Design: At home on the range

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The Independent Culture
You can incubate

kittens in an Aga,

warm your hands on

it in winter or use it

as a cigarette lighter.

Some people even

cook dinner in it.

It arrived late one stormy night. We'd been expecting it all day and were losing hope when a little pick-up roared and splashed to our front door, bouncing a trailer behind it. An exhausted Welshman staggered out, wild-eyed and hairy. It was far too late for him to do anything constructive that night, and besides, he was in no fit state. He came in, gratefully sank a large whisky, shuddered for a few minutes and tottered into bed.

The next morning the assembly began. We'd already built a plinth - there had been a spot of bother with the plinth, actually, possibly because the more you discuss it with your friendly neighbourhood concrete vendor, the sillier the word sounds. But anyway, there it was, a sturdy plinth under the kitchen window.

On the plinth-site, there had once been a malevolent, grime-encrusted electric cooker that I'd hated steadily since moving to the country and finding it there. I sold it, via the free paper, during a memorable evening when the dog gave birth unexpectedly. We were left with six puppies, nothing to cook on and every reason to get an Aga. The only problem was expense. Agas are not cheap. So I bought Exchange & Mart and found the answer.

Deep in South Wales lived a young man whose father thought him useless. To prove him wrong, the son started a business, buying and reconditioning ancient stoves. I rang him and he said yes, of course he'd sell us an Aga. He'd deliver it and fit it too. A deal was struck. He'd arrive on Wednesday morning.

His father might have had a point. For a start, South Wales to East Sussex is some distance and he didn't set off early. Then, when he eventually awoke, he wasn't at all sure how to install it. We spent the next 24 hours heaving it in, in several bits, like cast-iron ultra-jumbo Lego. At last it was slotted together on its plinth - not quite level, and not working - but oh, so beautiful.

It is very old, probably dating from the late Thirties, and gives off a kind of Brief Encounter, we-can-cope-with-anything air that is both world-weary and very comforting. It was built to be fed daily with phurnacite by an exploited housemaid, but at some stage of its adolescence it was converted to oil and has long forgotten the rigours of riddling.

For a day or two it was enough just to look at it: then we summoned Mr Overy. He is an expert in this kind of thing and hadmastered the intricacies of our mammoth Janitor boiler, the oldest machine he has ever serviced - for which twice-yearly exercise, he assures us, he has to psyche himself up the night before. He whistles a lot, does Mr Overy, and he has twins. He said that we needed a flue.

Then began three difficult months. In its first incarnation, the flue was little more than a discreet vent. We had connected the Aga to an oil tank and now we lit its wick. It immediately struck back. Every surface in the room, including cheese, puppies and damp washing, was covered in a black film. The smell was pervasive, oily and rank. I should think the engine-room of a submarine smells like that, in time of war.

We tried a broader, altogether more serious flue. For an hour all was well. Then it struck back. We tried a sideways kind of flue. Another whoosh of greasy soot.

By this time, our diet had become largely blackish salads, dressed with extra- virgin diesel oil. Summer had come and gone; the evenings were becoming chillier; the kitchen was a bleak, austere place and the Aga sat brooding, broad and cold, under the window. One or two of the children were heard to mutter remarks about "home-cooking", with the hint of a sneer.

Eventually, determined not to be beaten, Mr Overy turned up again. "Take 27," he announced, unloading miles of fat, shiny piping, "and if this doesn't work, I'm giving up."

Astonishingly, it did. Low-flying aircraft and balloonists drifting over the hill on which our house is built have often wobbled off-course on spotting our gleaming flue, glinting silver in the sunlight. It leaves the Aga horizontally then takes a turn to the left: it goes round a corner, slides up a wall and then turns again to ascend the gable. Finally, it emerges triumphant at the top of the house, higher than the chimney and sporting a smart little cowl. It does the business, and we all rejoice.

Since those pioneering days, the Aga has become the hub of our house. It is, of course, magnificent to cook on. Well actually, the truth is that it's grand when you understand it. The hot oven is slightly too cool; the two rings don't boil and simmer as they should - but I can handle that.

And it makes superb Aga-toast. For this, a kind of flattened, hinged tennis racket is employed. The bread is clamped inside it and the whole thing squashed under the lid of the hot plate. The resultant patterning resembles the decoration on the gridiron used in the martyrdom of St Lawrence, as depicted by Tintoretto and other great painters. If you accidentally touch the toaster, you have a hint of what poor St Lawrence suffered.

But the Aga is much more than a cooker. Its steady heat anticipates the warmth of spring and delays the effect of winter. It is exactly the right height to lean on, and everyone does. If you're freezing, you can open the lids and get great blasts of heat on your face. It has been used to incubate kittens and even, in desperation, to light cigarettes (hell on the complexion, though).

One snowy winter we had a power cut for a week. There were no trains, the village school closed, the lanes became impassable and milk was delivered by helicopter. Children tobogganed throughout the bright, cold days and, as the light faded, dozens of them would stamp into our lamp-lit kitchen for what came to be known as Good Nourishing Soup, produced from a huge pot on top of the Aga. Modern Agas have electrical components and lose heat in such crises, but ours is too old for such wimpish refinement: it soldiered on. And I have every confidence that it will soldier on into the next millennium - and maybe even the one after that.