The cooker that's all the range

For home-owners with range cookers, there's no substitute – they provide hot water and central heating, give the kitchen a homely feel and they can even add value to a property, says Hester Lacey
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The Independent Online

A kitchen range used to be essential for far more than boiling an egg or simmering a stew. Ranges have been around since the late 18th century, and as well as being used for cooking, they provided the household's hot water and were a welcome source of heating in the kitchen. These chunky old workhorses were powered by solid fuel and tended to be extremely temperamental, as they relied on a complicated system of flues. Many people who remember them from childhood have not entirely fond memories of "feeding" the range every night, and the grim job of relighting it should it ever go out.

A kitchen range used to be essential for far more than boiling an egg or simmering a stew. Ranges have been around since the late 18th century, and as well as being used for cooking, they provided the household's hot water and were a welcome source of heating in the kitchen. These chunky old workhorses were powered by solid fuel and tended to be extremely temperamental, as they relied on a complicated system of flues. Many people who remember them from childhood have not entirely fond memories of "feeding" the range every night, and the grim job of relighting it should it ever go out.

All that has changed. It's still possible to buy solid-fuel range cookers that heat water and run a central heating system, and modern versions are very efficient. But today's range cookers can also run on gas or electricity, and can be fitted with accessories that would have left Mrs Bridges quite bewildered, such as griddles, wok burners, halogen hobs and fan ovens.

Bill Savage, managing director of nationwide supplier Range Cookers Direct, says that the term is now used to describe any cooker that is substantially wider than the standard 60cm. Adventurous home cooks are finding larger cookers extremely practical, with at least two ovens and extra burners to work with. And, he says, the look is keeping pace with modern demands too. "There is still a big market for classic styles, but the silver or stainless steel finishes are the best sellers. As well as being functional, they are a very good-looking piece of furniture."

Range Cookers Direct offers 30 different models, all available with different fuel choices and in a range of colours. Savage, who has specialised in cookers for more than 20 years, says that ranges have become increasingly popular since then. "When we started, we put pins in a map of the country to record sales, but after a while we ran out of country."

Prices start at under £500, but a more realistic figure is around £1,500 for a "really good cooker" – or more, estimates Savage. "It's a fair chunk of money, but also a fair chunk of cooker. The two big brands for us are Rangemaster and Belling; they are good quality, solid products. We sell a lot and find very few problems."

For many people, the Aga name is synonymous with range cookers, and Aga and its sister company Rayburn remain at the top of the field, with Agas selling well in the United States, Canada, most of Europe, South Africa, Japan and Australia. The company has just launched a new three-oven model, with prices that start at £5,950.

The Aga cooker was originally invented in the Twenties by Dr Gustaf Dalen, a Swedish physicist and Nobel prize winner; it's now solely produced in Shropshire, and has been adapted since its early solid-fuel origins to run on oil, gas or electricity. The basic design of the Aga has changed little in 70 years, though the cooker is now available in many different colours. The original cream finish remains popular, and was the best-seller until 1999; the newer shades include jade, claret, British racing green, pewter and royal blue.

The Rayburn was first developed as a cooker and water heater in the Forties and today still uses all power sources for cooking, hot water and central heating. But Aga, too, is keeping up with the times, according to spokeswoman Kate Chilvers. "Cooking has become a major hobby over the last 20 years, and people are using their kitchens for entertaining. The kitchen has become the real heart of the home, and range cookers are part of that. People are building their kitchens around range cookers." Agas, she says, are selling in all kinds of homes, and are no longer just found in country houses. "The idea that you need a chimney and coal bunker for an Aga is just not the case any more."

Tim Stilwell, the owner of Ash Vale Ranges in Aldershot, specialises in another Rolls-Royce of the ranges: Esse, a British firm that has been in business for 158 years. Florence Nightingale insisted on an Esse cooker at her hospital in Balaclava, and both Scott and Shackleton took an Esse stove on their polar expeditions. "We are still servicing cookers that are 30 or 40 years old," Stilwell says. "The parts are still available, and we have found that the new generation of cookers are extremely reliable, too."

While many of his customers are fitting their range cookers into Victorian houses, he is also working in contemporary kitchens, and, even for such a venerable brand, the modern look works well. "One of our clients had gone for black, so we did a gloss black range cooker with chrome handles and it looked really good. I was a bit dubious at first but I had to say, 'Good choice, madam!' when I saw the finished kitchen." An all-electric Esse cooker starts at £2,961, and an oil-fired model with a boiler costs from £3,300. Both prices include VAT but not fitting costs; Tim Stilwell will happily remodel the kitchen to accommodate them.

Installing a range cooker can even add value to your home, and estate agents say they are a selling point. According to Stilwell, a range cooker contributes to the "wow factor". And Bill Savage says range cookers are also finding their way into new-build homes. "Builders looking for an edge are putting in a range cooker rather than a standard built-in oven."

And if you want the total look, Aga have just launched a fridge and freezer that are designed along the same classic lines as their cookers. Prices start from £2,795 for the fridge and £2,995 for the freezer; both are highly efficient and built to last – just like their sister stoves.

Aga-Rayburn: 01952 642000, www.aga-rayburn.co.uk

Ash Vale Ranges: 01252 520188, www.ashvaleranges.co.uk

Esse: 01282 813235, www.ouzledale.co.uk

Range Cookers Direct: 0800 3283884, www.rangecookersdirect.co.uk

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