Jane and Tony B's cosy East Devon kitchen is a wonderful combination of different eras. From the servant’s bell pull system, the boot room where the old coal bunker stood and the early nineties kitchen renovation, to the vase of sunshine tulips, bird-watching binoculars and jars of homemade jam, it reveals a fascinating family history spanning eight decades. Yet, in the middle of it all, there is one thing that has steadfastly remained the same - the buttermilk yellow Aga range cooker – which was installed in 1938 when the house was built.
Tony’s parents, Molly and Bob, bought the house in 1945 when he was just seven. It was based on a design from the 1936 Ideal Home Exhibition and was positioned on a windy hill, surrounded by fields. “No corner was straight,” Tony jokes. He vividly remembers helping his father dig out wheelbarrows of soil to terrace the garden. His parents also planted an orchard of apple, pear and plum trees which continue to thrive today, with gooseberry, blackcurrant, loganberry and raspberry bushes planted in the vegetable garden. The old chicken runs which zig zagged around the orchard, housing over 150 birds (including turkeys, geese, guinea fowl and hens) during post-war rationing and occasional bartering, have long gone. Potatoes were grown at the bottom of the hill and had to be lugged up in sacks. “There was a steep single track up to the house,” Tony says, “so everything had to be carried by hand, including the anthracite for the cooker. One of the lads who used to do it is still around and remembers my father giving him sixpence to bring it up.”
The solid fuel Aga range cooker – which was converted to oil in the 1950s – was the hub of the home and Tony’s mother, Molly, used it for more than just cooking. She dried laundry over it, hatched goose eggs in the bottom warming oven and would set a flat tin pan of local milk on top of the lid every night before bed. In the morning, she would skim off the Devonshire cream that had formed. The stove was the centre of a reassuring routine that continued as life changed around her.
Jane and Tony married in 1960 and had four children. Tony’s job in the Army took them around the world, until he returned in 1982 when Molly was dying. He then inherited the family home, but as he and Jane were still working they used it as a weekend place for the next ten years. “We drove back and forth to London with laundry, mowed the grass and kept the place going,” Jane says.
Tony retired in 1993 and moved to Devon full time. Jane continued to work in the City and stay in London midweek, until she retired five years later. During this period, they renovated and built various sections of the house and garden, ripping out Molly’s yellow kitchen and repurposing it as Tony’s workshop in the garage. They had no intention of changing the cooker, but as they were renovating the kitchen, they thought it deserved a fresh enamel top. To unscrew it, they had to spray the large screws in each corner with WD40 every day for a week. However, when the kitchen company came to replace it there had been a catalogue of errors with their measuring and manufacturing. Sandblasting the original enamel was out of the question too, as there was a danger the top would fracture. In the end the Aga range cooker was left untouched and now Jane takes a paint scraper to it occasionally to deal with any stubborn residue. Fittingly, the enamel remains scuffed in one corner where Molly always chopped onions directly on the surface.
The Aga range cooker sits tucked in one corner of the kitchen, warm and welcoming. It has lived through war, harsh winters and a pandemic and has been a vital part of big family events including weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and funerals. With resilience and style, it has never failed them, nor has it needed serious maintenance. The only concession to the cooker’s age (and modern fuel) is that now it is serviced twice, rather than once, a year, with the engineer having to stand precariously on the top and lift the core out by hand, rather than using a machine available for newer models. There may be a rare moment when the stove slows down because the fuel clogs up, but last year Jane used this to her advantage and baked her Christmas cake in the waning heat. “It was the best Christmas cake I have ever made!” she laughs
There is often a soup slowly blipping away on the top of the stove in the winter or a quick batch of scones knocked up for breakfast. Jane has been known to make her own bread, but prefers baking cakes. She uses the bottom oven to slow cook casseroles and joints of meat, including the turkey at Christmas. The Aga range cooker is just as practical for the two of them as it is when their large family descend. The only concession Jane may make to cooking a big roast is to part-cook the potatoes the day before. “It’s funny, I dreaded cooking on an Aga range cooker and couldn’t get the hang of it at first. I wouldn’t be without it now,” she says emphatically.
While there is an electric oven in the kitchen, it is rarely used and needs a pencil poked in the knobs to get it working. “I use the electric cooker as a larder,” Jane says, pulling out a half-eaten dish of last night’s apple crumble to prove it. Using the bounty from their orchard, Tony often makes fruit crumbles as well as fifty bottles of apple juice every year. “Growing up, we would have local farm cider at lunch and supper every day. The village was surrounded by cider orchards so there was always a jug of it on the table. I never remember any of us being worse for wear!” Tony smiles.
Jane also uses the home-grown fruits to make her locally renowned preserves, which bubble away in a big preserving pan on the cooker and are stirred with a special, long wooden spoon. She sells her preserves by setting up a stall at village events and makes around a £1000 a year, donating all the proceeds to the local church. “Every January I make around 200 pots of marmalade too. About ten years ago I declared I was hanging up my wooden spoon for good, but that didn’t last long,” she laughs.
Last year, the cost of oil drove Jane & Tony to switch off their Aga range cooker once the jam making was over in July until the 1st October. The rest of the year the cooker is constantly on, with the warmth permeating through the house and keeping the damp at bay. It helps keep costs low in other areas as it means the heating is not on during the day and their ‘tumble dryer’ is the Sheila Maid clothes airer, which hangs above the stove on a pulley system.
While Blake & Bull do not convert or re-enamel Aga range cookers built before 1941, Matthew and Jane have talked about the possibilities of replacing hers. “I love the sound of Matthew’s cookers, which he beautifully refers to as ‘reimagined’, but I am not sure this is an option for us. Ours is smaller than the standard ranges so it would mean changing the kitchen. Besides our oven still works perfectly,” Jane muses. These days baking trays and many of the dishes are too wide to fit in to the early model either. “I wanted a new cold shelf for the top oven, but the latest AGA version was too big. Instead, I asked the local ironworker if he would make one for me and he did,” Jane is delighted by this.
This Aga range cooker is thought to be the oldest working model, with a registered number which dates it. They try to think of another household appliance that has lasted as long, but are stumped. It’s a museum piece that continues to be in everyday use and Jane and Tony are quite rightly proud of its achievement. They think Molly would be too.