Robert Chesshyre: Cold? You should have been around in the 1950s

Crossing the hall to the kitchen was a dash across a glassy abyss
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The Independent Online

I lived through the 1950s as an often shivering child. On Thursday our boiler broke, and I found myself urgently raiding my memory bank for the day-to-day survival tricks of living in a house with no central heating.

In those post-war years there was a coke boiler in the kitchen: unlike modern gas boilers with their fans and computers, it didn't (couldn't) break down; from an early age we children were assigned the task of going out into the shivering cold to get fuel from the coal shed. It was coke on one side and coal (good, old fashioned coal that spat and flared) for the fire in the sitting room on the other.

One o'clock was the magic hour when the gas poker was ignited and the fire lit. The sitting room became a womb, with the chairs crowded round the grate for maximum warmth. Crossing the hall to the kitchen was a dash across an icy abyss. Nothing was double-glazed and the windows were ill-fitting. The leakage of what warmth there was must have been horrific.

If one left left a door open even a crack, one was pursued by cries of "Were you born in a field? Shut the door."

Having a bath was a nightmare. Bathrooms were ice boxes – ours seemed to have an unfair share of outside walls. Hot water was limited and the tank (heated by the coke boiler) ran out long before there was enough in the bath for a wallow. Those bits (knees and shoulders) that, even as a child, inevitably stuck out of the tepid liquid were cold.

The cooling water soon forced one out, and clambering into the frigid air – despite a one-bar electric fire fixed to the ceiling – felt like stepping onto an ice flow. It took vigorous drying with an abrasive towel to restore the circulation.

The approach of bed-time launched a full scale operation. At 6.30, stone hot water bottles were placed in each bed; an hour later the bedroom gas fires were lit. No heat was wasted: before we went up washing was arranged round the bedroom fires, and when it was finally time for bed the clothes were brought down and placed before the dying embers of the sitting room fire.

Rubber hot water bottles were filled and grasped as tightly as possible for the climb to the bedrooms. That last traipse across the frozen hall and up the stairs remains with me whenever the temperature drops.

Despite the gas fires, the bedrooms were icy, and the speed with which one got into bed – teeth-cleaning in the frozen bathroom was such purgatory that we children skipped it if not under the direct gaze of an adult – might have won gold medals at the Olympics.

When all too soon it was time to get up, there would be ice inside the windows, and on really cold mornings even one's clothes would be stiff with cold. The gas fire was useless, as it failed to generate any warmth before I was down the stairs for breakfast, getting as close to the kitchen boiler as others allowed.

Last week our heating stopped, and the past flooded back. We had always thought that our generation, having survived the Fifties, could surmount such disasters. But the truth was that we had only nostalgia to fall back on.

Gone are the stone hot water bottles; gone are the bedroom gas fires; gone is the coke boiler from the kitchen; gone is the one-bar electric fire in the bathroom. We do have one open fire, but it is designed more for show than for heat, and most of its warmth shoots straight up the chimney.

Perhaps what has really gone is the spirit of those far-off days. There was nothing we could do about our cold homes, so – wrapped in sufficient clothes to stock a jumble sale – we bore them. The limited tactics at our disposal were part of the ritual of life. One got on without (on the whole) moaning.

So what did we do last week? Cajoled, wept, blustered down the line to the boiler company. It worked, but it took two days to fix the fault and cost an arm and a leg.

As I write, the needle is creeping up and we are (nearly) warm again, but I have bought enough coal (poor, smoke-free stuff though it be) for a siege, and we bought that last oil-filled heater in our local hardware store. In future I think I'll be a bit more sparing with my "when I was a lad, we could take it" anecdotes.