I can't afford to run the cottage – I'm taking drastic action

·6-min read
katie glass - Andrew Crowley for the Telegraph
katie glass - Andrew Crowley for the Telegraph

The boiler breaks. Of course the boiler breaks! What kind of a city-girl-moves-to-the-country column would this be if it didn’t? The heating and hot water give out at the best possible moment: just as the wood-burner is condemned, the weather has taken a turn for the cold, the winter log supply has ended and I have a woman staying as part of the Workaway scheme, where hosts provide travellers with food and lodging in exchange for odd jobs. And of course, when electricity prices have gone through the roof.

To be fair, the ancient Worcester boiler in the kitchen limped on bravely for 25-odd years despite the insides desperately needing a dust and various incomprehensible DIY fixes having been done to it. It nobly managed to see me through winter without causing too much of a fuss. Only in the past few weeks has it started giving up, waking in the mornings like a crotchety teenager undecided about whether it is in the mood to work or not.

The crisis point comes while I am busily tanning in the Caribbean, which isn’t so terrible for me but hell for T, the poor Workaway guest, who is house-sitting my cottage while I am away. Between piña coladas in the hot tub, I try to direct her though restarting the programmer, feeling mildly ashamed. The boiler staggers on bravely for a week, finally dying just as I walk in.

Still, there are upsides. At least now I’ve stopped worrying about the price of oil. I have the remnants of my holiday sunburn to keep me warm and the ski suit I had ordered in the sales has arrived. I put it on, fake-fur hood flapping as I run up and down the stairs between the boiler in the kitchen and the programmer in the bedroom, flicking switches, pressing buttons, turning the power on and off (which later the boiler technician will tell me is the worst thing to do). Nothing helps.

I canvas advice from anyone practical on Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp. Is the oil tank empty? No – and thank God, because since last time I complained about the price of oil it has risen threefold. Is it the pressure? I have no idea because I haven’t been able to locate any kind of pressure gauge since I moved in. I also have not been able to locate a thermostat – but that’s a worry for another day.

T and I try everything to no avail. The boiler is dead, and though it is Easter it won’t come back to life. We shiver together in the kitchen watching it flare up, spark into life, holding our breath while the “on” light flashes, only for it to die again. I spend a day calling around local heating engineers, none of whom can fit me in for another two weeks.

I find the website for Worcester boilers and try to book a service, but am informed that this will only be possible if I can provide a serial number. Several searches of the boiler do not yield one. Eventually a kind man on the other end of the phone takes pity and books me an appointment anyway, for the bargain price of £400. Meanwhile I wait, taking a keen interest in the weather, using the immersion heater sparingly and building a fire in the living room at night.

I have lived in a cottage without heating before and managed just fine. There is a certain romance and rhythm to waking up in the mornings and going out to collect kindling on your walk, then in the afternoon building a fire so the heat has time to build before the evening chill. I get used to dressing first in a layer of thermals, huddling under blankets and falling asleep clinging to the dog, who mercifully the ex has given me custody of for a month.

In a way I quite like how the pace of living in the house slows without modern conveniences and I finally get to use all the pointless tea cosies I’ve collected on my travels. Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however. T, who until recently was living in Kenya, sits in bed freezing under her duvet with the electric radiator in her room. When I discover that the cost of replacing the boiler is easily going to set me back £5,000, I tell her I am in no hurry to do it, especially with the weather warming up a bit. She quickly scarpers.

My other guests also seem to have disappeared and now Stringerbelle the labradoodle and I are alone in the cottage with a conundrum: I had been advertising for flatmates to help me manage the bills and it’s been hard enough trying to attract people to a rural cottage where the garden is a swamp and the kitchen is half-built; now I have the added complication of finding someone willing to live somewhere the boiler isn’t working.

I email the Workaways volunteers who are supposed to be staying in future and confess the situation. Some cancel their stays. Only one, an Argentinian man staying nearby in Gloucester, tells me calmly he’ll just pack some warmer clothes and we make plans for me to collect him at the train station.

Eventually the heating engineers start arriving. Each diagnoses a different problem, which none of them can fix. They each charge me £200 and tell me the boiler needs replacing, which I knew in the first place. I get an estimate for replacing the boiler of £4,700.

I see all my plans for wooden floors, antique butchers’ blocks, dressers, French beds, neon signs and toile disappear like the flame in my boiler pilot light. Still, I know I’ll be all right. In the kitchen the new Workaway visitor has transformed the walls with a blush pink from Dulux and painted the windows a rich bright cream. Outside the sun starts to shine and the old stone walls seem to warm up. The better weather gives me some grace and time to think: perhaps before I commit to installing another smokey oil boiler, I should explore other options. I start calling solar companies and wood-burner installers…

This week I’ve been obsessed with…

Neat

Neat produces concentrated cleaning products that you mix with tap water and store inside reusable aluminium spray bottles. The surprisingly stylish range of pretty, colourful bottles brighten up the kitchen and cut down on waste. They smell so delicious that even I’m tempted to do a spring clean. neatclean.com

Writers’ HQ

This is a community of writers with little time or money, whose weekly “Flash Face Off” Saturday writing challenge shares prompts to pen a 500-word story that the group shares on Thursday and performs on Friday evenings on Zoom. Started during the pandemic, it now produces 50-odd stories a week, following the motto “Stop f---ing about and start writing”. writershq.co.uk

Custom Neon

With its bespoke, hand-made LED neon signs, this firm’s customers include Elon Musk, Paris Hilton and (in my fantasies) me. customneon.co.uk

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