Forty Below: A Long-Overdue Essay on Cold and Balintore Castle
|the first heating at Balintore Castle|
At secondary school, I was impressed by a Jack London short story, possibly called "Forty Below", which detailed life in the extreme cold in the far North of America. Not only was this level of cold mind-blowing, but it could be poetically unit-free as -40 Celcius is the same as -40 Fahrenheit. And while I have never experienced such temperatures, it is only since buying Balintore Castle that I have experienced -18C, and got rather too close to hypothermia for my own comfort on a number of occasions.
It swiftly became apparent that people in the past were hardier than nowadays. The Victorians had no notion of building insulation, but wore more layers of clothing in heavy fabrics, were more physically active and must simply have had a different mindset.
When I first lived in the building, there was no heating full-stop so winters were a challenge. I recall one night early on, where despite a four season sleeping-bag, my body temperature continually dropped throughout the night and I was woken up again and again by the cold. Normally, you expect to warm up in bed, so this experience was my literal and metaphorical wake-up call.
I evolved a sleeping solution using 3 high tog duvets. My discovery was that the 4th duvet adds weight but no extra warmth. When I was sleeping in a tiny caravan round the back of the building, I was inside a 4 season mummy sleeping bag with the zip on the right pulled fully up and my head in the hood, with a woolly hat on. On top of the sleeping bag were two plump duvets.
The caravan was totally uninsulated, and only consisted of a single metal shell, reminiscent of a tin can. I had set up an electric heater there and a small computer desk. With the bed folded out, only a square foot of floor remained and it is hard to believe that for 2 years I lived on that square foot.
In the middle of the second bitter winter in the caravan, I reach the point of stir-craziness or cabin fever. I knew that with one more night in the caravan, I would go mad, and moved into the castle for good, even though my bedroom there lacked glass in the window and even lacked a floor. I had to skip across floor joists to reach my bed, and had to remember in the mornings not to step out normally as I would fall through the joists to the dirt floor three feet below. There was only one morning I absentmindedly forgot about the joists and tumbled onto the earth.
Anyhow, things got better in the castle with an electric underblanket and I would switch this on for the first part of the night to warm up the bed. In the extreme cold, it is sometimes worryingly touch-and-go whether the bed is warming up with body heat alone. I would often fall asleep with the electric blanket on and wake up at 2AM absolutely stifling!
In fact the first evening with the electric blanket I was able to watch "Frozen Planet" in bed. I hadn't been able to watch this documentary series before because the combination of real physical cold and on-screen cold was too much to bear. As I settled down in bed, I thought "Do your worst, David Attenborough!". :-)
The first heating in the castle was a green enamelled Norwegian Jøtul stove which I bought on eBay and picked up in Milngavie. It had originally come from Mull. My friend Andrew and I lit it tentatively the first time, and thereafter I would always put it on for his visits. We would side astride the stove like riders on a horse as it started up, so desperate were we for any kind of warmth. We both recall the first occasion we got the temperature in the room up to double digits. It was a moment to celebrate and somewhere there is a photograph.
At Balintore, piling stoves high with wood is the order of the day, and we always knew the Jøtul stove was pumping out the heat, when the caribou's bottom on the moulded cast iron side panel of the stove started to glow red. I have subsequently found out this is not good for the stove, and no longer do I aim for this.
A friend visited from London. I made him dinner, and between courses I announced "It is time to run round the castle now". The order was met with complete disbelief. I had got into the habit of running round the castle between courses as it is when you are sitting still that your body temperature starts to drop. So laps round the castle were the quid pro quo for formal dining. I normally never kept still inside the castle and danced to keep warm from waking up until going to bed. I was living a cold-induced rave lifestyle.
I have lived in the castle with a foot of snow inside the building. There was no glass in all the windows of the Victorian kitchen for the longest time so fine snow could blow in, and I found myself walking on top of a foot of snow while cooking for about a week.
So over the years I have "toughened up" a bit. Although, I am never quite sure if I have actually just learned to discern "feeling cold" from "being cold". Now "feeling cold" can be unpleasant but one can still get on with things. However, "being cold" is another matter. This is the bone-chilling cold, which brings pain to one's feet and hands, that drains one's soul, and renders tasks impossible and requires intervention. At the castle intervention used to be taking to one's bed. Andrew who works in agriculture engineering in all weathers, will work through the "pain in hands" stage to the "no feeling in hands" stage. I take the pain as the warning sign and stop there.
One Christmas early on, I stayed up at the castle instead of visiting my friends in Norfolk, as the 14 days off would give me a lot of uninterrupted time to work on the building. I was doing some wiring in the loft of the kitchen wing. I could spend 15 minutes wiring (which needed gloves off for dexterity) before my hands would hurt too much. To thaw my hands would take the next 30 minutes in my bedroom with the Jøtul stove. I achieved that fortnight what I could have done in a day in Summer. It was a learning experience.
Once when I came up from England, I was discussing matters with my builder of the time called Andy. After 5 minutes of standing still, not only was I shivering with the cold but I was violently spasming with the cold. "You've turned into a southern softie, David". I could only reply "Yes.".
Three weeks later when I had acclimatised as much as you can to cold, it was another freezing cold day. Andy must have been feeling the cold himself, as he announced "I don't know how you can live here, David.". Result!
My current builder Gregor recently confessed that he has frequently turned up in the morning, not expecting me to have made it through a particularly cold night.
It is useful to have a thermometer to measure the temperature for safety.
My experience suggests that 13C is the safe temperature - you may feel cold but you are OK. Below this wear a coat indoors. 5C is where things start to get unpleasant, and in high humidity 5C can feel as cold as when it is sub-zero.
Below zero temperatures need not be as bad as you may think. Snow can blanket the castle and of course bright sunshine and below zero temperatures is a mood lifter. You need one space you can heat up as a refuge from the cold. I did not have this for quite some time at the castle, and the alternative of retreating to bed felt like a defeat.
I had grand plans of installing a Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) at the castle and powering this by the castle's old hydroelectric station. The magic about a GSHP is that you put one unit of electrical pumping energy in, and you get 5 units of heat energy out, so it works out to be the cheapest form of heating to run. However, the capital cost is high. I was looking at 40k for Balintore, so I demurred to a good old oil boiler. The oil heating works well and keeps three zones of the castle, on three heating circuits, nice and toasty.
I am still staying in an unrestored heating-free part of the castle over this winter, but watch this space.
So, fingers crossed, it is unlikely that I will ever return to the early castle days of "Jack London" levels of cold at Balintore, but I thought I had better record them for posterity as few would believe them otherwise, and looking back I can scarcely believe them myself.