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One man and his togs

PUBLISHED: 16:36 21 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:54 20 February 2013

One man and his togs

One man and his togs

Peter Sampson ponders why the modern duvet may in fact have its origins in ancient Suffolk

Peter Sampson ponders why the modern duvet may in fact have its origins in ancient Suffolk




At this time of the year, in every Suffolk bedroom from the humblest villagers tiny cott to the splendid mansions of the Cobbolds and the Tollemaches, from the tidy estates of Elmswell to the salt-sprayed villas of Aldeburgh, an age-old ritual goes through its stately dance.
It is time for the Ceremony of the Togs.
Preparations for the Ceremony require the woman of the house to spend a long day searching among the cobwebs in the airing cupboard for duvets and duvet covers stored there earlier in the year and then arranging them in order of tog strength, whether it be 4.5 togs, 9.0 togs or 13.5 togs. (A tog, incidentally, is roughly the insulation that would be provided by the thickness of a broadsheet newspaper.)
Once the duvets and their covers have been sorted in the correct permutation of togs for each bed in the house, the Ceremony can begin.
Bedroom by bedroom, the woman of the house commands a docile male to stand on a chair, hold a duvet by two corners and raise it to the ceiling. She then kneels before each raised duvet and manipulates a cover on to it with legendary oaths and traditional abuse of the docile male for failing to hold the duvet either high enough or steady enough.
When, eventually, each bed in the house has its appropriate new duvet and duvet cover, the Ceremony of the Togs is complete and the docile male is allowed to replace the chairs and fetch the woman of the house a cup of tea or a stiff gin, according to taste.
This ceremony has for many years been held twice a year, once at the start of the winter and once at the start of the spring and it marks the great rhythms of the turning world just as surely as the September arrival of the first Christmas baubles in local shops and the February display of the first snowdrops in local garden centres.
Some say it has its origins on the icy windswept plains of Hungary, where the peasantry would have sat round the fire munching goulash and stuffing straw into skins. By 1749, one Thomas Nugent reported it had spread to Westphalia where, he said, the locals do not cover themselves with bed-cloaths but lay one feather-bed over and another under. But Master Nugent was clearly not a Suffolk man. We in Suffolk know better. We thought of the idea first, not some foreign lot.




Once upon a wintertime, when you were a child, getting into bed always brought those first few lovely shivering moments of curling into a ball and clutching your knees between the ice-cold sheets as you waited for the courage to push your frozen toes down to the bottom of the bed.





Next time you visit that tiny Saxon housing estate at West Stow, take a close look inside each hut and youll see mysterious clusters of three little holes in the earth floor. Archaeologists have long been baffled but its perfectly obvious what they are. Theyll have been where Aethelgar and Godric and Byrhtwold had to stand on three-legged stools to hold up woven bags stuffed with eider duck feathers while Hildebrand, Gunnhild and Gudrun shouted at them to hold the damn thing steady.
Even in the hushed splendour of the royal grave of Raedwald at Sutton Hoo, near some feather pillows they found lots of folded cloths which its pretty clear to me were a supply of spare duvet covers to keep the warrior chief warm and comfortable in his long sleep.
Good things, duvets.
Mind you, since they became fashionable again a few years ago, some old pleasures have vanished, like so many others. Once upon a wintertime, when you were a child, getting into bed always brought those first few lovely shivering moments of curling into a ball and clutching your knees between the ice-cold sheets as you waited for the courage to push your frozen toes down to the bottom of the bed. There was the rubbery smell of the hot-water bottle and the bliss of feeling its floppy, rubbery warmth slowly, slowly creating a little nest of comfort around you.
Gone, too, are peach-and-green eiderdowns, plump and ornate, always covered in a satiny, slippery material that made them slide off the bed during the night and flop on to the floor, so that you had to get out into the cold bedroom air, with its frost-flowered windows, and hoist them back on to the bed as your feet grew cold again on the floor.
Now, in the early hours of a cold Suffolk night in February, when the wind from Russia rattles the front windows and thumps the branches of trees against the house, we snuggle under our togs and sleep the sleep of the just.
Lovely jubbly.

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