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Cold comfort and climate change: a very British freeze

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An abandoned farmhouse in Northumberland, North East England, this week © Julian Germain

“Climate is what you expect,” the guy from the Meteorological Bureau told me. “Weather is what you get.” In Britain we prefer to talk about the latter – our climate is rather nebulous, best described with the clumsy word “changeable” – and what we got this week was cold, with temperatures well below the seasonal average, freezing rain and snow in the north and west.

In the long-running psychodrama of British weather, cold has played a minor role of late. Our concern was about the hot weather which, as a function of global warming, could permanently displace that volatility for which we have an irritable affection. (“It just can’t make up its mind, can it?”) and Britain is getting warmer. According to the Met Office, the average winter temperature between 1961 and 1990 was 3.28°C; between 1991 and 2020 it was 4.09C.

However, high energy prices have made the recent cold snaps fraught with their own drama. Fuel poverty, often defined as having to spend more than 10 percent of income on fuel, is currently experienced by more than half of UK households, according to the Child Poverty Action Group. My own house echoes the slamming of my wife’s doors (to retain heat in the rooms), and we sometimes dine by the light of two faltering candles. Tips for keeping sprouts warm anywhere. In December, John Lewis reported that hot water bottle sales had increased sixfold; sales of electric blankets also boomed.

When I read this kind of advice, I have a strong sense of time slip. Growing up in the 1960s, when our house didn’t have central heating, I hugged my hot water bottle as I carried it to bed; it certainly outshone my teddy bear on a cold winter night.

It is said (probably incorrectly) that the Inuit have 50 words for snow. Fifty years ago, when British winters were colder and only about a third of homes had central heating (compared to 95 per cent today), we Brits used more cold-related language. ‘Wrap up warm’, from my parents, was as standard as ‘goodbye’ when I left the house in the winter. People would confide in each other about their aged relationships: “She feels the cold terribly, you know.”

And it was axiomatic that if you got cold, you would catch a coldpossibly ‘Your dead from cold” – or, if you came in with cold hands and warmed them up under the hot tap, you got chilblains. But the more this mysterious condition was invoked, the less I believed in it, so that I came to regard it as a mythological threat, like the “lurgi”.

And there used to be more snow talk. People tend to think that in the past there was more snow because snow is memorable (White Christmases are “like the ones I used to know”), but there really was: between 1971 and 2000, there were an average of 12.2 snow days per year. year; between 1991 and 2020 there were 9.66.

As the sky turned white in, say, 1970, I’d—while wiping the condensation off the window—make a quick diagnosis. “It’s just black ice”, or “It won’t lie” or (triumphantly) “It is lying!”

Cue a lot of activity: the adults make the paths safe to walk on, the kids make them unsafe at the same time by making a slide. Snow was so common that we kids had learned our friends’ sliding styles: from the cowards who slipped crouching, anticipating a fall, to the narcissists who slipped with arms outstretched, to be more aerodynamic. With constant use right up to bedtime, you could polish a slide to its sinister peak: sleet! There were also sleds to ride, and they were kept on hand, near the bikes in the garage, not in the attic where I kept ours when my own kids were young in the early 2000s. the long, melancholy aftermath, the price you paid for all that fun: slush.


Maybe that’s my nostalgia because cold weather comes from growing up in Yorkshire. In North’s idea, Peter Davidson dances around the idea that the cold in the north of England is idealised. He quotes lines that evoke “the essence of a winter town” from “Poem Written on A Hoarding”, by Sean O’Brien, who lives in Newcastle:
. . . the snow and that white, other city
I don’t remember leaving or ever coming back in.

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A bus passes through the snowy village of Allenheads in Northumberland this week © Julian Germain

On the other hand, I think Britain as a whole identifies itself as a cold country, which is partly why the loss of that cold is so disturbing. There is certainly more cold than warm in our literature. I don’t remember many heat waves in the works of the Brontës. I doubt Sherlock Holmes ever removed his deer hunter to mop his brow. Here – from his short story “The Haunted Man” – is what Charles Dickens could see in a coal fire: “wild faces and figures, mountains and precipices, ambushes and armies”. In Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese writes that the British resisted the efficient, “fire-hiding” iron stoves used elsewhere in Northern Europe. We “hated losing sight of the cheery flames” so preferred open fires.

Our coal fire gave way to a gas fire—a “gas guzzler” as my father depressingly called it—around 1972. For aesthetic reasons, I’ve reversed that policy in every home I’ve owned.

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An open fire – like being thin – is one of those things that used to suggest poverty, and now the opposite. For example, there is one in Claridge’s foyer. They are not very efficient: when they are not burning, cold air comes up the chimney; much of the heat is lost during burning.

But the ideal of the upper class in Britain is to give the cold a fighting chance. Status comes from outside – that is, country – so you shouldn’t shield yourself from it too thoroughly. That way lies indulgence and coziness, which is essentially boring. In The pursuit of loveby Nancy Mitford, the ‘hons’, a band of aristocratic girls, gather in the only warm room in Alconleigh, the ramshackle country house where much of the action takes place: the clothes dryer.

I walked into New & Lingwood, the fanciest of the smart men’s shops on Jermyn Street, in St James’s, London, to ask about those reliably warm, duvet-like quilted jackets most people now prefer in cold weather.

I spoke with Stefan Obadia, who described himself as “clothier” (“I advise people what to wear”). Did he like those kind of coats? “No,” he said firmly, “they show nothing of the wearer’s natural shape,” and suggested that part of the reason people liked them was that they were “shiny.” It is probably needless to add that New & Lingwood does not sell these types of coats, but traditional wool overcoats, which are more elegant but less warm.

I don’t wear a quilted jacket myself, and I admit my cold-weather tradition is akin to snobbery. I only burn legal fuels on my fire (burning wet wood and non-smokeless domestic coal will be banned in 2021), but I feel guilty for doing so, and I was coldly comforted by a Greenpeace spokesperson.

“Burning all coal is a disaster because of carbon,” he said. “Spiced wood is slightly less toxic than wet wood, but all wood burning releases harmful particles.” He told me that the ideal house, from an environmental point of view, would be a so-called passive house: basically a closed system with very well insulated windows – double or triple glazing – and airflow managed by the architecture. A passive house does not require external energy. “The body heat of the occupants is sufficient.” The passive house sounded less like a house than a coffin. I suggested – clumsily, I’m sure – that as the climate warms, energy use for heating might decrease. “Maybe, but it will rise for air conditioning.”

I’m looking for a happy ending here. It may be from Juliet Nicolson’s recent book Frostquake, about the great freeze of 1962-63. She describes how the frost “crystallized a growing tension between old and new”, and when the snow finally melted after three months, Britain was a different place. In “the apparent stillness of that snowy winter”, and in light of the Profumo scandal, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of satire and the rise of The Beatles, Britain had reassessed itself. “Old ways” began to be seen as “wrong ways” of doing things. A metaphorical thaw came, but the book also pays homage to the cold that preceded it.

Nicolson was eight when the Freeze began, on Boxing Day 1962. She “woke to the peculiar blue-bright light of reflected snow filtering through the closed curtains”. On opening the curtains: “The sight was beautiful, its transience on this familiar landscape made it even more precious.” It seems that such events will be even more transient in the coming years, so perhaps they are even more beautiful.

Andrew Martin’s latest book is ‘Yorkshire: There and Back’ (Corsair)

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