Using two bars of the Superser was like holding a party

In the Big Freeze of 1982, the hot press was the only place to be

Geraldine de Brit, ticking all the boxes in case of a repeat of 1982 cold weather. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Geraldine de Brit, ticking all the boxes in case of a repeat of 1982 cold weather. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

I spent a good portion of January 1982 in the hot press. With the weather we’ve had this week, I’ve found myself eyeing it up again. (In fact, as you read this I may even be in it.)

In 1982 I was living in Offington, a very fashionable middle-class estate in Sutton built circa 1970. With its low-rise dormer bungalow-style house design, lots of glass, set on large open plan sites of stretched lawns dotted with palm trees, I always felt it had a very American feel to it (think Levittown, New Jersey, no yard boundaries and meticulously gardened sidewalks). Whether Offington was, or is,  the equivalent of the great American dream (owning your own house in the burbs), I can’t say, but what I can say is this. Those bungalows were cold.

Built in an era before insulation became a “hot topic” (excuse the pun), Offington wouldn’t have been alone in being an estate unburdened by insulation. Most of the estates which sprung up on the green fields of Sutton during the housing boom of the late 1960s early 1970s were by and large uninsulated.

In the case of Offington, with its detached dormer bungalow design, bedrooms in the attic, zero insulation and lots of single-glazed glass, well you get the picture.

Add to that one of the biggest freezes on record (January 1982), an economic recession where using two bars on the superser was the equivalent of throwing a mad no-holds-barred party (putting on the actual central heating was just for celebrities and people who owned yachts and Charvet shirts) and you get a clearer picture of why the hot press seemed so inviting.

As a way of managing heating bills, my father installed a solid fuel-burning Aga type stove in the kitchen. The heat it produced was going to heat the radiators and the water. The only snag was that for this to work the fire had to be kept going. Cue one head in the clouds, heavily eye-lined teenager, a pile of wet logs and a note on the kitchen table “not to let the fire go out”. You can see where this is going.

The big freeze of January 1982 was a dire enough emergency to warrant a relaxation of normal immersion rules
The big freeze of January 1982 was a dire enough emergency to warrant a relaxation of normal immersion rules

Right idea

We also tried installing an apparatus which looked to me like a set of curved organ pipes which went in behind the open fireplace in the sittingroom. The idea was that the pipes, which ran underneath and behind the fire, would suck up the heat and blow it back out into the room (in Offington a large lounge come dining L-shaped space).

In fairness in a pre-stove era the inventors were on to the right idea in recognising that most of the heat from an open fire is lost up the chimney but as it turned out the only thing that this gadget blew back into the room was smoke and soot. Cue one teenager with a can of Mr Sheen polish and a heavy dusting itinerary.

The hot press housed, of course, that most-prized and revered of Irish household electrical fixtures: the immersion. Immersion use was for dire emergencies only (like when your hands were about to fall off from the cold) and even then only for restricted periods of time. God forbid you should turn it on and then wander off with your head in the clouds and forget about it.

The big freeze of January 1982 was a dire enough emergency to warrant a relaxation of normal immersion rules and so the hot press became the warmest spot in the house

I have no doubt that as a teenager growing up in the 1980s, the memories of that recession were so ingrained, it took me a long time to shake off the “Oh my God I left the immersion on” cold sweat even as a fully grown adult. But the coming of house-owning age in the Celtic Tiger years softened those “belt tightening” memories.

I still remember the night, in our first house at the start of the new millennium, in a fit of newly wed exuberance, my other half and I threw caution to the wind and left it on. Double immersion. All night. On purpose. My God, the sheer liberating decadence of it. Take that Charlie Haughey and to a lesser extent the ESB! How d’ya like them apples? It was only a matter of time before buying a supermarket in Bulgaria would seem like a good idea.

Sigh. Which is why we are now back on “immersion watch” (single I might add, double being but a distant reckless dream) and my father saying “I told you so” while we investigated the best stove for heating the large L-shaped sitting come dining room space in my new home in Sutton. Plus ça change.

At least my dream of bringing something of my own background into my children’s lives came to fruition. One completely uninsulated 1970s built house in Sutton with freezing block walls. Tick. One crippling recession. Tick. One big freeze. Tick. One stove installed and zoned-out teenagers to let it go out. Tick. One hot press ready for occupation. Tick.