equivalent of a furnace. In the states, furnaces are huge things that take up an entire closet and lots of tubing and duct work to take the heat through the house and blow hot air out grates in the floor or wall or ceiling. Here the boiler is this small box that sits on the wall and runs furiously in the winter. I’m sure there must be other parts to it in various walls or the attic (loft) but my focus is on this small box and the blinking lights. When the lights are on, we have heat and when they are blinking, we are in trouble.
Two winters we have been in trouble. Last winter, during the coldest part of the winter, we had blinking lights and the blasted thing was out for several days. Odd – to us – the automotive rescue service – their automobile association – AA – came by to bring us 4 small electric heaters which work amazingly well and could heat up a whole room to unbearable levels in a couple of hours. The boiler worked for a few weeks and then, in another very cold week, it started the blinking lights again. This time, my husband was able to look inside and attach the small hose that had come undone. Now we automatically check this hose whenever we get the blinky lights and it seems to fix it most of the time.
This winter the fan went out. We had a few days of awful whirling noises and then blinking lights and no heat. Luckily we have those 4 electric heaters. I just have to watch them to ensure the cats don’t sit too close to them. Only took a couple of days to fix it this time but we didn’t get cold due to the electric heaters. Our electric bill was sky high for that month but we were warm.
So we have gotten used to this radiator/boiler system which works quite well. In most of our rooms, there is at least one radiator and we have to turn it down considerably to keep the room warm but not overly hot. The cats know which radiators are running and that’s usually where we can find them, curled up in front of one of the working radiators.
I was talking to some English friends about the various differences between heating and air conditioning between here and the states and learned, to my amazement, that there are still many homes in England that exist without a boiler, furnace, radiator, or any means of heating other than the stove. I’d heard of “cold water flats” and suddenly it made sense. I didn’t know they still existed but apparently they do and aren’t that uncommon. I know of at least 4 families with no source of heat other than a fireplace in one or two rooms and a stove in the kitchen. One family I know uses electric heaters exclusively. My friend complains about their electric bill – but they haven’t taken any steps to put in radiators or a boiler so I guess they are happy enough with their circumstances.
The old English standard stove – the Aga – was made for running constantly, year in and year out, and kept the kitchen boiling hot in summer and toasty warm in winter. That stove makes sense if it is your only source of heat. My friends were telling me how they gauge what clothes to wear by whether there is ice on the inside of their windows in the morning. Ice on the inside!!! My gosh. I don’t think I’ve lived anywhere quite so cold since I was a child and actually had an outhouse for use rather than indoor plumbing. I hated to go to the bathroom in the winter.
So all the progress in the world and there are still people with no heat – and they live just fine that way and have adapted to it. My one set of friends would no sooner leave their home than they would fly to the moon. They love it – heat-less and all. I have other British friends who were just as amazed as I was that such homes still were around. The world has many wonders – both modern and “old fashioned”. I am lucky enough to be able to see both ends of the spectrum.