STURDY, reliable and cosy, the Aga is the permanently warm, solid, beating heart of many a British home.
These enormous stoves with their numerous ovens and hotplates, plus the capacity to warm an entire house, dry teatowels and supply constant hot water, are a staple in rural farmhouses and chic town flats alike, a status symbol as well as source of comfort for the truly middle-class homeowner. It conjures images of scone-baking farmers' wives and yummy mummies, for whom a traditional game st
However, there are concerns that the light may be going out for this particular institution, invented by a Swede in 1922 and brought to Britain seven years later. Aga Rangemaster, manufacturer of the Aga cooker, has cut its staff from around 3,500 to 3,100 over the past year, citing second-half profits that were "appreciably below" the 9 million achieved in the first six months of 2008. Sales of the Aga cooker, priced at around 5,000, dropped by some 10 per cent between 2007-8.
It's unsurprising that such a pricey product has taken a hit during these uncertain financial times, but there may be a second factor contributing towards the Aga's decline in sales. There is a growing argument that the Aga is not green. High-profile environmental commentator George Monbiot, inset, author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, this week declared that we should campaign against Agas in the same way we rail against -spewing patio heaters.
"To match the fuel consumption of an Aga, a large domestic patio heater would have to run continuously at maximum output for three months a year," he wrote. "Most Agas use oil, electricity or coal, which produce more . A large Aga running on coal turns out nine tonnes of carbon dioxide per year: 35 per cent more than average UK household emissions."
Could this mean that, far from maintaining its iconic status, the Aga could fall out of favour with middle-class greenies? According to Laura James, who writes the blog Girl ByThe Aga and is also a spokeswoman for the company, Agas aren't as bad for the environment as Monbiot suggests: "Coal-burning Agas haven't been sold for ten years, and 50 per cent of those sold today are programmable, so you can use them only when they're needed. They're manufactured in Britain and last for a very long time – you'll never see an Aga in a landfill.
"They can heat your whole house and many owners don't need to own a tumble-drier, a toaster or a breadmaker, because the Aga does all that. In the current climate, when we're all feeling more inclined to stay put and invest in our homes, Agas will remain popular."
It's certainly true that an Aga will last a long time: they seem to be 'inherited' as often as they are bought new, usually in a move to a new home. Not the most efficient of contraptions, there is an argument that it's better, environmentally, to own one Aga for a lifetime than to replace your ordinary cooker every ten years.
"An Aga can last for decades. The last one we had was over 40 years old and (still had life] in it. Monbiot should consider the environmental impact of manufacturing and delivering new cookers on a more regular basis," says John Joannides of the online resource Agacentral.com.
Monbiot, however, hopes that the Aga's days as a fashionable item are numbered, and claims he'll be "doing what I can" to ensure that it falls out of favour. "It's an outdated technology, which gives homes a rosy, old-fashioned feel that has unfortunately been conflated by some people with being green," he says. "I can't think of a household appliance – even the biggest plasma-screen TV or clunkiest old central heating system – with a bigger carbon footprint."
Laura James also claims that the Aga is not seen as middle-class but has become "a product as classless as the iPod, one that people from all walks of life will save up to buy". The reality, however, is that at 5,000 an Aga costs the same as the average annual income in the most deprived areas of Scotland.
Might the Aga saga draw to a close? It seems unlikely: it remains a powerful symbol of a lifestyle, and owners seem to develop a very strong emotional attachment to it. Quite simply, for Britain's traditional middle classes, home is where the Aga is.