I love a Victorian house. I do, I do, I absolutely do.
Give me a quaint, tiled fireplace, a few sash windows, lots of high ceilinged rooms with moulded cornices and a gazillion flights of steep stairs and I’m sold. Now I think on it, I’m really very easy to please. For how many thousands of such houses do I spy in london that fit this exact bill? Very, very many, I assure you.
In fact, I have often wondered whether perfect happiness does not lie within the very structure of the period home. Many’s the time I’ve looked across the road from my 19th century haven at the monstrous post war flats and pitied their residents. For where’s the joy in such architecture? (This is a trick question. There is, quite simply, none).
So imagine my surprise when, this very week, I’ve started to long for a modern flat. Yep, you read correctly: a MODERN FLAT. Something perfectly soulless, utterly bland, monstrously boxy and … wonderfully warm.
Oh yes, the cold has finally frozen all my aesthetic sense. I’ll forgo charm and character. I’ll turn my back on wooden floors and charming alcoves. I’ll learn to love chunky little windows and galley kitchens. I will, I will. My toes and fingers are on strike until I do all of the above, you see. And one can’t cope very well without one’s toes and fingers.
After all, a cold house is a miserable house.
You know your house is cold when you wake up in the morning and your breath billows out in great puffs before your eyes. You know the heating isn’t doing it’s job when you have to spend the night submerged beneath your blanket in order to stop your face from freezing solid. And you know you’ve somehow missed a trick when you come home and realise that it’s actually colder INSIDE that out.
And boy, am I familiar with all the above.
Before you jump to conclusions, let me stress: I’m no student. I no longer live in such abject poverty that the heating is never allowed on. Those days are done with and I don’t miss them one jot.
My housemates and I use the heating with gusto. In fact, we’re that often envied bunch of tenants who have a ‘bills included‘ arrangement with our landlord. Oh yes, the heating’s on. It’s on ALL the time. But does that make one iota of difference to the temperature of our beautiful Victorian house? NO, sir-ee. Because period houses and warmth are like… errr… water and olive oil: they don’t mix.
Such trifling matters as heat insulation are understandably seldom considered in the creation of beauty. And they certainly weren’t considered by the Victorian Architect. I’m usually grateful for the utter disregard for practicalities in the pursuit of beauty … but in this bitter, bitter cold, all I dream of is double glazing, thick wads of roof insulation and draft-proofing…
Now here’s something for the scientists out there to help me with… I was always led to believe that heat rises. I have also always been told that a small room is easier to keep warm than a large one. I am right to believe these facts, non? So why, oh why, upon entering my bedroom (which is teeny-tiny and almost at the very top of my many storied Victorian house) am I hit with an icy blast of cold air? I have a functioning radiator in there for goodness sake! I bled it this year! The room should be a snug as anything!
Truth is, I fear, even a good old radiator is not enough to keep the Victorian house warm.
On the premis that the radiators do SOMETHING to raise the general temperature of the house (although goodness knows what this something is), I ask you: how on earth did we cope before central heating? As I doubt you will reply, I shall answer my own question: firstly, central heating was around (admittedly in a very primative way) a lot earlier than you might think. The 1870s, no less. A coal or oil fired furnace was set up in the basement and the heat would then rise through floor vents. Can’t see many floor vents in my house though so I’m guessing the family living here would have had to stick with the little fire places.
You know the sort I mean – those beautiful, original decorative cast iron fire places that every estate agent will flag up with enthusiasm as though it’s presence alone is reason to by the house they are showing you. Believe it or not, these fire places once had a practical purpose beyond that of cinching a sale. They’d have been stoked with coal rather than wood unless you lived in a woody area (which I imagine even 150 years ago, London wasn’t) and would have looked quite the part in a room be-decked with William Morris wallpaper and various Victorian fripperies.
Well, that’s how I like to think of them. Reality is that they were probably smokey, pokey little things – the sort that you have to shuffle up close to in order to appreciate the heat but that, once shuffled close, become unbearably burny hot.
Scenes of Dickens’ Dombey and Son spring to mind, where a poor baby Dombey junior was placed
immediately in front of the fire, and close to it, as if his constitution were close to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown.
That’s the problem with these Victorian fires – it’s all or nothing.
But what else, apart form this (admittedly, pretty useless) fire, would have warmed our cockles on a cold winter’s day?
Today we have hot water bottles, lucky ones amongst us have electric blankets. Back then there were bed-warmers and, well, that seems about it. I guess the ladies would have had all their many layers of skirts and what-not but apart from that, I can’t see much else in the way staying warm. A hot cup of cocoa maybe?
Truth be told, it was probably blooming miserable. And, for perhaps the first time ever, I’m mighty glad to be living in 2013 – even if I do live in a cold, cold house. At least I’ve got my electric blanket.