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Open Features: Central Heating Santa

"Disaster! It’s the week before Christmas and the central heating boiler gave up the ghost. One minute it was chugging along nicely, providing comforting background warmth to every room, the next it had developed a loud and persistent ticking noise and refused to deliver anything resembling heat,'' writes Mary Pilfold-Allan.

It is my experience that boilers never breakdown during the normal working hours of those who can repair them. This time was no different; it was nine at night. An immediate, hopeful call to the service company yielded the answer-phone message ‘please call after eight am’. We went to bed in the miserable knowledge that there would be no welcome warmth to greet us in the morning.

And of course it could not be a worse time of year to get help. Everyone’s boiler seems to be on the blink, and so we waited our turn and 36 hours later we were once more back in the land of comfort. In between was a kind of trip down memory lane that I would rather not have taken. It provided a salutary lesson in taking central heating for granted and set me thinking about how we all managed before radiators graced every room and hot water was at the turn of a tap.

Although I didn’t think so at the time, from the age of nine I grew up in a relatively modern house. It as built in the 1950s and had tiled floors, large windows and a staircase that didn’t give you vertigo. It sat in its own plot of land and when we first moved in it had a field of lupins at the bottom of the garden that I was sent to gather on a daily basis to sell to the local shop during the flowering season. Best of all, we had a television and I remember watching programmes with singers like Pearl and Teddy Carr and Petula Clarke.

Summer time was bliss, such freedom to roam. Winter was a whole different ball game. For a start the only place that was truly warm was the tiny kitchen, heated by an enormous Aga. This Aga cooked rather erratically in its side oven and heated water at the same time. The fug in the kitchen was something to be seen to be believed. There was so much condensation that the metal-framed window ran with more water than the Victoria Falls. On washday it was even worse, especially as we had an extremely large, paddle-operated washing machine that required manual filling and emptying. Then even more moisture hung in the air. We could have been in business as a Turkish bath.

Apart from the kitchen the only other rooms with any form of heating were the living-room, commonly referred to as the ‘back room’ where a coal fire burned on most days and the sitting-room, grandly called the ‘best-room’ that was only used on high days and holidays. The back-room fire served as a hair-dryer, sock-drier, boot-warmer and with the aid of a long-handled fork, as a toaster. The sitting-room fire was rarely lit, but when it was, there was a frizzle of excitement. In would come a large log to be sat atop smouldering coals and we would gather around, gingerly perched on the light green G-Plan three-piece suite. Why we ever acquired this suite is a mystery. It was far too pale to be sensible and everyone lived in fear and dread of dropping something on it. Only the dog seemed oblivious to the suite’s high status, jumping on it whenever eyes were elsewhere.

Going up to bed required extreme courage and the company of a hot water bottle. Luckily for years I had the benefit of a feather mattress, now a commodity that would be frowned upon for harbouring dust mites, then a blissful reservoir of warmth and enfolding comfort.

Most bizarre of all was our bathroom. In order to enjoy a good soak or to indulge in the lengthy process of getting ready for going out on a Saturday night, a paraffin heater, rather like a metal chimney, had to be brought into use. Sticking a match into its black heart required a fearlessness I have long-since lost and waiting for the bathroom to warm up, considerable patience.

Once at the right temperature, battle commenced, not least fighting off opportunists. For an hour or two the bathroom became an oasis of dreams, a chance to relax in a deep bath, then wipe enough steam off the mirror to apply the ‘full Monty’ of make-up ready to dazzle the dudes.

No I don’t want to go back to those days however sentimental I may seem about firelight and feather beds. I like the flick of a switch stuff and thank goodness for a service man Santa who knew how to replace a CDB (circuit display board). He gave me my particular Christmas wish – my central heating back.


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