Old boilers

· life ·

'Tis the season for boilers to break down, apparently. My parents were staying with us at the weekend, and returned on Sunday night to a freezing house as a consequence of a non-functioning boiler. It wasn't a total surprise -- they had a plumber over to look at it on Friday -- but they had hoped it was fixed. As they couldn't get anyone over to look at it again before today, they've had a few days of wearing all their clothes in the house, and shivering around a tiny fan heater. Reading John Kelly's Voxford blog, I see that he has been having the same trouble. Boilers work hardest at this time of year, of course, so it's not so surprising that they tend to fail in winter, but I also suspect the action of Sod's Law.

John (an American currently living in Oxford) also puzzles over the curious British tradition of the glacial toilet or bathroom. As with many things you take for granted about your society until they are pointed out by someone from another country, it is an odd phenomenon when you think about it. I have two theories:

  1. Within living memory, many people in this country used to have to walk down the garden path to an outside toilet, which would have been freezing and draughty in winter. The advent of the 'inside toilet' was treated with suspicion at first, and often regarded as unhygienic and liable to make people 'soft'. Perhaps, as a concession to this view, indoor toilets were designed to be freezing, as a kind of compromise. It may be unhygienically indoors, but, by God, you'll freeze your knees off using it, just as Nature intended.
  2. The typical British boiler and radiator system is pretty pathetic. Once the water has circulated to the last radiator in line, it tends to be no more than tepid. Perhaps the toilet tends to be the last in line?

We don't really suffer extremes of temperature in this country, but it still surprises me that we don't have better heating for cold, damp winters. I knew a Finnish woman at University who said that she had never felt as bone-cold as she had in Britain, despite regularly experiencing temperatures much lower than those typical of the British winter. She said that there was something about the damp cold, coupled with the inadequate heating and insulation of British houses, that seeped into her bones.

When I was a child, we used to regularly visit an elderly relative in Norfolk. She lived in a bungalow, heated only by a coal fire in the living room, and she was very sparing with the coal. Even at the height of summer, it was colder inside the house than outside. In winter, it was bitter. I don't think I've ever been colder, and I still shiver when I remember sitting in that living room. Don't even get me started on the toilet... Still, Auntie Norfolk (yes, that's actually what we called her) was as tough as old boots, and lived to well over 90 years old. Perhaps central heating does make you soft.