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.
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