Knowing how to change a UK light bulb may not seem like an essential vacation skill but if you're renting a flat or a cottage knowing how stuff works can spare you from embarrassing disasters.
I've said it before and I'll say it again - taking a vacation rental (or as we say, a self-catering holiday) in the UK is a great way to live like a local, an economical way to bring the whole family on a UK vacation and often an opportunity to occupy digs with the kind of storybook character you've dreamed of.
That's all very well until you try to turn up the heating and nothing happens. Or you set out to cook dinner for your big anniversary reunion in a grand country house and you can't make head or tail of the markings on the oven. Believe me, I know. I once incinerated a 26 pound turkey in under two hours and filled a kind stranger's entire Laura Ashley upholstered house with greasy smoke because I couldn't adjust the oven.
And something as simple as changing a lightbulb can be a minefield.
In the interests of helping my North American readers avoid such embarrassments and have a stress free vacation in a British cottage, here are some of the basics you need to know about how stuff works in your UK vacation rental.
Heat and Hot Water
If the house you are renting has gas or oil-fired central heating, lucky you. It will work pretty much the same way as the one you are used to at home. There will be radiators, an on/off switch somewhere and a thermostat or some way to regulate the heat. The rental agent for the house - or an information pack left for you - should provide you with all the information to find these things and push the appropriate buttons. But rural rental cottages rarely have such straightforward arrangements. Once, when I stayed in a rather grand private house, the host's daughter went from room to room asking if anyone wanted a "hottie". No, she wasn't offering herself but giving out hot water bottles to warm the bedsheets and guests tootsies. Even if the house you rent is relatively well heated, it never hurts to have one around. They sell them at most local pharmacies.
Here's what else you might find:
- A stove - Don't confuse this term with something you cook on - it's never used that way. A stove is a solid fuel burner of some kind - wood or coal - fitted into the chimney. In some rustic properties, it may be the only source of heat so make sure your supply of fuel is supplied with your rental.
- A back boiler - Some open fireplaces or solid-fuel stoves are fitted with a heat exchanger that uses the heat from the fire to heat water. That water may be circulated around the cottage but nowadays back boilers in vacation rentals are usually just used to supplement other hot water heating. If you've had a nice fire burning all evening and you want a late night shower - after the central heating system has cycled off, a back boiler connected to a well insulated hot water tank will do the trick.
- An electric storage heater - These, I'm afraid, are the bane of the vacation renter's life. Although being phased out in most private homes, they're still pretty common in self-catering properties. The heater looks a bit like a radiator. It may be dimpled, or have a columnar design and it will be about the same size as a radiator, But that's where the similarities end. Inside, it has a heat retaining thermal material. At night, while you sleep and electricity rates are cheapest, this material will be electrically heated. Then, throughout the day, it releases heat into the living areas.
There are two problems with this. First, the higher you set the temperature, the faster the thing will simply run out of juice. So if you have a really warm and cosy morning, you might end up with a frigid afternoon. Secondly - and of more importance to vacationers - most of the stored heat is radiating into the house while you are out sightseeing. Sadly, the most interesting character properties often have this kind of heating. They don't have cavity walls so there's no place to run the pipes needed for radiators. Electric heating is the most expensive kind so property owners, choose the storage heater solution to take advantage of lower, overnight costs. If you stay up late or have cold feet, bring warm clothes and a hot water bottle.
- Air conditioning - Fagehddaboudit. Air conditioning is almost unheard of in most UK homes. It's hardly ever hot enough to need it anyway and in most cases a fan will do. Ask the owner to supply one if you are renting in July and August.The upside is that the solid stone, brick or lathe and plaster walls of rural character properties retain cool in summer and warmth in winter so you're not likely to need it.
In the Kitchen
The names of things and the assortment of ways to identify cooking temperatures are usually the sticking points ( see my Thanksgiving disaster mentioned above) . So first off, you need to learn the names of things.
- That thing you cook on - The British have several words for what you might call a stove and none of them involve cooking. If you are faced with a single unit that has burners on top, an oven below and possibly a broiler or broiler element as well, that is called a cooker. If the burners are separate from the oven, they're called a hob, And the broiler is universally known as a grill.
- The kettle - An electric kettle is a basic piece of kitchen equipment in every British kitchen. That's probably because tea only requires boiling water. Even though most people also drink plenty of coffee these days, the electric kettle is still de rigueur.
- The Aga or range - My mother used to call our gas stove "the gas range." In the UK the term "range" as it applies to cooking equipment is only ever used to describe a large, highly specialized, and these days, highly prized solid fuel appliance that's part of the best and most traditional farm kitchens. The range (Aga is the most popular brand name) heats water and supplies at least part of the central heating as well as providing for cooking. It has an oven (usually two) and several hotplates, with heavy insulated covers for when they are not in use. Once it is fired up, an Aga is always on. And adjusting the temperature of its two ovens is something of an inexact art. The bottom line on a rental with an Aga (and I was really surprised to find quite a few) is to make sure you're also supplied with more conventional means of cooking as well. Because, unless you know how to use an Aga, it can be like trying to captain a super yacht with your skills in a rowboat.
- And a word about temperatures - Your recipes may be in fahrenheit but you'll have to master centigrade - or Celsius as it is now called - and Gas Marks to use an oven in your UK vacation rental. Electric oven temperatures are indicated in degrees Celsius on the controls. But if you are cooking with gas, the controls will indicate Gas Marks. UK recipes always give both Celsius and Gas Mark temperatures. This handy chart will help you navigate the different cookery degrees:
Cooking temperatures in Fahrenheit, Celsius and Gas Marks
Fahrenheit Celsius Gas Marks Description
225° - 250° 110°-120° 1/4 - 1/2 Very Cool
275° - 300° 140° 1 Cool
300° 150° 2 Cool
325° 160° 3 Warm
350° 180° 4 Moderate
375° 190° 5 Fairly Hot
400° 200° 6 Hot
425° 220° 7 Hot
450° 230° 8 Very Hot
500° 260° 9 Very Hot
And Don't Forget Those Lightbulbs
What could be easier than changing a lightbulb, right?
The UK and Europe still haven't sorted out a lot of standardization issues. One of these is the way that bulbs fit into fixtures. Continental European light fixtures and bulbs have screw fittings, pretty much like the ones you're used to in North America. UK bulbs and fixtures are bayonet-fitted. The bottom of a bayonet bulb is a smooth cylinder with two short pins sticking out of the sides, diagonally across from each other. Left in the picture above.
The trouble is, you might have lamps in your rental that take either kind of bulb. Chances are the more modern and stylish the fixture looks, the more it is likely to be French or Italian and require a special bulb. And if you try to unscrew a bayonet fitted you could break the bulb or the fitting.
The simplest thing to do - if you don't want to be the butt of a "How many Americans does it take to change a lightbulb..." joke, is to ask the rental agent or a neighbor to show you what to do.