Gecko by Gaslight

It might be Bus Pass Year, but I am not that old. Not really. Not in today’s terms. However, a passing reference in my last post about the lunar eclipse prompted surprise from a reader, that there was no electricity supply to the house I was brought up in. The reader herself was a school friend and therefore she was familiar with both the location and the era. And her surprise in turn opened a whole area of memories of my own, of times not so long ago in a place not far away, but incredibly distant and hazy.

This was not a century ago. This was only the 70s, the time of David Bowie, Slade and the distant strains of the pirate Radio stations – Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg – beaming out the latest chart hits on tiny, tinny transistor radios. The time of bell bottom trousers, platform shoes and flowery patches on our jeans. A wonderful time to be a teenager.

My childhood and teenage home was in idyllic setting, nestling on the shores of a Perthshire loch, two miles from the nearest village where the primary school, three hotels, a garage and the sole shop were located. The main road ran outside the front door, the village two miles to the north and the town with the secondary school seven miles to the south. In front of the house sat the loch, with a forested mountain behind the dark waters and another tree lined hill behind the house.

The bus route and main road with the twice daily buses passed right outside our door, but the electricity line did not. At the northern mouth of the loch the electricity cables veered off on the other side of the loch, only to re-join the main road at the southern end of the loch, just as the first cottages of the approaching town appeared. We were on the ‘inhabited’ side of the loch – we had two neighbours to the south as the road wound its way to the town. But the electricity supply had been laid on the uninhabited side of the loch. There was a dirt road alongside the electricity poles and the stone track which had once held the Callander and Oban Railway Line. The line had opened in 1870 and ran between Callander and Glen Ogle/Killin closing in 1965 – a couple of years before we moved into that house.

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Old postcard of Strathyre Station

The house had no access to electricity, but it was “piped” for gas and for the first few years that we lived there, the house was solely powered by gas.

There was a gaslight in every room, suspended from the ceiling. A fragile mantle set in a plaster frame would be placed into the setting housed within a bell shaped glass. This glass was like a shade, and served to shelter the delicate flame from any breeze as this would make the light flutter. Within the glass bulb, the protected lit mantle would glow brightly, lighting the whole room, until weeks of daily use would render it too fragile to continue and a new mantle would be placed in its socket.

Lighting these mantles required enormous care. We would use a long match, or more frequently a wood shaving spill. We would have to hold the flame close enough for the gas to ignite, but not so close that it poked into the mantle and damaged it, causing the bright light to dim and the wrath of my parents at wasting a precious mantle. It was equally important to ensure that the spill was not too far from the mantle, or the smell of gas would quickly fill the room. This was an exact science that I seemingly became expert in during those years.

One mystery to me was our fridge. We had a calor gas fridge. Initially that made no sense to me at all. How could gas, which created warmth, go on to produce a chill? I never did totally understand the precise science behind it but had a simplified explanation that the ignited gas caused a chemical reaction, which eventually produced a finely regulated coolness which kept the fridge interior at the right temperature. (If you are interested in some of the science it is explained on how stuff works.

After a number of years fiddling around with mantles, and candlelight if the gas supply ran out unexpectedly, and with no prospect of mains electricity in the near or distant future my father decided to install electricity into the house. The only way to do this involved procuring a generator. As an engineer, there began a long research and discussion phase which brought us to the point of deciding to move forward with this plan. Next came a similarly long, and meticulous process of wiring the house. In fact, this was made easier by using the lines of the existing gas piping to install electrical wiring.

I was intrigued by the thought of a generator and surprised to see when it arrived, that it was rather a small beast. It would be housed in an old out building beside the house and this also involved a period of setting up a suitable home for this wonder. It sat on a kind of platform in the middle of the concrete floor.

I could not imagine how this unassuming machine could possibly conjure up enough electricity to light and power the house. But eventually, everything was in place, and the first light was switched on to great excitement and celebration. And it did manage to produce an electricity supply, but it had its limitations and quirks. The generator would be silent until it was woken by switching on one of the electrical switches. When it was running it would hum away in the distance, like a car idling on the roadside. Which is not surprising really, because the generator was just that. A small engine, We became used to the noise quickly.

When the last light was switched off at night, the generator would slow down and be silent in a few minutes. Switching on a light would start up the generator, so there were certain unwritten rules. No turning on lights for night time trips to the bathroom. A flick of the light switch would start up the generator engine, sending thundering reverberations into the silence of the night. The fluorescent light in the bathroom was not “heavy” enough to fire the generator up properly though, and it would struggle to gather a steady speed, sounding like a car revving and then slowing. Only a regular light bulb would start the thrum of the engine in a nice orderly manner. Similarly, a kettle required too much energy and would upset the generator by demanding too much power as it started. We continued to use the gas fridge because an electric fridge with its thermostat and need to switch on and off to maintain the right temperature would mean the generator being woken up at all times of the day and night and that was not acceptable. To this day I have a keen, and accurate sense, of the amount of power which the various appliances use which is rather useful.

It was also important not to allow the generator to run out of fuel as that meant that the fuel tank would have to be drained and that was a Big Job which could only be carried out by my father. That meant regular trips to the outhouse to check on the level of fuel, and alerting my father to a need to refill in plenty of time. If he was out, then we would be very cautious with our electricity consumption if the level dropped to near the minimum level.

Coincidentally, in addition to the lack of electricity, there was also no television signal at the lochside so my childhood and teenage years were devoid of TV. It was many years later that I realised that I grew up without many of those cultural references, or conversation topics which TV provided.

The house is still there today, with a few more neighbours than there were all those years ago. I visited the village a few years ago and was able to stop off briefly at the house and chat with the new owners. I believe that there is now mains electricity but I didn’t think to ask.

The setting is just as idyllic as my childhood memories suggest with pine forests, the hills and the loch on the doorstep. But I do wonder if the walls remember the days of gaslight and generator with the same fondness as I do.

frangipani candle

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8 thoughts on “Gecko by Gaslight

  1. Incredible really, you lived just 19 miles North West of us in Dunblane and yet you had no electricity or TV for all that time. I can’t imagine how I would have felt as a teenager if I had been denied watching Top of the Pops or listening to my records. I suppose you did have radio though didn’t you? Your description of the view from your house made me feel quite nostalgic to visit those Lochs in the Trossachs where my family used to go for Sunday drives. Thank you xxx

    • Isn’t it funny – not even so long ago and not so far geographically but so far removed. It was a lonely place to be a teenager! I was reminded the other day though, about Dial a Disc – do you remember that?!! In the village, we used to dial (Radio Clyde perhaps?) to hear the pop hit of the day being played on repeat, for as long as our 10p would last!
      I visited the village a couple of years ago as
      I really wanted to revisit those places, and it was a lovely trip down memory lane. Thank you for the inspiration for this post! xxx

  2. Hi Philippa, I too spent time with out ‘stuff’. On Magnetic Island we had an outside toilet for a while – a pit toilet with saw dust in the bottom. A ‘dunny’ was the technical term. We also had a rain water tank. Then on the farm at Mission Beach, no mains electricity. A solar panel for one light and the TV and we lit a fire under a barrel outside connected to the shower if we wanted a hot shower (we lived in the tropics so not so necessary). We had a generator for back up in case the solar panel didn’t work. In fact I think the generator came first.
    x s

    • Hi S, thank you so much for your lovely comment and those memories. Outside toilet – oh my, that is tough! the Scottish weather was definitely a challenge – I remember waking up in the morning, so cold until the fire had been raked and lit and the water starting to heat. A wee bit of tropical weather would have been nice 😉
      Big hugs to you xxx

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  4. I loved reading your story, Philippa – having only once had to live without electricity, during the power cuts and 3-day week in the 1970s, I can’t imagine having to live without it permanently. And as for the electricity supply being run along the uninhabited side of the loch – I’m speechless!

    • Thank you so much for your comment – I remember the power cuts of the 70s, and getting into trouble at school as I said it didn’t affect us!
      I have just read your post and about to comment – really identified with your experiences in language learning and the world of work…

  5. Hello hello …. what a wonderful read , your words so evocative of place, I could almost smell the sweetness of the gas lights and hear the sudden hum of the generator …. a wonderful writer you are !! Xx

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