STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England -- On a blustery late-winter day in Shakespeare’s birthplace, the foyer of the Other Place theater is a cozy refuge. Visitors are having meetings over coffee, checking emails, writing poetry, learning to sew.
It looks and feels like an arty café in the pictureque streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, but it’s a “warm hub” set up by the Royal Shakespeare Company drama troupe to welcome people struggling to heat their homes because of sky-high energy prices.
Warm hubs have sprouted across Britain by the thousands this winter as soaring food and energy prices drive millions to turn down the thermostat or skimp on hot meals. Research by the opposition Labour Party counted almost 13,000 such hubs, funded by a mix of charities, community groups and the government and nestled in libraries, churches, community centers and even a tearoom at King Charles III's Highgrove country estate.
Wendy Freeman, an artist, writer and seventh-generation Stratfordian, heard about the RSC’s warm hub from a friend. She lives in “a tiny house with no central heating” and relies on a coal fire for warmth. Like many, she has cut back in response to the cost-of-living crisis driven by the highest inflation since the 1980s.
“You just adapt,” said Freeman, 69, who was using the center as a warm, quiet place to work on a poem. “Little things, like putting less water in the kettle. I was brought up with ‘save the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves.’ I always cook from scratch and eat what’s in season.
“But it’s nice to go somewhere warm,” she added.
A perfect storm of Russia's war in Ukraine, lingering pandemic disruption and economic aftershocks of Brexit is putting more people in Britain under financial strain. Households and businesses were hit especially hard after Russia's invasion of Ukraine drove up the cost of natural gas needed for heating and helped push the U.K. to the precipice of a recession.
The U.K.’s annual inflation rate was just above 10% in January, with food prices up almost 17% over the year. Some 62% of adults are using less natural gas or electricity to save money, according to the Office for National Statistics. A quarter of households regularly run out of money for essentials, pollster Survation found.
Though oil and natural gas prices have fallen from last year's peaks, the average British household energy bill is still double what it was a year ago. Costs for many are due to rise by another 20% on April 1 when a government-set price cap goes up.
Anne Bolger, a retired math teacher, happened across the warm hub during a walk one day and has come back every week since. She drops in to check emails, prep for math tutoring or do a jigsaw puzzle.
“Today’s the day that I’m appreciating it, because home is freezing,” she said.
The hub runs one afternoon a week in the smallest of the RSC's three theaters. On Tuesday, the space held a mixture of theater staff, actors on the way to rehearsals and visitors looking to get warm. Organizers provide puzzles, games, toys for children, free tea, coffee and Wi-Fi — even a sewing table.
“I like the fact that it’s such a creative space,” said Bolger, 66. “People are having meetings there, they’re talking, they’re working. I just feel a bit more alive than sitting at home, a bit more connected.”
That’s just what organizers want to hear. They say warm hubs exist to ease loneliness as well as energy poverty.
“The warmth is in the welcome as much as a warm building to come to,” said Nicola Salmon, who oversees the hub as the RSC's creative place-making manager. “There is always somebody here to chat to.”
Stratford, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of London, is a prosperous town that makes a good living from William Shakespeare, its most famous son. Even on a wintry weekday, tourists traipse though streets of half-timbered Tudor buildings to see the house where the Bard was born, visit the schoolroom where he studied and stand over his grave in the medieval Holy Trinity Church.
The RSC is one of Stratford’s main cultural attractions and major employers. Salmon says the warm hub is part of the company’s efforts to get closer to its surrounding community, a town that “is often perceived as affluent and well-off” but contains “areas of great deprivation.”
Like Britain’s food banks — now numbering an estimated 2,500 — warm hubs are a crisis measure showing signs of becoming permanent.
The Warwickshire Rural Community Council, a charity covering the county around Stratford, set up a mobile warm hub — a minibus-turned-pop-up outdoor café — in 2021 as pandemic restrictions plunged many rural residents into isolation.
A year ago, the charity ran five hubs across the county, with backing from Cadent, the private company that distributes much of Britain's heating gas. As winter hit and energy bills soared, the number mushroomed to 90, providing everything from meals to repair workshops and slow-cooking courses meant to reduce gas use.
About 30 of the hubs will stay open this summer — with a view to becoming permanent — and the mobile hub will be on the road five days a week.
“People say we shouldn’t be in this situation, and we shouldn’t be,” said Jackie Holcroft, the charity’s warm hubs manager. “But we are. And I think one of the most amazing things is that you’ve got hundreds, thousands of volunteers around Warwickshire and they’re all coming together to make a difference.”
The RSC’s warm space will close at the end of March, but the company is already planning for its return next year.
“I’ll miss it like crazy,” said Bolger, one of the regulars. “I’m not hoping that the fuel crisis goes on forever, but I am hoping this place will stay open.”