Tuesday, 4 November 2014

In Sickness and in Heat

A chance remark by Z, and a comment from Mike, has set off a chain of very early memories loosely around the area of ill health and bedroom fires.  The former is not a topic I’m terribly keen to pursue, because I’ve been getting enough of that at home recently (though everything seems to have settled down at the moment), but as Paul Simon put it, ‘preserve your memories.’  So:

Our first house, Watcombe Road, was heated entirely by burning coal, mostly in open fires, though there was a stove in the breakfast room (I think), which is where we did a lot of our living.  Central heating was a thing of the future; when we moved to the posh house in Stourwood Road when I was twelve, we were very impressed by the huge columnar cast iron radiators, even though I don’t remember them ever being much more than lukewarm.

Anyway, back at Watcombe, I tended to be a sickly child, and in those days the frontline defence against illness was to be kept in bed.  So Mike’s observation equating heated bedrooms with sickness rings a loud bell.  I think I ran through whooping cough, croup and chickenpox in fairly quick succession.  At that age, between about three and six, you don’t have a lot of expectations, so I don’t remember being particularly distressed by the symptoms, nasty though they must have been – it was almost a kind of normal.

What I do remember is the warmth.  Winter beds consisted of sheets, at least two blankets, and an eiderdown, all that being essential defence against the encroaching frost which painted intricate ferns on the windowpanes.  Sick beds probably had another layer or two, and the bedroom fire was lit!  I was allowed – encouraged – to draw, to look at pictures (I remember being given copies of ‘Illustrated’ and ‘Picture Post’ magazines, which was pretty advanced on my parents’ part, the equivalent of letting me loose on Mail Online today; of course, they may have been parentally edited), and to read: in fact I suspect my precocious reading ability owed a lot to being so ill so often.

I loved it, and developed an unhealthy penchant, for a while,  for crying sick when I fancied a day off school.  (I once tried dipping the thermometer into my tea, but that got rumbled.) 

But it also gave rise to perhaps my earliest nightmare, certainly of the lucid, waking kind.  (You know the ones: you’re awake, everything looks and feels normal, but something’s out of kilter, things are happening that shouldn’t be – and then you wake up properly.)   It was triggered by something I’m sure was called the Steam Kettle.  This was filled with water kept at a simmer, presumably by some sort of  paraffin burner, with a long neck which gently emitted steam, to keep the air humidified through the night.  I’d probably been looking at giraffes, or dinosaurs.  You can guess the rest.


  1. Hello Tim. I usually sleep very well I'm glad to say; but there are times (usually when the medicines have been changed) when it's a great relief to wake up from dreams, even when it's quite obvious to the dreamer that they ARE dreams.

  2. So it was probably from you that I got the idea about the thermometer in the tea. And it didn't work for me either.
    Yes I think I recall a mottled grey stove in the breakfast room where, amongst other things, we ate breakfast.

  3. More reminiscence from me to come too!

  4. The Steam Kettle! Yes, I remember it well - it was used with Friar's Balsam during your bouts of croup. I think only one of the bedrooms had an open fire which was used and that was the 'sickness room' but also used at happier times like Christmas when food and drink were put in front of the fire for Father Christmas.

  5. The stove in the breakfast room was an Ideal Domestic which burned coke and had to have the ashes cleared out every morning. It rarely went out as it used to heat the water as well.

  6. Sorry, catching up a bit late on comments:

    Mike, dreams fascinate me - what are they for, for a start, never mind about? I could go on for pages, so better stop.

    Sue: your recall of Watcombe continues to delight me. I expect you remember the serial number of the Ideal domestic ... And what was the coalman's name?? (I can remember his cheery face.)

    1. Can't remember the coalman's name but the vegetable man was Mr Starkes!!