19 June 2009

Joys of the hottie

Now, we've tended to live in old farm houses ever since we got here, so I suppose to some degree what I'm about to report is a function of selecting these kinds of houses, but we've always been struck by the fairly simple nature of the available means to control the heating. The most advanced place we lived in had a simple yet appropriately located dial thermostat. The most primative had no wall mounted thermostat at all; all you could do is move a dial on the boiler itself to change how hot it made the water. But I've been in no house so far that's equipped with some of the whizzy digital thermostats that are fairly common in the US.

What those older houses did have in common, however, was that there was a timer attached to the heating circuit that allowed you to turn the heat off completely at night. Apparently it isn't uncommon at all for folks to save on fuel simply by turning the heat of altogether while they sleep; one friend has stated that he never sleeps with the heat on as he always wakes up with a headache the next day.

So how to keep warm on those chilly, damp nights? We initially thought it the best strategy was a down comforter with an R-value high enough to qualify it as attic insulation (well, in reality we just kept the heat on). But we've since learned the real trick is the hottie, or hot water bottle.

Hot water bottles always seemed like an anachronism, even as I was growing up. We had one, but no one actually ever seemed to use it, save for those infrequent grave occasions when you required the hose attachment to “unblock the plumbing”, if you catch my drift. I'll admit to one novel use during high school: I carried a hottie (purchased just for this use) under my arm with that hose attached to it and filled it with rum. Then when my buddies and I went to the football games, we could pass the hose around and dump it into our cokes or take a long draw off of it directly. Ah, the ingenuity of youth.

But it wasn't until the UK that we learned of the hottie's true noble mission: to keep your bed, and especially your feet, warm while you keep the rest of the house cool. The first time we encountered this use was actually on a vacation in the bush of Botswana; the safari people who organized our trip would put a filled hottie into our beds before we retired for the evening, and it made sleeping in an otherwise unheated tent entirely comfortable.

It was after this time that we began to actually notice all the hotties for sale at the pharmacy every autumn/winter. And not only hotties, but a whole range of different decorative covers (which also kept you from getting scorched accidentally). Tartan plaids, fake fur, animal and cartoon characters for the kids; clearly we had entirely glossed over the hottie cultural subtext entirely.

And these things are awesome. I have to admit that I would never have guessed at the comfort such a simple device provides. There's nothing that encourages a good night's sleep like a cold room and a warm bed. We still keep a little cube heater in the corner; it makes sure the room doesn't go below 60° F, but otherwise the house is entirely unheated for about 6 hours a night in the winter (I'm sure that many locals would think I was a wimp for having only 6 hours with no heat). The really amazing thing is that the hottie is still warm in the morning; keeping it and us under the comforter really holds the heat in nicely.

And no, we don't fill it with hot rum.

16 June 2009

Wellie rapture

The wellie boot is a common sight out here in the countryside were we live, and you can readily spot people in them walking their dogs, going to the market, dropping the kids off at school, browsing the garden center, having a few at the pub, and generally just getting on with life (not to mention tending their gardens) while shod in their wellies. They are so pervasive in British culture that songs about them, both serious and comical, have been written about them, and a “sport”, wellie wanging, has grown up around them. While adult boots are predominantly in a hunter green, brightly colored and patterned wellies are available for the kids. It's hard to spend any time outside of London and not wind up bumping into them in some way or other.

I resisted buying wellies for 6 or 7 years after our arrival here. My wife got some right away and loved how convenient and comfy she said they were. But I was a Timberland leather-work-shoe-and-boot-kind-of-guy, and somehow those big, rubbery-looking things never seemed, well, I don't know...rugged enough? I'm not sure, but they always seemed somehow wrong.

No longer. I finally bought a pair last year, and they've become my favorite around the garden footwear. There's something about them; they slip on easily, there's no lacing/tying, you can scoff at the stinging nettle and not worry about getting them wet, and they're awfully comfortable. My Timberlands now sit moping the boot tray. But I haven't yet got the nerve to wear them to the DIY shop yet.

11 June 2009

Steam meet

Every summer, especially around where we live now, you'll notice temporary signs posted along the countryside roads that read something along the lines of “Steam Meet - Wibbledons Cross 11-12 June” or “Steam Fair & Craft Show Here 1-14 July”. These are announcing gatherings for enthusiasts of steam-powered vehicles. The majority of these are traction engines, essentially rail-less steam powered machines that are used to haul loads across the ground.

These devices predate the internal combustion engine and were an early attempt at replacing the draught horse. The UK provides a home for a disproportionate number of the remaining traction engines in the world, and apparently fanciers of the same.

The steam meet is an interesting phenomenon. Often held at park grounds or some farmer's field, the meet consists some concessions, craft booths, a bouncy castle or other attractions, and a few rows of neatly arranged and meticulously maintained steam vehicles, all idling away apparently to prove they still work.

It's hard not to be impressed when you see these things for the first time. The appearance is overwhelmingly that of a free-range old-time locomotive, complete with smokestack and big rear wheels. The similarity ends with many of these things, however, when you notice that instead of a cab for the engineer, there's simply a single seat (at least on the smaller ones), and it hits you that this is essentially a steam-powered tractor.

The two things that stays with you, however, are the smells and the heat. These machines are almost all running, pouring out smoke rich with the smell of burnt oil. You need to make a constant effort to maneuver yourself so that you're not downwind of the smoke plume, as the smoke is quickly overwhelming. Not as easy to avoid is the heat, that is, unless you're happy to observe at a distance. These things are all huge boilers on wheels, and the heat radiating from them is impressive. Form a few lines of them and you can get evenly browned just walking down between the rows.

Our first encounter with one of these things wasn't at a meet; it was through the windows of the first house we lived in here. One weekend day I heard the unlikely sound of a steam whistle right outside, a somewhat odd occurrence since we lived in the countryside nowhere near any train tracks. Looking out the window toward the road, I was able to spy over the hedge what appeared to be a steam train, moving very slowly down the road, and carrying a couple of passengers on a platform at the back. Of course, this elicited one of those subtle “WTF!?” responses that we Americans are known for whenever we're confronted with something outside of our realm of experience. By the time I fetched Lisa to have a look, it was gone. But it would return from time to time, usually pulling a cart full of brush that had been cleared off to be burned somewhere. I'm embarrassed to say that wasn't until our son was old enough to start watching Thomas the Tank Engine that I found out what I had spotted.

Who says TV isn't educational?

09 June 2009

The little brush

(This post is going to address a delicate subject residing in the intersection of engineering and bodily functions. I will make every attempt to address this topic in a tasteful manner, but I ain't makin' any promises. You have been warned.)

One little amenity that you can come to expect here in the UK is that right next to most toilet bowls sits a little bowl brush in a holder. Instead of being hidden away in a cleaning closet like in most places in America, the bowl brush is right there for you to see, and more importantly, use. Its presence is pretty pervasive, not only in homes, but in businesses, restaurants, the pub-- it would be more unusual to not see a bowl brush than to see one.

This might lead you to conclude that Brits are culturally indoctrinated to clean up after themselves, a practice that, frankly, more of us Americans could stand embracing. It certainly fits into the image that the UK is a tidy place.

But I don't think that's the reason at all. I think the reason is that with a British toilet, you have to clean up.

See, the average British toilet is shaped in such a way as to present a much smaller “landing zone” for your incoming “package”, which results in it being difficult to achieve that “nothing but net” delivery that keeps things tidy (even with the metaphors, that was painful to write). So I suspect that the brush is a matter of not habitually grossing people out rather than a well-respected cultural nicety. But the expectation does appear to be that you, like a good camper, leave nothing behind.

08 June 2009


Ok, so what's the deal with all the spiders here? Snails and slugs I can understand due to the damp, but spiders? How did the UK end up with so many damn spiders?

You'll have to excuse me; we have house guests arriving in a few days and we've been on a marathon cleaning and reorganization rampage (hey, we've only been in this house 1.5 years, so of course the guest room is still full of boxes). And part of this has been scouring the house for spider webs and brushing or vacuuming them away. And they're simply everywhere.

Now, it's not like we haven't cleaned in that 1.5 years; in fact, web-duty is a reasonably common cleaning process around here. But somehow we're always outpaced by the spiders. They seem to manage to continuously create more webs than we can keep up with. So you'll understand my consternation from having a sore back from running the vacuum wand along the ceiling corners to suck down all the webs.

Conventional wisdom would say that we have a lot of spiders because there must be a lot of food for them to eat. While that must be part of it, I don't believe that this is the whole story. Every house we've been in here has been awash with spiders, and there never seemed to be any consistent local conditions (besides being in the UK) to explain it.

And man! Some of these things are disturbing. The ones I'm particularly thinking of are a little bigger than a poker chip across, with stout bodies and legs. And they can run! I mean really book! You think you're going to give one a good gishing and suddenly it charges (yes, charges!) between your feet, and you just about leap out of your socks trying to stay out of its way. I'm told they're harmless, but I'm betting they probably carry guns. Or at least a knife.

I thought this was the beneign land of Miss Tiggywinkle.

05 June 2009

Teensy appliances

(So I've not posted in a couple of days; it's been kinda busy around here. I apologize for any inconvenience.)

I suppose it's just a function of a lot of people living efficiently on a small island, but from an American perspective the size of the appliances here are minuscule. It's hard to not get a brief sense of having accidentally walked into a kindergarten “pretend house” when first confronted with the size of what are termed “white goods” here.

One might be inclined to organize a tour of UK appliances by traveling from laundry to kitchen, but that approach frequently doesn't work here. That's because you'll often find the washer, dryer, fridge, and freezer all in the kitchen (that should give you an idea of size). So you instead must proceed by function: storing food, cleaning your filthy rags.

It's very common to find under-counter fridges and freezers here. And yes, that makes the fridge hold just a little bit more than the cube fridge you had in your college dorm room that was mostly stocked with beer. It also means that if you're tall like me you hate having to look for anything in the fridge.

There's an additional sense that you can make regarding the size of fridges when you consider the shelf-life of perishable goods. I've heard it stated that the UK puts a lot fewer preservatives in the food, which would explain the somewhat shorter shelf life of perishables and also the laser-precise “use by” dates on those goods. Maybe it's just a result of guy-ness, but I remember being able to rely on the “sniff test” for food in the US to determine if it was still edible after the expiration date. But here, if they say that yogurt is good until the 4th, don't attempt any second-guessing them on the 5th.

So maybe you don't need a big fridge if there's never enough food because it's going past dates so quickly. In fact, it might be a blessing and keep you from loading up with stuff that you wind up throwing out because it goes past dates before you use it. Or maybe you don't need a lot of preservatives because no one can keep much on hand due to storage capacity at home. Or maybe it's society plotting to keep women tied to the home by forcing them to go to market every other day. Oh, the fun of theorizing!

This isn't to say that there are larger stand-up fridge-freezers. These run roughly around ½ the size of standard American fridge-freezer combo, which really puts into perspective how small the under-counter units are. The first house we rented here was a huge place and had lots of room in the renovated kitchen, and the owners obviously decided they weren't going to be encumbered by the conventional lack of storage capacity. So they installed two under-counter fridges, one under-counter freezer, and had a stand-up combo in a nearby room.

It is possible to get American-size fridge-freezers here, and in fact that exactly how they're marketed: “American-sized refrigerators”. But unless a kitchen is designed with one of these in mind, they often stick out like a sort thumb in the otherwise scaled down UK kitchen. It's hard look at them in a UK kitchen and not wonder if they aren't an unintentional indicator as to the reasons for the girth of so many Americans.

As for doing the laundry; well, the washer sits under lots of countertops here, too. Which means for guys my size that you can reasonably hope to wash at most a couple of pairs of trousers and a shirt if you don't want them hopelessly twisted up. Of special note are the “combi” units which have a washer and dryer in a single device, providing you the efficiency of being able to toss your laundry in soiled, and about 3 hours later pull out clean, hopelessly wrinkled clothes, ready to keep you busy ironing for the rest of the day.

To be fair, large homes often have separate units, and some folks have discovered the wash-day joy of the American sized washer and dryer. With a 5 year old in residence, we couldn't have lived without our big US machines, and so now a big determining factor for homes suitable for us is whether or not the house can accommodate our towering American Whirlpools. It's just one place where we can't accept the shrinkage in our white goods.

02 June 2009

The garden center

I imagine many Americans have some preconceived notions about the British and their attachment to gardening. There's a good bit of truth in it-- the British are avid gardeners. Our first rented house here came with the gardener, a weathered old man named John who had a well-neigh impenetrable Buckinghamshire accent. John was in his eighties and had been working on our property in one capacity or another since he was 12. But despite his age, he never thought twice about stripping off to the waist and tackling whatever garden chores needed doing around the house.

The culture serves John and all gardeners well in the form of the garden center. While they don't quite have the statistical density of hot dog stands, it seems you are never far away from a garden center.

Now, the British garden center is not like nurseries we're accustomed to in the US. Here, garden centers are sprawling, elaborate affairs, and it's not unusual to find them equipped with things like a cafe, bookshop, ornamental pond, or play areas for children, not to mention the extensive choices of plant life, gear, accessories, furniture, and more. One near our last house (and we had two within two miles of us) had a miniature woodland railroad for the kids, and around the holidays you can visit Father Christmas (Santa) in his grotto in the woods (Santa lurks in a grotto here), and an old double-decker London bus is opened up and fill with “holiday refreshments” for the grownups (if you catch my drift). They become frequent rest stops for cycling clubs, hangouts for seniors, and in general have a considerable gravitational pull on the community.

And the tools! I'm sure it's the male equivalent to a woman finding herself in a room full of shoes, all in her size. From what I recall in the US, usually you'd be presented with two lines of tools, three at most, covering a few price ranges. Not so at the garden center: it's not unusual to be confronted with six or more complete lines of tools, representing the purely functional (the basic stuff), the high-tech (composite handles, shock-absorbing grips), the highly engineered (what else would you expect from a German tools line), the keenly edged (Wilkinson, the razor blade people, make garden tools here, so mind those hedge clippers), and the absolutely beautiful (and very pricey).

The aesthetics of this final category are wonderful. Refined metal finishes on blades and edges, quality handle woods, bent into graceful ergonomic arcs-- you don't want to get them dirty. And it's not like there's only one brand of these gorgeous tools; there are several, and clearly there's an active market for them. It's as if there's a strata of gardener that wants to maximize the pleasure of every aspect of the gardening activity.

Or maybe it's just garden bling. But for guys, it certainly is tool porn.