Cold houses and how to stay warm this winter
As the temperature gauge drops, Ettie Neil-Gallacher looks at those houses with little warmth and suggests useful tips to keep out the cold
I can’t exactly claim to have been brought up in cold houses. I realise that this is a distinctly non-U admission, so I need to clarify things a little. I grew up in London with parents whose differing views about what to do with a thermostat were so entrenched it took them to the brink of divorce. Instead of calling it quits, however, they healthily settled on separate bedrooms.
My Scotch father’s was unheated, year round, and he kept the windows open. He employed the same policy in his study, where the only source of warmth was a bottle of sherry. My mother likes the house heated, year round. It’s as if she’s conducting some sort of sick science experiment to test the expiration limits of her fellow inhabitants. While I definitely have my father’s genes on this front, I draw the line at abject misery. I’ve been pretty stoical throughout the building works which left our house without a back wall for the entirety of last winter; indeed, the only time I was reduced to tears was when the olive oil solidified.
There are, no doubt, many readers of The Field who are made of sterner stuff. Indeed, there’s a Leicestershire hunting man who had a cottage that was so cold it would take two days to defrost a chicken in the larder. Heaven knows what he’d have made of me and my soft southern ways and extra virgin olive oil. But it’s precisely the likes of him, those whose mettle has been tested in the coldest of houses, who are now well placed to confront the cost of living crisis.
Because cold houses aren’t always cold because it costs too much to heat them, or because it’s too expensive to install central heating. For many, they’re a habit the inhabitants can’t (or don’t want to) break. People who have been brought up in a cold house struggle to get used to anything else. In fact, cold houses are a bit like Catholicism: it’s easier to be born into the fold rather than to convert to the joys. People who have grown up in a cold house recall certain common features. Ice on the inside of windows in the morning, for example. A friend who grew up in a rambling house in Oxfordshire remembers being “enchanted” by the frost patterns on the inside of his bedroom window. “The resulting chilblains in the 1980s winters were not unusual, and – strange to say – I used rather to regard them as old friends whenever they appeared.” He likes a cold shower to this day.
Sometimes, however, waking up in a cold house can involve more than just ice on the windows. James Bradford, a former captain in the Coldstream Guards turned lawyer, was found as a baby in his cot in Cornwall one morning with snow having collected on the mattress – even though the window had been closed. And at a 17th-century property in the Cotswolds, the family insist on keeping the windows open at night, so it’s not unheard of for there to be a snow drift in one of the bedrooms in the dower house in the morning.
And then, presumably because the denizens have been so cold all night, a cooked breakfast is generally a feature of life in a cold house – year round. Indeed, this is often the fondest memory for many of those who survived a cold-house childhood. But diplomat’s daughter Jill Langford found a clever way to make breakfast go further. The Langford family lived for many years at unheated Slogarie House, in Dumfries and Galloway, where it’s believed Edward VIII fatefully proposed to Wallis Simpson – though it’s difficult to imagine her, with her tastes for the finest things in life, putting up with some of the hardships the future residents did. Jill (who has now decamped to Provence) recalls that “in the chilly mornings, I would rise early to put potatoes in the Aga to bake. When breakfast was finished, each of the seven children was given a small hot potato to put in each pocket to warm their hands, which they could then eat upon arrival at school.”
Breakfast is also the time when the extent of the measures taken to stay alive overnight are revealed. An acquaintance was surprised when she took black pudding, bacon and eggs up to her grandfather in Northumberland, to find him sitting up in bed with his overcoat, hat and scarf on. And at writer Tom Hodgkinson’s father’s house in Warwickshire, his aunt’s famously tough fiancé, a handsome Swede, came down to breakfast wearing his army greatcoat, “much to the bafflement of my grandparents”.
Those who live in cold houses often congregate in the kitchen and there’s a good reason for this: the Aga. Beautiful in a way other cookers are not, Agas store heat efficiently and are always ready to cook. But in a cold house they are particularly useful because they act as a mighty source of warmth, which permeates the house (thick walls and floors permitting). Those who grew up in a cold house will still warm their clothes on one.
Another feature common to the cold house experience relates to ablutions. The current Editor of The Field would always warn guests coming to stay at the family’s 16th-century hunting box for the hunt ball to come washed as there was never enough hot water for a bath, and an old hunting friend of hers recalls bathing in her cardigan when she was a child. A Quorn man had a clever way of divining whether the hunting would be off without setting foot outside: when shaving, if the water didn’t drain from the basin, because the frost was so hard the water froze in the pipes causing a blockage, he knew the frost was sufficiently deep to cancel the day.
Cold-house dwellers will often have one other room with some sort of rudimentary heating. Often it seems to have been the library or the study which had a heater (and one would hardly dare speculate as to which family member might benefit most from such an arrangement). Former chef at Hill House School Milla Pollard recalls her childhood home in Wiltshire, where the library was warmed by a two-bar heater and a gaseous old labrador: “Hot study, freezing house, dog farts mixed in with fumes from the old gas fire. It’s a miracle I’m still alive really.”
The idea of a cold house resonates with people in different ways: the childhood memories it evokes, the visions of architectural splendour which encase it, the associations it has in literature (from Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle, to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, a cold house always plays a role in the narrative). But there seems to be a physical benefit (admittedly unproven) to cold houses too – a robustness they bestow on their inhabitants. People who live in cold houses seem to be tougher; they seem to be sick less frequently. Growing up in a cold house means the vagaries of the British weather when out in the field prove eminently surmountable; cold house denizens are not likely to baulk at horizontal snow on a shooting day in Norfolk or quiver at three hours in the saddle when it rains from the meet to second horses. In this day and age, we have much to learn from the resilience of those who have spent decades shivering themselves to sleep.
For children who grew up in cold houses, the atmosphere at home was replicated at school.
Prep schools in particular are so often housed in former stately homes. Blogger and former editor Ralph Hancock recalls his miserable years in the 1950s at The Old Malthouse School in Dorset, where “the water in the tin bowls on the washstands in the dormitories would freeze, and there was ice on the inside of the windows when the boys woke up”.
Former Army officer Donna Stephens recalls her prep school in Yorkshire, again in the 1950s, where sleeping in one’s uniform was standard practice. An added perk was not having to go to the palaver of getting dressed in the morning.
Thirty years later, investor Tom Stoddart-Scott remembers a particular incident at his own Yorkshire prep school: “A 10-day power cut followed by heavy snow meant that we slept in our attic dormitories in pyjamas, socks, tracksuits and dressing gowns under duvets and a number of blankets. The ice on the inside of the windows had to be cracked each morning before we could see out.”
Cold house essentials
It’s at night, when temperatures drop even further, that the denizens of cold houses are most tested. One can fend off the cold during the day fairly easily, with an extra jumper or a few star jumps. But at night, the cold penetrates in a different way. Solicitor Ruth de Maupeou has vivid memories of climbing into bed and “not being quite sure if the sheets were actually wet or just really, really cold”. This level of cold requires resourcefulness. Forget the seductive lingerie; this is the time for flannel pyjamas and, quite probably, hats, scarves, gloves, rugs and dogs. Indeed, the youngest Langford child, Raphael, “acquired a pair of ear mufflers quite soon after [the family] moved into Slogarie [in Dumfries], and insisted on keeping them on in bed at night so that his ears wouldn’t freeze off,” his mother reports.
Fingerless gloves: hats and scarves are pretty critical for life in a cold house, but I often think that these are the cleverest sartorial invention of all time, and the esteemed Editor of The Field has herself described these as “vital” when she was growing up in a distinctly cold country house in Leicestershire. The cleverness lies in the combination of keeping your hands warm while allowing your fingers to remain flexible. That is, if your fingers have retained any flexibility after decades in a cold house – chances are osteoarthritis will have kicked in.
Gilets: these are useful in a similar way to fingerless gloves, in that they warm the core while allowing your arms a degree of freedom. They are such a critical part of cold-house attire that many owners forget to take them off. Ever. “They go on over pyjamas without a second thought,” observes one well-clad gentleman.
Hot-water bottles: Jill Langford says that at Slogarie “leaky hot-water bottles were de rigueur, year round”. And, indeed, these are such a cold-house staple that some owners never manage to kick the habit even after they’ve had central heating installed. De Maupeou says that her mother still offers her one every evening when she visits her childhood home.
Cashmere bed socks: in all honesty, any decent bed socks will do, but when one is denying oneself the basic human right to warmth, it seems a fair trade-off to allow oneself such a small but comforting luxury. Though, if it’s so cold you’ve lost all feeling in your extremities, it may take a bit of time before you appreciate the fabric.
Open fires: at Creskeld, in Yorkshire, Tom Stoddart-Scott recalls that they once had 18 open fires going, a number of which were in the bedrooms. “A fire in the bedroom is a real treat you don’t get in a warm house,” he enthuses.
Draught excluders: there’s a naffness to these, obviously, but if you’ve gone to the trouble of laying a fire, you want to make the most of it. A friend with a large number of brothers and sisters recalls how certain siblings might switch on the electric radiators in their bedrooms when things got really desperate, but he “always wondered what good they really did against the draught which blew through the universally ill-fitting sash windows”. This is where a decent draught excluder could have helped solve the problem.
Fur: there’s a reason why Arctic communities have no moral qualms about wearing fur. When Langford discovered how cold it was at Slogarie, she decided to invest in some vintage fur coats. She quickly realised that these could be sourced very advantageously on eBay during the summer months. Langford recalls that on one occasion a fire in the open fireplace in the Great Hall got out of hand. “We were forced to retreat outdoors in the middle of the night while we waited for the fire engine to arrive and extinguish the fire. The firemen were astonished to see me and my four young children all wrapped up in these voluminous fur coats, huddled together in a little group on the front lawn with our dogs, cats and several pet hamsters.”
Guests: these are not only useful for adding jollity to cold houses. Bodies generate warmth (particularly after a cocktail or two) and so having a house full of visitors, for a party or a hunt ball, makes sense from a scientific point of view as well. Just be sure to remind them to bring more clothes than they think might be necessary for their stay, and don’t be shocked come the morning if you find they have used the rug from the bedroom floor as an additional layer for warmth.