Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Being Cold In England

Hello to everyone finding me via Jenna's blog today!  Welcome to Betsy Transatlantically.  Have a look around - I hope you enjoy, and say hello so I can get to know you!  (To my regular readers: I'm guest posting over at A Home Away From Home about a great new website that will help me and Jon continue to have adventures together even while we're on different sides of the Atlantic.  Go check it out - and, if you don't know Jenna yet, stay a while!)

My first few trips to England were during the summer; we somehow generally had sunny skies and relative warmth throughout our visits.  But, in 2007, during the miserable are-we-or-aren't-we of the aftermath of my Parisian relationship, I stayed with Harry in Yorkshire for ten days over Christmas.  Emotional entanglement aside, I had a wonderful time - we went to Ripon Cathedral for Christmas Eve Mass, took Brontë-esque rambles on the moors with the dogs, explored York for an afternoon, and even drove north to celebrate New Year's Eve in Edinburgh.

We didn't have any snow while I was there, but the temperatures hovered just above freezing the whole time.  That wasn't a problem in and of itself since I knew that sort of cold from winters in DC and New York.  What I wasn't used to was the pervasive damp and gloom.  In England, the rain seeps through your pores, the wind whistles into every cranny between your bones, and the winter huddles around your soul to soak up any warmth you have left.  Add to that less than eight hours of sunlight a day - if, in fact, there is sun at all - and those Tuesdays in January can pass excruciatingly slowly.

So the thing I remember most about that trip was how the British approach to cold is completely different to any I'd experienced before.  In America, we attack winter individually; we turn up the heat and run from house to car to office with barely a pause between.  You don't have to be near anyone else to be warm, you just have to adjust your thermostat and watch a YouTube video of wood burning in a fireplace.  Don't get me wrong, I love how we immediately go to technology to make our lives more comfortable.  Turning up the heat should always be the first option if you can afford the bill!  But I found that while keeping warm in England is much more old fashioned, it's also much more communal.

In England during the winter, there are a few steps you have to get through before you can even think about adjusting the thermostat - if the house even has central heat in the first place!

The British are famously obsessed with tea.  Okay, obsessed might be a strong word.  But tea is an integral part of their culture, and a Brit's first instinct in almost any situation is to put on the kettle. (William Gladstone, a 19th century Prime Minister, said, "If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; if you are excited, it will calm you.”)  If I had a pound for every time Jon's mother asked if we wanted tea while staying with them, we could probably pay for our whole wedding in one weekend's visit.  They almost never put away the milk jug in the winter, first because it's probably just as cold on the counter as it is in the fridge and second because it gets used every five minutes!

In England, a pull-over sweater is a jumper.  Got it?  Good.  Now, woe betide you if you moan about being cold in an English house while wearing only a layer or two.  You have to be wearing at least three layers before you have the right to whinge - and even then, someone will suggest you find a duvet to wrap around yourself.

I've been to Jon's parents' house at least once in every month during the year, and the only times we didn't have a fire going in the sitting room were in July and August.  After tea and jumpers, lighting the fire is the next instinctive thing the English (those who are lucky enough to have working fireplaces, that is) do when they're cold.  And this is where the communal aspect of staying warm comes in - there are only so many fires to be lit and duvets to go around, so everyone generally congregates in the sitting room when it's cold.  We close the door to the rest of the house and create an oven of a room, venturing out only to get more tea.  We might all be doing our own thing, but we're doing it together.

Speaking of ovens, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the kitchen as another key room in the battle against the cold.  When Jon's mother is cooking dinner, it's the second-warmest place in the house, and we all find excuses to meander in; we stretch out our hands towards the oven and soak up the radiating heat.  Harry's parents had an Aga - read Gesci's great post about the cult of the Aga in England! - and we'd actually fight with their dogs and cats for a spot in front of it in the mornings as we slowly woke up.  Anyway, the kitchen is where the kettle lives, and you're almost always in need of more tea!

my back garden, London; December 2011

So there you have it, dear readers: how to keep warm during an English winter - the insider's guide.  I hope it helps if you plan to visit any time between September and April!  (Winter is a state of mind, you know, not tied to dates on the calendar.)  British friends, have I forgotten any other tips?  Do share!


  1. This post made me laugh a lot! Firstly; yes I think we are actually obsessed with tea. Well, I am. Everyone puts the kettle on at least three times an hour. Secondly whenever I express that I am cold, whoever I am with tells me to "PUT A JUMPER ON THEN!" It is the obvious action to complete before we dare turning on the heating. And thirdly, we have a log fire at home and at Aled's family home there is an aga - an absoutely godsend in the winter. I love reading these posts about how non-British people see England. Amazing.
    ALSO, I love that quote about tea - very true.

  2. Something else to add is probably the level of complaints during the cold months (or during any months to be honest). When I lived in Canada and I commented on the weather I was met with a shrug or a look to say "Yes we know it's cold". Whereas in England is all anybody goes on about - everybody complains to each other about it, the news has become the weather and no one is ever happy. When we have a proper summer, it's too hot, and when it's cold it's too cold. I think we British are never happy!!

  3. haha that is very possibly true! or at least you never like to admit you are :) stiff upper lip and all that!

  4. You've had so many cool adventures! I just love reading your posts. I wish we were experiencing that kind of cold here today..it was 80* yesterday!!

  5. This sounds SO cozy!!!! I'm missing cold winters a lot right now and this was the perfect thing to read to remind me of how wonderful they are (at least I think so!). I like the way the English do it, and I think my Dad must have some English in him....growing up (in Upstate NY) he always told us to layer up and wear wool instead of cotton if we complained about being cold. And the heat never went on until November!

  6. Hot water bottle? I never even knew they were a thing until I got here but it seems like everyone, young and old, sleeps with one in the winter. I don't really get them, but I never grew up in a cold weather climate.

  7. OH MY GOD YES YOU'RE RIGHT! how could I forget? I'm going to have to do a whole post on hot water bottles now :)

  8. my mother turned on the heat at the end of October this year... because Charlie was cold. haha!

  9. Waahahahhahaha!

    This reminded me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEP6wVSN_Ks

    Which, incidentally, I had to watch as a kid in a class on the cold war. While the USA got a singing turtle, the UK got the creepiest PSA's I've ever seen. Nightmare inducing.

  10. Love this! It's unusually cold in California right now (it's been getting into the 30s at night...unheard of), so I could probably use some of these tips right now. You are too cute, and I love how you share British culture with us! I probably wouldn't know anything otherwise ;)

  11. I find this fascinating! I don't know how I'd survive winter in England though! The cold and I don't get along that well.

  12. Betsy, I had to laugh at this post. Since moving to Canada, a jolly cold place, I have never been so warm in my life. Bless North Americans and their generous attitude towards central heating! Australians have the same attitude as Brits. If you are lucky enough to even have heating, it's only usually in one room of the house., and it only goes on when you are already wearing ALL THE JUMPERS.

  13. my friend is serving a mission in leeds right now - and i'm totally sending this to her!




  14. Great post! When I was living in Italy my roommate noticed I was cold all the time so her sweet mom bought me a hot water bottle- so I completely agree with that! I noticed Italians are always layering and never walk around the house without slippers on or wet hair. There is also a seemingly endless supply of caffe' and ciocciolato caldo! Here in Chicago, its all about the heat and tea to keep warm!

  15. haha I know, right? glad you're staying warm!

  16. oh good! let me know if she's picked up any other ideas :)

  17. YES to slippers - I forgot that, too! I always get slippers in my Christmas stockings from Jon's family... I mean Santa!

  18. I used to be a lover of all seasons, but as I've gotten older I've really come to dread winter. It's totally a light issue for me, even though luckily our days are not that short here! I have a favorite pair of slippers that make me super happy, and I'm also really getting into the habit of having some tea at night! I've also been into candles lately- they don't keep me warm necessarily but they make me feel nice and cozy!

  19. How did I not comment when I read this this morning?? I blame the 8 AM hour.

    But. YES to all of this! Our first house had a wood stove in the lounge and an open fire in the reception room we used as a bedroom. While we had the wood stove burning away every night (and most days the winters of '09-'10 and '10-'11) we couldn't have many open fires in the bedroom because Max was scared of them :/

    I drank so much warm liquid it was insane. Tea, hot cocoa, broth, anything. And every day in winter I wore: tights or leggings, usually fleece-lined, thermals, jeans, or instead of thermals + jeans over the leggings I did get some Land's End flannel lined jeans that Paul said gave me mom-jeans-butt, but I said whatever dude it's freezing and they're warm. Oh, and I wore my ski pants to walk the dogs. I swore by my fleece welly socks, and my Sorels. I worked outside, too, even in snow storms so bad I had flakes on my eyelashes, and those days I wore so many layers I could barely walk upright.

    The Aga is a MUST for living in the countryside, although the gas/oil bill was astronomical- £200/month- no joke. But it was far more efficient at warmth than radiators... I HATE radiators. Ridiculous contraptions that do nothing unless you're physically smashed against them. Or perhaps that was our 1780s farmhouse... the modern barn conversion was much warmer! I hosted my bookclub each January, and we all congregated around the Aga each time! Bliss!

    I will say that England taught me the true meaning of "bone chilling cold", but it's just so beautiful it's worth it. Now, driving in England winter weather? That's a WHOLE other story. And I've got a scrape on my car to prove it. (I literally slide sideways, at a complete stop. In my own driveway. Ridiculous.)

  20. Also, you were in Yorkshire? Near Ripon? Ripon was 20 minutes from me! Although I wasn't there until Nov. 2009... but still!!

  21. Girl, Radiators FREAK ME OUT. When I was there and I had to adjust that knob at the bottom of that long slender white thing hanging off the wall (Radiator but old, ancient contraption in my eyes) I just put two layers of clothes on! I stayed in the Northwest of England near Liverpool, and it's much colder I found there than London! It's a pain trying to stay warm! haha

  22. It's the exact same in Dublin! I spent six years there in a love triangle with jumpers and a heart water bottle :)

  23. I'm an English person currently displaced in Japan and I thought England did have chilly winters until I moved here! Southern Japan seems to consider itself a 'warm' climate because the temperature never drops below freezing - because of this all the buildings are geared for summer weather with insulation and heating being entirely non-existent! Oh for a fireplace in my tatami room. I have been using all of my English winter tactics but still spend most of my time in 7 layers of sexy heat-tech and a complicated system of fleece socks, woolen scarfs and a hairdryer to be warm enough to get into bed.
    It's nice to read about these traits of English behaviour that natives don't really see as strange or different, it's only through a non-natives eyes that the oddities are shown. After being away for 2 years reading your posts are reminder of some things I have forgotten. Except tea. You are correct we are obsessed and it helps in any situation possible. The one and only thing I get sent from home is a bag of Tetley teabags every few months :)
    Thanks for writing


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