Central heating means that you can go out of a cold winter’s night and come home to a warm house. Hurrah for human innovation and technology… And for most people the central heating can be topped up with gas or electric heaters. Instant warmth! In the past rich people had servants who, when you get down to it, could be used much like the central heating – you go out, you come home to a nice fire. Although some of those huge houses must have been cold and draughty, and I can’t imagine that castles were warm.
Then there were all of our poorer ancestors. Most of us won’t come from wealthy, aristocratic stock. Our forebears will have lived a lot closer to the soil. And the fire. While there’s nothing more cheery than a fire in the hearth, they’re very different to live with. If you go out for the day, the fire does not light itself for nightfall. If you’re very clever at setting it up, it might stay in and a bit warm for as much as 12 hours, enough to stop your house from freezing, but not enough to keep you comfortable if the temperature drops below zero. (I write from experience).
When all you have for heating and cooking is the fire, then keeping it going becomes essential to survival in winter. This also means that you can’t all decide to go out for the night. Rolling back from the pub at midnight to a frozen home, ice inside the windows and a bed that will make you yelp from the cold (because no fire means no warming pan in the bed, no hot water bottle…) is no kind of fun. The man of the house might head out, but the odds were a woman would stay home, look after the children and keep the fire in, historically speaking.
Using electricity or gas to heat a house means not really seeing how much energy you use. Not until the bill arrives, which can be a shock. Heat happens by magic, and until we have to pay for it, it’s easy not to envisage that as resources used. Burning wood and coal is a much more immediate experience. You rapidly develop a keen sense of how much it takes to keep you warm. Once the snow and ice settle in, you aren’t going to be able to fell more trees, and most of them won’t burn green anyway. Anyone who has tried foraging sticks for the fire will know how much work it takes to bring home enough wood for a few hours. Sticks burn fast. Rotten sticks don’t burn well. Foraging in freezing conditions is hard. Snow-covered wood rapidly becomes wet and reluctant to burn wood.
Now add into the mix single glazing, no cavity wall insulation, no loft insulation, windows and doors made of wood that might not keep the drafts out, and the implications of winter for our ancestors, even relatively recent ones, start to become more apparent. To be warm at the touch of a button is a luxury they could not have dreamed of.
One day, the supply of natural gas will run out. We are pushing the limits of electricity supplies in the UK and sometimes this results in power cuts. Do we want more nuclear power stations? The fossil fuel burning stations are going to run out of supplies too, eventually. Can we really do it all on renewable energy supplies? Most modern homes don’t have fireplaces in them. How would you cook if the power went off for a few days? How would you keep warm? We’re so used to the comforts of modern life, most of us, that we take them for granted and imagine they will always be there. How would we cope if obliged to live as our ancestors did? How many of us even know how to do that? And what is the likelihood that we might be going to have to learn, if we can’t better manage our energy consumption, as a species.