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Living Without Central Heating

Last year I spent the winter living in an old cottage with no heating. Learn how I survived and decide whether it’s a way of life you could cope with.

t was June when I saw it. A tiny cottage next to a canal, a few hundred years old, swathed in purple passionflowers. It was to let immediately, and it was only a 10 minute walk from my place of work.

I took it on. Who could resist? Through the wooden door you walked straight into a tiny living room, with a wood burning stove. Through that was a kitchen, north facing and cold. Through that was a passageway and a bathroom. Upstairs were two bedrooms. The walls were solid with no cavity or insulation. The windows were metal framed and single glazed. But it was summer and I was happy.

By September I was freezing. Very quickly the rhythm of my days took on a new tempo and it revolved around wood. Finding wood, buying wood, chopping wood, drying wood. My adventures with the paper log maker are detailed here but generally I scavenged for twigs, pallets, planks and anything I could bust up for kindling.

Colleagues were wonderful. Once word went out that I needed wood, I found people turning up with “I was just chopping this down and I thought of you.” The cedar was particularly nice!

It ate time. I would walk home from work and the first thing I’d do was go round the back of the house, pick up an axe, and split kindling and logs. I’d stack it by the door. Then I’d go in, make a cup of tea, and put mroe clothes on.

Yes. Put more clothes on. Layering became very important.

The stove was totally inefficient, you see. As it was a rented house they had little interest in buying the right one for the space so they just bought a cheap one. I would urge you to get specialist advice if you are thinking of buying one! Not only that, it only heated the living room. Moving through any other room was agony.

I could not insulate the walls. I did paint them with “thermolite” paint which was supposed to reflect heat back, but I was still freezing. I set a thermometer in the living room and it rarely got above 11 degrees C. Seriously.

It was common for me to wear two pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks, a vest, a short sleeved t shirt, a long sleeved shirt, a jumper, a cardigan and a coat. I also found a scarf invaluable. And yes… I would wear a woolly hat in bed.

I would wake up with ice on the insides of all the windows. I didn’t run my fridge at all – no need. Nothing went off in my kitchen which stayed at about 5 to 9 degrees.

I lasted until the following April. It was wonderful to see the cottage garden start to come to life, and I was amazed and proud of myself that I survived. Interestingly, I didn’t suffer a single cold or illness that winter. I suspect no bugs could survive!

But I look back in amazement now – how did I do it? And would I do it again… no! Brave, foolhardy, stupid, ill advised… all of those things.

Mind you, when people complain of being cold I can now sneer and say “I remember waking up with ice on the windows on the inside….” like some elderly grandparent!

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User Comments
  1. Azizah

    On April 11, 2010 at 2:50 am

    wow you suffered so i wouldn’t have to, now i don’t have to wonder what it would be like to go without central heat. i’m still considering replacing my light fixtures with oil burning lamps, but then those are much more dangerous than electric and i think well, maybe batteries will do.

  2. Sarah J Morton

    On April 11, 2010 at 10:45 am

    It was strange how I got used to it! Describing it now, I can quite believe I put up with it. But remember, 70 years ago, that’s how everyone lived!
    Oil lamps are quite smelly, and not as bright – I have a few paraffin lamps for emergencies but if you open a door and a cold draught hits them, the glass can crack.
    I stayed in a house with old gas lamps on the walls. They were dodgy to light, and not as bright as we now expect from lighting.
    I have a few solar lamps that charge during the day and give off about a candle’s worth at night – very pleasant.

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