INTERIORS / Burning Desire: In the country, beyond the cosy embrace of British Gas, Caroline McGhie warms to logs, peat and bio-mass

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The Independent Culture
REACTIONS to the move my family and I have made from a Victorian semi in south London to a small period farmhouse in Norfolk have varied from throttled envy to sheer horror. 'How could you possibly live so far from a railway station . . . a trendy cinema . . . a Tesco . . . a theatre?' These things must matter less to me than they did; I find I am quite satisfied with walks in the village churchyard, the good local bookshop, the fresh crab suppers and the sound of the sheep in the field opposite.

Deprivation, if you could call it that, comes from having slipped off the map of Britain as drawn by British Gas. As the October gales start to blow, I realise I can no longer flick the switch of the gas central heating and hear the boiler take the strain. Instead I must make the acquaintance of the night storage heaters, which require one to know what temperature you want them to be 24 hours in advance. To a novice this seems a tall order. I have never had complete confidence in Michael Fish, so I am learning to feel the weather in my bones and set the heaters accordingly. Through the night I think of them tucking the heat away at Economy Seven rates into the bricks within, and in the morning we wake up to a house hot enough to bake bread in.

It doesn't stay like that. As evening falls and the chill sets in, one is forced out into the driving rain to stagger back with armfuls of spider- infested logs to set by the fire. They are often soggy, so I have to lay them by the fire to dry (a bit of a Catch 22). The evening then takes on a wood-spitting glow all the more enjoyable for the effort that has gone into creating it.

But another problem lurks as supper-time approaches. This is the old, inherited electric cooker that carbonises everything we put inside it. It will have to go, and so we have been looking at the alternatives. 'Oh] You must have an Aga,' is a cry almost commoner than the bleating of the sheep. Like the waxed jacket and the four-wheel-drive, the Aga has become de rigueur for country folk. The snag is that it costs at least half as much as a family car (pounds 3,500- pounds 6,500). Others speak as fondly of their Rayburns as they would of a family pet that also cooks, heats the water and runs a few radiators - but the catch here is that you need a back-up system for the summer if you don't want to roast while the sun shines.

Clearly there is a whole mind-set, indeed a way of life, attached to which kind of cooker and heating system you choose. Robin Thomas, an estate agent in Exeter, has recently moved into a house on the edge of Dartmoor, where an antiquated solid fuel stove gobbles up smokeless fuel by the sackful. 'It is either roaring away or it fails me if the wind is in the wrong direction.' he says. He is now spending between pounds 3,000 and pounds 4,000 on installing oil- fired central heating with nine radiators.

The trouble is that few of us (particularly pampered city-dwellers) ever really think about how we use up energy. For pure political correctness, the place to go for advice is the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. To the energy experts there, my night storage heaters were beyond the pale. 'You are using a premium fuel,' admonished Lesley Bradman. It would be all right if I made my own electricity, but she didn't advise that unless I had a large river. Or I could use wood, but then I would have to replace the wood I burned by growing more. She can speak with a certain piety, for at the centre they generate all their electricity with water turbines and wind machines. The 20 inhabitants monitor how much they use, check with the control room to see what the weather will be like, and stagger their use of the washing machines. In the houses they have wood-burning stoves with back boilers, some with radiators, stoked with thinnings from local woodland.

This use of 'bio-mass' or the thinnings from coppicing is one of the most exciting renewable sources of energy being studied at the moment. At the National Agricultural Centre in Warwickshire they are growing four acres of willow to show how it can be done. Others at the forefront of alternative energy include farmers who have been turning animal muck into bio-gas to provide fuel for their farms and homes. Livestock Systems Ltd, suppliers of farm waste recycling equipment, has installed 15 such systems in the last two years.

The trend therefore seems to be towards getting back to a level of self-sufficiency - though some may never have relinquished it in the first place. On the island of Islay, where Margaret Ferguson has a house on the edge of the Atlantic with sheep roaming her 90-acre croft, she has never used anything but the local peat. It fuels her Rayburn, which in turn does all the cooking and heats nine radiators. She and her husband used to cut the peat themselves (some people rent peat banks at pounds 5 to pounds 10 a year) and lay it to dry through the summer. 'Then we make them into wee stacks, like wigwams, sat up on end so that the wind gets through them and they are up off the wet ground.' Now they hire a machine. It costs pounds 45 per hour but gets the job done in two hours.

Margaret wouldn't dream of accepting mains gas even if it were available. The personality of the stove and the fire within it provides as much variety to life as the changing of the seasons, which she wouldn't eliminate either.

Some very useful advice for anyone bewildered by the different choices of heating systems available comes from an independent firm of heating consultants, Sutherland Associates, of Banstead in Surrey. They have been producing comparative heating costs, including installation and maintenance, for varying house sizes in different regions.

'The most amazing thing is that oil has been cheaper than all the other fuels for the last seven years, though few people seem to realise this. So it shouldn't matter whether you are on the gas mains or not,' says Colin Sutherland, managing director of the firm. And the best way to use it is in a boiler, rather than combined with a kitchen cooker, because the fuel is used more efficiently that way.

As for me, I no longer feel deprived. But I will pass on the wind turbine, the coppicing and the chicken shit, and wait for the winter fuel bills to land on the doormat before I make the final decision. Who knows? I might even get used to the night storage heaters and the open fires.

I ordered a 'load' of wood today. I have no idea how big a 'load' is, but the man in the village said he'd bring it when he was ready, maybe this week, maybe next, for pounds 15.

Fuel cost comparison tables are available ( pounds 19 for two editions) from Sutherland Associates, Century House, 100 High Street, Banstead, Surrey SM7 2NN. Bio-gas heating systems from Livestock Systems, The Long Barn, Clevedon Road, Twickenham, Bristol BS21 6RY.

(Photographs omitted)

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