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Dress the part

If it's cold in your house, why not wear a bloody hat?

It's morning, and I've just been watching the BBC Breakfast programme about people who are suffering from a lack of heating oil this year.

I feel sorry for these people - I really do. It's scandalous the way the price of heating oil isn't regulated in the same way as mains gas, etc. But watching people being interviewed, complaining about how cold their houses are, I can't help but notice that not one of them is dressed properly. 

If you live in the countryside, you can't twat about in a cotton blouse and a t-shirt indoors, wittering like a townie - you have to tog up. That means Aran or Shetland sweaters, hats, thick wool trousers, Ugg boots.

We are so used to this way of dressing in this neck of the woods that we don't even think about it, but it is, after all, only the way we all dressed when we were kids, before central heating became ubiquitous. 30 years ago, people didn't expect their whole house to be warm in winter - you heated only the space you were IN, and you stayed in that space.

Right now, I'm not yet dressed, and that means: full-length silk nightie, cashmere cowlneck sweater, beanie (this is my actual sleeping attire - if I slept without a hat, the cold would wake me up). Add to that Ugg boots, full-length wrap woolmix cardi worn as a dressing gown, and a calf-length wool kimono.

This might seem like overkill if you live in town, but our living room temperature is 13 degrees right now, after three hours of the central heating being on (it will now go off until tomorrow). However, I'm warm as toast. 12-14 degrees is pretty much as good as it gets here and I don't think of it as cold indoors until it drops to about 10 degrees.

In case you're wondering, the DH hasn't had a cold in years, and I only get bronchitis in summer. On the downside, we do find shops, offices and hospitals appallingly hot, stuffy and airless.

Another thing I notice from the telly is people's apparent reliance on only one form of heating. But you can't live in the countryside and rely on supplies - they can be disrupted for all kinds of reasons. You also have to order well in advance - you can't leave deliveries till the last minute and it looks like many people have been caught out in this way in Britain this year, with the suppliers running around like blue-arsed flies trying to do a month's deliveries in a week.

Here, we have tough winter weather - icy winds and well-below-freezing temperatures for days or weeks at a time - and if you're not prepared, you're buggered. The power also goes out at the first opportunity because cables run above ground in France. We therefore have a plentiful supply of candles and paraffin lamps, lots of bottled water (no electricity means no pump for our well) and four forms of heating: oil-fired central heating (which we use for just a few hours in the morning); electric blow heaters in the bedroom and office; a butane portable heater in the kitchen, and woodburners in the kitchen and living room. We also tried a fifth form - paraffin heating - but found it too smelly, and these days, we also have two types of wood fuel - logs and densified wood - so that we can ensure supply at any time of year.

Country people in England are learning the hard way this year how quickly everything can grind to a halt, as are many in town - it is only when the weather really bites that you become aware of how precariously we all cling to the illusion of civilisation.



Budget bathtime

The credit crunch doesn't mean you can't enjoy a spa bath - but the ingredients might be ready for a change

Further to a piece I wrote a little while ago on eco-friendly beauty, I thought I'd share a few more budget - and natural - bathtime ideas.

SugarThe first is from my friend K in Cincinnati - sugar. I'd tried bath salts, of course, but had never thought about sugar, but she is right - it makes the most fantastic body scrub, especially if you mix it with some oil. Just pour about a teaspoon of oil into your hand, add about the same amount of sugar, mix it to a paste and bob's your uncle. No mess, no residue, clean drains. I've taken to keeping a vanilla pod in the jar too - scents the sugar wonderfully.

MargarineAnother tip was one I read about many moons ago, back in the 1970s and was advice offered up by Marie Helvin - margarine. Before you gag, think about what margarine actually is - it's just oil hydrogenated into a solid form, which actually makes it a tad easier to use. Just keep a tub of it by the bath, grab a smallish handful and either drop it in the hot water or rub it over yourself like a cream as soon as you get in.

grapesIf you balk at margarine, why not just use oil? Rather than shelling out for expensive bath oil that you add to the water, I now get in the bath and quickly rub plain old grapeseed oil all over myself. (Don't add it to the water or it just forms clumps.) Grapeseed is high in natural collagen, which plumps up your skin, but it's a bit thin, so if you prefer something thicker, either mix in some olive oil or use sweet almond oil instead - particularly good for dry skin. I keep mine in an old massage oil container which is very pretty, and have added a bit of ylang-ylang and rosemary essential oils to it for a more fragrant experience. 

Green clayMy latest bit of fun is a product I found at my local health store. I actually bought it to eat, but it also works well as a detoxifying bath - green clay. Just shake a bit into a bath until the water goes cloudy and you have the most gorgeous, silky-feeling water imaginable. You can also mix it to a paste and use it as a face or body mask.

OatmealI suppose everyone over a certain age already knows about oatmeal for the bath. It was all we had when we were kids. This is best used in a cloth bag or you end up with bits everywhere. Hang the bag under the hot tap while the water's running, and at the end, give it a squeeze - wonderful for dry or sore skin. This oatmeal specially made for the bath is from On a similar theme, powdered milk makes a very nice bath too and generally costs so little that you can use as much or as little as you like. 

honeyCourtesy of Twiggy's book on style over 40 (see reviews section), I tried her idea for a honey and olive oil face mask, and very nice it is too. You have to warm them to mix them together, leave on for 10-15 minutes and simply wash away. 

Voila - a cheap, nice-smelling, totally eco bathtime.

And by the way, I found a great system for a natural deodorant - will post another time. 



What a difference some heat makes

We've finally been able to put the central heating on and I couldn't be a happier bunny

The day has finally arrived - our heating fuel has just been delivered.

I hadn't considered, when we moved to the country, that one of the problems with being isolated is that you're off all the services. We don't have access to mains gas, and that means you have to work heating and cooking fuel out for yourself. 

The French, being practical people above all else, have deserted their old stone country houses in droves, preferring instead a tiny modern reverse Tardis - far smaller on the inside than the outside - insulated to within an inch of its life. This makes electric heating, which is all nuclear here, a feasible entity. 

Those who remain in these old houses mostly rely on wood, which works out cheaper than all other fuels, provided you're willing to put the work in. A wood-fired 'chaudiere' can fire a whole housefull of radiators, though you have to keep feeding it all day, but many people, like us, only have a woodstove, which is a different beast - a space heater, rather than a central heating system. It heats a room or two admirably, and the upstairs rooms are warmed by the passing flue, but you can't conduct heat from it to other parts of the house unless you buy an 'insert' system, set into a closed chimney.We have a thousand-year-old monumental fireplace, so that option's out as well. 

We survived on our woodburner alone for our first several years in France, but when we had a windfall about seven years ago, we invested in it converting our existing central heating system from bottle gas (impossibly expensive at £35 a day, so never used) to oil. One great advantage of oil is that you buy it up front, as with wood, so you can at least regulate your consumption and not come in for nasty surprises when the bill arrives.

I've always liked this aspect of oil, but who knew the oil situation was going to become so dire so quickly? It's like those days back in the 70s, when - once again - it was the country-dwellers with oil-fired heating who lost out when Opec decided to start playing silly buggers. We invested 5,000 euros in our ultra-efficient oil-fired system, and it will never pay for itself. 

However, from its high back in the summer, finally, today, the oil price has dropped to 52 cents a litre, so we are filling up. Waiting a extra week has saved us over 100 euros. And waiting two months has saved over 400, which we can now spend on extra wood, because we'll run out of that in January, I reckon. 

What a pickle. But it was great after the plumber's visit this morning (because of course, when we put the heating on yesterday, the damn thing wasn't working...), to hear the sound of hot water glugging through the system and for the first time this winter, feel the edge of the cold really drop off the house. We are only heating the rooms we use, of course - kitchen, office, bedroom, bathroom and one rad (out of three) in the living room, but the difference it has made already is astounding.

Oh la. Still, we must make it last indefinitely, given the global outlook, so the current plan is to run it from 7.00 till noon, then manage without for the rest of the day. At 5.00, we light the woodburner, which keeps the living room end good and toasty for evening, and during the night, the heating will come on if the temperature in the house drops below 12 degrees. Even at this level of consumption, we'll have spent 2,000 euros by winter's end, plus whatever the electricity amounts to, so frugality is definitely the name of the game this year.

Keeping my fingers crossed...


Sod the planet, just give me the oil

I love my eco-friendly woodburner, but right now, I'd kill for some of the black stuff.

It's a bit cheeky of me to put today's blog in Fashion and Style section, given that any attempts at either are clearly out of the window at present.

The reason is, it's freezing. 

Actually, it's not really all THAT cold here, it's just that we don't have any central heating.

Last time we ordered fuel oil, it was 95 cents a litre. We could only afford 500 litres, so this is strictly used for hot water only and we have had to switch back to the woodburner as our main source of heat.

The problem is, the past few days we have absolutely chunked through wood and we can't afford to keep burning it at this rate - it is just not lasting anywhere near as long as I would like. We are currently lighting it at noon and putting the last log on about 10.00, but we can't really afford to light it till 5.00. And we really need to burn all day to keep the heat in. I don't know quite how cold this office is, because my thermometer doesn't go down far enough, but it's pretty bloody cold, I can tell you.

Also, the woodie may heat our living room admirably (in fact, by evening it's too hot to bear), but little of the heat comes upstairs to this office, so as I type today (I kid you not), I am wearing: undies and socks; long johns, velour sweatpants and an ankle-length knitted skirt; a thermal camisole, long-sleeved t-shirt, poloneck sweater, and long cardigan; then Uggs, a huge woolly ankle-length knitted dressing-gown, a woolly hat, and fingerless gloves. Stylish I'm not.

Dressing for the bedroom is proving another problem. Not the flannel pjs and poloneck sweater that I habitually sleep in now (yay - sexeee). These are doing a great job and when the weather drops below freezing, we can always leave the electric blanket on overnight. But the past few nights I've woken up with a crushing headache from the cold. The electric blow heater we're using to warm the room before bedtime seems to wear off about 4.00am, leaving me wide awake. Damn and blast it, I hadn't thought of this eventuality, for all that I grew up in a house where the water froze in your bedside glass. I am clearly getting wimpish.

Hmn. Time for a bed hat says my friend M. We both wore one in the recent cold snap (well, mine was a hood) and while I'm at it, why not a bedgown and a candle, so I can thoroughly look like Scrooge? Is this what it's come to? Talk about Victorian values.

Well, maybe not, actually. Fuel oil has dropped to 63 cents a litre, which brings it within reach again, so we are planning to order a thousand litres next week. What bliss even a LITTLE heat would be, even just setting the thermostat to come on when the temperature drops to 15 degrees or so. And warmth in the morning, that would be nice. And not having to stand in front of a blow heater to get dressed, warming up each item of clothing in turn... 

Ah yes. Sod the carbon footprint - just gimme the oil.


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