During a walk to the next village the local coal lorry passed me, and this prompted me to think about my early life when I grew up in a house with a coal fire. When I returned home after my walk the evening news reported that Britain passed a significant landmark going two full months without burning coal to generate electricity.
A decade ago, about 40 per cent of the country’s electricity came from coal and at midnight on April 9 the last coal generator came off the system. When Britain went into coronavirus lockdown, electricity demand plummeted and the fuel that sparked the industrial revolution here in Britain almost two centuries ago became a thing of the past.
Memories of my early life have flooded back to a life with one fire in the house to keep us all warm. The fire in the living room had to be remade by my Dad each morning which was the coldest time of the day.
This normally took place before myself and my siblings got out of bed and his first task was to remove the old ash from beneath the fire grate (a cast iron grid or basket which held the coal). The grate was raised up to allow air in and to let the ashes fall into a pan, and this pan had to be taken outside and emptied into the dustbin, a process which created clouds of dust. Although most of the ashes did collect in the pan, the space below still needed to be swept out, which made more dust.
My father’s next task was the preparation for a new fire which started with a few sheets of yesterday’s newspaper twisted into single sheets that would burn easily. Next came sticks of firewood or more commonly known as kindlers, that were bought cheaply from our local shop. Finally, some lumps of coal were placed on top of the kindlers along with remnants of coal left from the previous fire. Everything was now ready for the fire to be lit in several places with a match or a rolled piece of newspaper.
In winter having a bath was a real ordeal. Bathrooms were ice boxes with no heating and cold linoleum covered floors. At the rear of the living room fire was a back boiler that produced limited amounts of hot water. As a result, baths were always in shallow water with most of your body exposed to the cold bathroom air. Those exposed bits, especially knees and shoulders were freezing requiring water to be splashed over them to keep away frostbite.
After the bath and a quick rub down there was a dash downstairs wrapped in a towel to warm up before getting into your pyjamas ready for bed. Before it was time for bed my Mum inserted rubber hot water bottles filled with roasting hot water under the bedclothes and after a goodnight kiss a mad dash took place up the stairs to get under the bedsheets.
In the modern well insulated homes of today with central heating there is no need to worry about leaving the living room as the whole house is now heated. No more ice on the inside of the windows in the morning and no more dirt and soot requiring regular cleaning each day as part of the many household chores.
The good old days?