‘And don’t,’ urged James*, our land agent, as we crunched the numbers on a biomass heating system once again, ‘underestimate the benefit of a warm house’. We were sitting in the dining room, freezing cold; all farm meetings happen in here and, in those days, they tended to stick to the point. The electric heater was growling and wheezing away to itself in the corner. The fire, flickered away encouragingly but mainly decoratively. We were all dressed in a sensible selection of polo necks and cardigans and nice woolly jumpers.
I said something polite and dismissed the statement instantly from my mind. Pittleworth was an old house and a cold house: as I saw it, it was The Way of Things: the place was, by it’s nature, unheatable. The walls were good and thick but the window glass is largely there for show. In storms, the glass panes, in their approximately-fitting lead frames, perform tinkly little dances. In our old bedroom, you can get your thumb between the window and the frame. I had often considered installing a windsock in the upstairs corridor and the crisscross of drafts was so intricate that my father used to say, ‘if this house was a ship, it would sink in five minutes.’ We all used expensive electric heaters to ‘get a fug up’, as my mother optimistically put it, in our bedrooms. Corridors, the hall, drawing room and guest rooms were icy. It was part of the architecture and this biomass exercise was all about being cold as cheaply as possible.
I believe that one of the punishments for prisoners in the Russian fortress of Peter and Paul, used to be to turn off the heating in the cells for a night. The prisoner would have to keep moving all night so as not to die of cold. It wasn’t that bad at Pittleworth but I did make sure there were no books of Russian history in the guest rooms in case friends spotted unhelpful parallels.
Anyway, I had whiled away some of the more boring aspects of our meeting by musing on whether they warned new recruits at James’s firm about the perils of cold country houses. I pictured the scene in the office.
‘Ah, I see you’re going out to Freezlip Hall this afternoon,’ a partner observes to New Recruit in the corridor. ‘They’ve been clients for a long time.’
‘I am very much looking forward to it’ says NR looking Keen.
‘Why aren’t you wearing a jumper?’ snaps Partner.
‘I thought a tweed jacket was …’
‘That’s not the point. The heating’s been broken at Freezlip for six weeks and they’re trying not to fix it until their Single Farm Payment comes in.’ Partner speaks with the smugness of one who has extracted a cheque for sizeable fees from this chilly source, despite these trying circumstances.
‘The dowager wore a fur coat all through the last meeting. If you don’t wear a jumper under your jacket, you’ll start shivering: we don’t want them to think you are shaking with fright. I saw Ossian wearing something green under his jacket and he’s in the office all day today. Get him to lend it to you.’
Or, perhaps, I mused, they had a few emergency jumpers in the cupboard under the stairs for such occasions. I wouldn’t have blamed them.
The discussion over whether to convert our oil-fired central heating to biomass, powered with wood chip, ultimately from our own woods, wound on. To me it was purely a financial and ecological decision. Biomass from a local source was liable to keep a few more polar bears in ice: as opposed to gallons of oil, which our boiler was currently and expensively consuming. It was like burning (50) pound notes — and we were still cold.
My mother maintained, correctly I think, that most people had only managed to stay in larger houses since the war by resorting to what she referred to as ‘siege quarters’. In our case, for many years, this meant mainly using the kitchen and sitting room on a daily basis which, thanks to the Aga and the efficient new fireplace in the sitting room could, more or less be heated to liveable conditions. The system showed strain every time we needed to use the drawing room or dining room: icy, under-heated and underused, damp was becoming a problem. I kept pointing out that we had run out of ways to hang the pictures so that they cunningly covered the blackish patches in the drawing room wall. We argued about how many days it took to heat up the rooms for the less-practiced constitutions of our guests. All families have their traditional Christmas rows, ours started 72 hours prior to every Christmas with me telling my mother to turn on the central heating downstairs. One Christmas my mother got it wrong and you could actually see the cold rising up through the floor in a blueish mist. One cousin was wearing a a pale blue dress — by the end of the evening she matched it.
Our boiler was a huge thing that lived in the cellar. It switched off at 1am, at least Husband (Boyfriend then) and I assumed that was what it was doing. My room was directly above the boiler — three floors up. At 1am it’s industrious/industrial hum would briefly cease: after which it made a noise like the Queen Mary reversing. The noise would rise to a roar, the floors would vibrate (I am not making this up), then, sudden, devastating silence — followed, several seconds later, by a loud booooiiiiiing noise. It sounded exactly like a large spring expiring under pressure and it happened every night. We referred to it for years as ‘the phantom bedspring’. Many engineers, experts and plumbers later, nobody has ever been able to enlighten us about the booooiiiiiiing.
Despite all this, I had my doubts about biomass. I had seen an early version in a large house which was indeed boiling hot but the plant room was a lethally complicated affair and I gathered from the farm manager that the system got indigestion periodically and this involved sticking a long pole down various pipes; I didn’t really see myself doing that at 3am. And what if the house got even colder? I was gloomily aware that this could happen. I remember the hurricane of 1990 which hit in January. We were without electricity for a week, which also took out water (pumped from a Well by electricity) and heating. Once the heat goes out of the walls of a building you really learn how cold it can be.
Still, reservations an’ all, we decided to give it a try.
So this was the plan, in essence: chipped wood would be housed under cover of the lean-to on an old barn, formerly the potato shed, whence a weekly (tractor) bucketful of wood chip could be scooped up and deposited in the hopper next to the biomass boiler. From here, a screw took the fuel into the maw of the boiler itself. From thence, this lovely heat had to be got from barn to house a distance of several hundred yards. The lawn was clearly going to suffer. Then the incoming pipes had to be connected into our old system. (My knees went weak). The good news was that we could keep all our old-fashioned radiators, although this didn’t give me any more confidence of the eventual efficiency of the system.
It was in this cast of mind that we signed the things that set projects in motion: dear little cheques, bloody great wodges of governmental red tape, oleaginous pieces of legalese indemnifying everyone who wasn’t us, that sort of thing.
And things began to happen.
The first thing that began to happen was the roof of the barn, in which we intended to house the Biomass plant, leaked copiously. Stout and well-made our shiny new boiler might be but it was understandably better at withstanding fire than water. The barn was one of those large corrugated iron and asbestos numbers, put up in the 1960s as the last word in modern farming and roundly cursed by successive generations of modern farmers, ever since. We dealt with this by solemnly building a small hut within the barn to house the plant room.
We were, of course, acquiring a cast of thousands for this project. There was Chip and Gerry and Chip’s son digging trenches as if the German lines were advancing within the hour. There were at least half a dozen doughty souls rocketing between the potato shed and the back hall where the new piping was installed. Our adolescent Newfie was fascinated by the whole process and kept falling in the trench and having to be hoisted out (earth-covered and full of damp gratitude) by noble volunteers (she probably still weighed under the hundred pound mark at the time).
Of course we acquired a well-recompensed Expert for the project (what project dare be without one?) but this one was reassuringly calm and competent with a wide and obvious knowledge of his field; these are not, I have learned by bitter experience, traits one should naïvely expect from an expert, so this was a pleasant and useful surprise.
And then one day, the faintest puff of white smoke emerged from the discrete chimney on the back of the potato shed and, half way down the drive one could just smell the pleasant aroma of burning wood. The boiler was lit. (I nearly wrote ‘the beacon was lit’: Freudian slip?)
And suddenly, extraordinarily, the house became warm. I couldn’t believe it, neither could any of the other occupants. We stopped putting on jumpers to move from one room to another by means of cold corridors. Electric heaters were stuffed into cupboards. We stopped wanting to kill guests if they left the drawing room door open. We were warm.
And no: no poking down pipes with a long stick. Once a week something about the size of a domestic drawer full of ash has to be emptied. That is it. If you forget as we did once, in the thick of my mother’s illness, to empty said drawer, the system cuts out and the old oil-fires system kicks in. The oil boiler, however, is not man enough to kick out anything like the heat that the biomass boiler does. (In the interests of trade descriptions, this may have something to do with refusal to turn the oil boiler up to full throttle due to cost). And, before you ask, yes there Is enough wood on the farm to make this sustainable.
Of course there is no pleasing everyone. The Newfie, who had long been holding out for an air conditioning system, spends the evening finding drafts to sit against in a martyred sort of way. My father-in-law, who has always found Pittleworth horribly hot, now feels on the point of heatstroke when he comes to visit.
But the main winner in this is surely the old house itself. Central heating, turning off and on all the time, is not very good for old houses and constant, low-level heat will preserve the fabric much better than the previous arrangement. And then of course there is James the land agent, because I have to admit he was right about the benefits of a warm house: I did under-estimate them and farm meetings are a lot more bearable now. Perhaps this is why land agents tend to be keen on biomass heating systems: not only is it a question of self-preservation, it is a good way of getting their clients to stop shivering and listen to them.
*Names changed to protect reputations — mainly mine.