Every weekday Andrew Murkin comes to Downham Market library for books, wifi and – most importantly – warmth.
Murkin, who is 63 and receives disability benefits, lives in a bungalow in the Norfolk town and as his energy bills rose this winter he decided to heat only one room for two hours a day.
“In the winter I come to the library to keep warm,” he said. “I like to get up early. But sitting at home is miserable in the cold.”
At weekends, when his local library is mostly closed, he has few options. “In winter I just sit at home with my coat on and a duvet on,” he said. “I’ve been wearing two T-shirts, two jumpers and a coat inside. A lot of my friends do the same.”
Sign up to First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am
The plight of Elsie, a 77-year-old who ate one meal a day and travelled on buses to stay warm, became emblematic of the cost of living crisis after Boris Johnson was confronted with her story in a Good Morning Britain interview. Her case has highlighted the challenges faced by older people unable to meet the cost of rising bills.
In Downham Market, near King’s Lynn, the library is a lifeline for older and vulnerable people looking for somewhere warm to pass time without spending money.
The south of the town has the ward with the highest proportion of pensioners in England and Wales, with 57% over-65. Many of them rely on the library.
Murkin is the first person to arrive at its Just a Cuppa session on Friday morning, a weekly event offering free tea and biscuits.
He used to work as a welder before problems with his diabetes and mobility two years ago made that too difficult. “It’s hard getting by on the money you get on benefits,” he said.
He has moved his bed into the living room so that he only needs to heat one room. “I go to bed a lot earlier than I used to just to keep warm,” he said.
View image in fullscreenItems such as clothing, soap and sanitary products are being given away to visitors at the town’s library to help them cut down on bills. Photograph: Si Barber/The Guardian
This winter the library introduced free Keep Warm and Go bags packed with everything someone may need who was struggling to keep the cold away, including gloves, thermals, a scarf, blanket and a hat.
Fran Valentine, the library’s manager, said it had proved popular. “We’ve had a lot of people coming in and picking them up,” she said.
When Joan Mulholland, 89, found out last month her energy bills were due to increase again, she panicked. “I rang up the company and said: ‘I’m not going to be able to afford £200 a month.’”
She gets by on a state pension and is worried it will not be enough this winter. “I’m thinking of stopping my TV licence off to pay for the heating,” she said. “My weekly food bill has gone up by about £2 a week and I’ve cut back as much as I can.”
Her late husband, Adrian, used to manufacture electrical parts and was also on a state pension. Since he died of cancer three years ago she has found it harder to meet the costs of running the bungalow they shared in the south of the town.
“It’s very difficult because I live on my own. I have to watch things like not putting too much water in the kettle. Lighting the oven for one meal works out very expensive when there’s only one of you, so I’m going to move to salads and not cook too much.”
View image in fullscreenJoan Mulholland: ‘I’ve cut back as much as I can.’ Photograph: Si Barber/The Guardian
She tries to heat the house as little as possible to save up for the coming winter. “Getting older you feel the cold much more and it’s very hard sometimes to sit there and think: ‘Well, I can’t turn on the heating.’”
Alex Coates, who runs the town’s food bank, says demand has soared since March as the cost of petrol, food and energy increased.
“It’s not just people on benefits, it’s two-parent families who are both working and they are struggling to decide whether to feed their children, put fuel in their car or heat their homes. That’s the dilemma a lot of families are facing,” she said.
Most of the people coming to them are parents with children and she worries that pensioners are suffering in silence.
View image in fullscreenDownham Market in Norfolk. The south ward of the town has the highest proportion of people over 65 in the country. Photograph: Si Barber/The Guardian
“That age group is very proud. We only really find out about them if they’ve been referred to us by a doctor or adult social services,” she said.
They are planning to bulk-buy hot-water bottles to give out before next winter, “so when people boil the kettle for their tea they can put the water that’s left in them to keep warm”.
Jill, 69, a former nursery worker, is the second to arrive at the library for tea. She has few savings and is reliant on her pension. She has cut right back to make the costs add up.
“I only have the heating and hot water on for an hour in the morning and then I get out in the garden and dig,” she said. “I go to bed early with an electric blanket. If I didn’t have that it would be terrible.”