In The Bleak Midwinter

Advent 6  On coal fires and chilblains

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The constant background to my childhood memories of 1950s winters is the cold and waking up to windows covered in frost!

I never lived in a centrally heated house till I was well into my late twenties. I relied on open coal fires or, later on in student days, to a hissing radiant gas fire for my main source of warmth.

One of the first skills you learnt as a small child in the 1950s was how to roll up old newspapers into tight little balls to set the fire each morning. Certainly by the time I was five I knew how to build a fire from newspaper, thin sticks of wood for kindling, then gradually adding small coals to form a neat pyramid in the grate. Once the fire had caught, you could begin to add bigger lumps with a pair of tongs.

I seem to remember you got a badge at Brownies for firelighting. It was a necessary basic skill.

And the only places in the house that were ever warm was the kitchen when the oven was on and whichever room had a fire. All those cosy pictures of families gathered around the hearth were not because they all loved each other’s company so much. It was because everywhere else in the house was freezing.

However, when I was a teenager I actually got a birthday present of my own electric fire for my bedroom. (I think this was intended to enable me to study in the evenings)  It was a futuristic design, like a sort of yellow and red toadstool. It smelt of warm paint and burning dust.

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How I loved my heater! I would dash out from under the covers in the morning and turn it on before diving into bed again, till my room started to get warm. The sheer joy of getting dressed in front of a personal, private source of heat!

By the time I got to secondary school, the new buildings there were centrally heated and, if you got to the classroom first, you could get a desk next to a radiator and toast your feet. The bliss of it!

Then you got chilblains, of course.

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