The alarm goes off and I know immediately. It’s a cold one today.
It’s a bright November morning outside, a clear autumn day. You know, the type of day with crispy leaves underfoot, a hard frost and blinding sunshine? But before I even kick my legs from under the duvet I can feel the cold on my face.
There was no cloud cover last night – nice starry skies, perfect for fireworks season. But also perfect at sucking the warmth right out of this house. One of the neighbours had their cavity wall insulation done last year – I dare say this place hasn’t got anything of the sort, the way it seems to lose heat. I don’t suppose there’s much I can do about that. That’s our landlord’s decision I suppose.
This afternoon there’ll be a spell where the sun dips low enough to come through the windows and warm the place up a little, but until then I’ll be needing these heaters. I hate using these heaters. When we first moved in, I was pretty excited about the electric storage heating here. Warmth in every room, I thought! The excitement didn’t last long.
I remember the first autumn bill. Hundreds of pounds that we simply didn’t have. It landed on the doorstep in late October, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. That year we had to cut back on Christmas presents to keep head above water. Thankfully, my eldest was only two at the time and she didn’t notice – but it’s getting harder now.
It’s weird to describe being “burned” by using the heating – but that’s what’s happened. I’m nervous of it. I try not to switch it on until the thermometer dips below 15ºC, but unless we keep moving around it can feel freezing well before that.
Anyway, it’s time to get up. Few extra layers for today I think.
I’ve got to admit – I’m glad the schools are back this time. It was OK for the children to be home for the first lockdown. It was warm outside and although we went a little stir crazy, we were at least comfortable most of the time. If the schools had been shut this winter I don’t know how we’d have coped.
My children are on free school meals which helps, and it is such a relief to know that they are in warm classrooms during the week. I’m much happier coping with a chilly home if it’s just me. When the children were smaller I’d be out at every library group, parent and toddlers group or community centre I could find during the winter days – anywhere to avoid having little ones with cold hands and feet. It breaks my heart when I think about it.
Weekends are tough this year. They’ve always been a struggle during the winter months, but this year there’s nowhere we are allowed to go, and we’re stuck indoors other than a quick visit to the park. It’s not the same with the playgrounds cordoned off, though.
Last year I bought one of those plug-in Halogen heater things. It’s not cheap to run either, but it’s better than nothing, so we spend our weekends in the living room. Keeping the doors and windows shut seems to work OK, and if it’s really cold, we can declare a duvet day.
That reminds me, I think I’ll bring the duvet downstairs with me today.
Some years the winter can be mild, and I just about keep head above water.
Other years we’re not so lucky.
A couple of years ago I thought we’d made it through OK. Christmas was nice, and the autumn had been OK. We’d had to put the heating on a couple of times, but at New Year I was feeling pretty good, all things considered. But in February everything changed.
On the telly they called it the ‘Beast from the East.’ No kidding.
It took no time at all to realise that this was weather like nothing I’d seen before. I tried for maybe the first day to use the heating as little as possible. We didn’t have the Halogen heater back then, so we had to put the storage heaters on. Thing is, these storage heaters don’t really kick in straight away – so I remember having to cuddle up with the children on the settee the first day they were off school.
The next morning it was much better. They weren’t boiling hot, but they helped a lot. We left them on for what must have been at least a week. On one hand I was relieved that the children were warm. Our youngest has a bit of asthma and he doesn’t breathe so easily when it’s cold. On the other hand, I had this constant feeling of dread: I knew that the heating was going to cost so much money.
It took me six months to get out of debt with the energy company. It was 30ºC outside that summer, and I was still paying off the heating from the winter. When the children were at school, I skipped lunch. When the children were at home, we ate “picnic food” pretty much every day. Sandwiches, crisps, crackers, biscuits. They quickly got bored of the menu, but at that point I just needed to find a way to avoid using the cooker or microwave. It sounds frivolous, but some days I was just dying for a hot cup of coffee!
I don’t mind making a few sacrifices to live within our means, but during that Spring I must admit I was very low. It was the hygiene I found hardest, I think. I’d try to have one shower a week. Or a bath. I never really knew whether it was better to have baths and share the water, or have shorter showers. I stopped using the washing machine at home and saved up a bit for the laundrette every couple of weeks. I think it was probably more expensive at the laundrette, but there I could get things dry – and in our house things never seem to get properly dry, even in warm weather. And then our clothes just smell damp. After a while of feeling a bit dirty, it can get you down.
I eventually paid off the fuel debt at the end of July – just in time to begin thinking about the cold weather again. I learned later that we hadn’t been on the right ‘Economy’ energy tariff, so our storage heaters were costing as much in the night as they were in the day. Hindsight is harsh sometimes, isn’t it!
Since that winter, I’ve struggled to enjoy the season. All these cosy adverts about the “magic of the season” pass me by most of the time. Instead, as I go to sleep I worry about the morning, wondering what temperature I’ll wake up to. I check the sky to see whether it’s going to be frosty when I wake up. I go round shutting all the windows, curtains and inside doors to keep as much warmth in as possible. I fell asleep downstairs on the settee once last January. I’d left the Halogen heater on. I woke up toasty warm two or three hours later, but I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I was furious with myself. I skipped lunch again each day for a month. “Every little helps.”
I’ve learned to expect the odd freezing day before Christmas, and for the cold weather to take longer to go away than you expect in the New Year.
I love my little family. Believe it or not, I love where we live and the four walls we call “home.” It’s just hard sometimes. It’s uncomfortable sometimes. And I don’t feel like there’s a lot that I can do to change it.
I always thought that when it was winter, I’d be making decisions about what Christmas decorations to put up; which Winter Wonderland to visit; what classic film I’d introduce the children to this weekend. Instead, I find myself wondering how many days I’ll have to switch the heaters on, how long I’ll be paying for it long after the cold weather has come and gone, and when I’ll next treat myself to a hot cup of coffee.
This story is a fictional one, but it is based on real-life lived experiences of families and individuals living in fuel poverty. These households live on low incomes and struggle to heat their homes affordably. They often choose between heating and eating; and suffer from ill health and poor quality of life during the winter months.
Warm and Well exists to support families in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire who find themselves in this position. We offer simple energy efficiency advice, a one-to-one energy advocate to support those behind on their energy bills and grant funding to install improved heating and insulation.
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