Comparative weather

I was once stuck on a train next to a man whose idea of a conversation starter was to tell me that Britain has the most varied weather in the world. I’d only recently moved here from Minnesota, where the temperature ranges from unspeakably hot to unimaginably cold, with an unbearably beautiful week or three in the spring and fall, and I was still having trouble distinguishing the British winter from the British summer, so I nodded vaguely and opened my book. I mean, if I was going to argue, or even discuss this, where would I start?

So what’s the weather really like? I live in Cornwall, which is the southwest tip of the island, so I apologize to the rest of the British Isles if I’m misrepresenting them, but here’s how I know it’s winter: It rains and the sky’s gray. How do I know it’s summer? The tourists (who are called holidaymakers) show up, and they buy ice cream cones and dress up in hiking gear and drive our narrow roads slowly, looking terrified. Or they dress up in beach clothes and sit on the sand till their skin turns a painful shade of boiled lobster. It rains less but it’ll probably still be gray. Everything grows madly. I love the Cornish summer, but it’s basically an absence of winter, plus ice cream.

Vaguely related photo: the cliffs in summer. If you look closely, you'll see an ice cream cone just outside the frame, on the left.

Vaguely related photo: the cliffs in summer. If you look closely, you’ll see an ice cream cone just outside the frame, on the left.

When we left Minnesota, Wild Thing and I gave away our winter jackets. Talk about burning your bridges. They were good to a thousand below (Fahrenheit or Celsius; at that temperature, who cares?) and wearing them made us look like short versions of the Michelin Tire Man. What we wear as winter jackets now would get us through the early part of a Minnesota fall and after that would be about as useful against the cold as blue paint and wax paper.

I will admit that the Cornish summer is warmer than the winter, but a hot day gets into the 70s and it’s a rare day when the breeze doesn’t have a gorgeous cool undertone. If it gets into the 80s, everyone—including the papers—talks heat wave. I know it’s touched 90 when people around me wilt. Mostly it’s in the 60s, and I’m not complaining about that. In the winter, it rarely drops below freezing, and if it does it’s not likely to stay there once the sun comes up. And I’m not complaining about that either.

The biggest difference between winter and summer is the length of the days. Summer evenings go on forever. As do winter nights. Cornwall is further north than Minnesota, even if we think it’s the tropics. On the other hand, there’s lots of north to the north of us, so I don’t want to make it sound too extreme. The sun does come up in the winter, and it goes down in the summer.

Every so often in the winter, the local weather report will warn us, in a sobering sort of voice—the kind could induce controlled panic—that it’s going to get cold. Wild Thing and I get ready to sew the dogs into their long underwear. But before we have time to get out the sewing box, they put the three-day forecast on the screen and we realize that they’re talking about a five degree drop. Admittedly, that’s centigrade, but still, that’s something like ten degrees Fahrenheit. So it’ll be cooler, and it’ll probably be grayer and windier, but the dogs have fur and live indoors and they’ll be fine. We can leave the window open at night and not die of it. A fire will feel nice in the evening but once it goes out the house will be unheated and the pipes won’t going to freeze.

I’ve lost track of the number of times our pipes froze in Minnesota, in spite of central heating. I got to be good at thawing them out. For a long time we used the hair dryer, then we discovered electric paint strippers. They’re wonderful. Finally a plumber—clever man—moved the pipes away from the north wall and they never froze again. I don’t remember where the paint stripper ended up, but we didn’t dare give it away. Minnesota’s like that. You don’t want to be unprepared.

The weather I take seriously these days is rain. Here in Cornwall, we’re getting off lightly, by which I mean it’s nothing worse than wet, windy, and miserable, but the flooding in northern England and in Scotland is serious–people flooded out of their homes, bridges collapsed (okay, one bridge, but it was dramatic), power out, rescue services working like mad. I’ve been reading a lot recently about the value of flood abatement as opposed to flood defenses: letting rivers meander, the way they did before we clever little monkeys got in there and straightened them; planting trees on hillsides, which take major amounts of water out of the ground; letting fields flood, as they did before we clever little monkeys decided they shouldn’t, all of which (and more) could save cities. None of it is as sexy as big engineering projects, apparently, although speaking just for myself I never could keep sex and engineering in my mind at the same time. But to each his or her own, and if you’re a fan of engineering I won’t argue–except, just to contradict myself, to say that there does seem to be a whole side of flood prevention that we’re ignoring.

68 thoughts on “Comparative weather

  1. My years in Penzance / Land’s End were just like that. Driving around on my scooter I could hardly see a meter ahead – exposed to the “sturm and drang” whistling through the gateways of the fields I passed. All the best for you two in 2016 !

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  2. A subject close to my heart and in particular, the flooding. As long as green fields are built upon and the water is diverted to places it had never ventured before, flooding will be an issue. We cannot hope to keep on using concrete like it’s going out of fashion and not expect there to be serious side effects. I’ve seen many a planning application whereby the EA have recommended that it is not suitable for housing due to the flood risk (think 2 feet or more under water on a regular basis) and yet still, planning is granted and the houses are built. Then, shock horror, home owners wonder why, in their nice new houses, they’re suddenly afloat. I’m talking about new developments here in the East and not on the rest of the country. This is particularly worrying for the neighbours who previously relied on flood waters to sit nicely on the fields and drain away at its own pace; only to find that now, the water can’t sit on the concrete and drain so it ends up in their back yard instead. It’s simply pushing the problem elsewhere. Nature is not a force to be reckoned with and one that more people should respect.

    Liked by 2 people

    • If Kate Fox (Watching the English) is right, it’s because the English (and I’d think by extension the British, but don’t trust me on that) are shy with strangers and need a topic. Talking about the weather is an agree-upon way to connect. It could be that other cultures talk about it just as much (Minnesotans have quite a bit to say on the topic) but it doesn’t matter as much to them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. And we’re sweltering in more than 100 F heat, praying for rain. It’s hard, in this heat to contemplate winter which, relatively speaking, is cold, particularly as our homes in this country are not geared for it. We survive, nevertheless.

    Sometimes what humans have done by “clever” engineering or for their own comfort doesn’t bear thinking about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph. The papers here haven’t mentioned your weather–it’s mostly been focused on our own floods (understandable–they’re at home and’re bad). Even the (I assume) ending of the U.S. West Coast’s drought hasn’t been mentioned, although the drought itself was. Anyway, I’m sorry to hear it’s been so bad. These are scary times.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very scary. Like in the US, certain parts of SA are in the throes of a drought being blamed on El Nino. However, to this lay person, the phenomenon seems to be much more pronounced. In that vein, The Husband started recording out max and min temps here and yesterday did a comparison with last December. The averages are up 1°C (sorry don’t have F) and equally/ interesting is that the highest max was 41 (about 110, I think) and about 5° higher. We do have the odd day like this, but in Feb. The farmers are worried.

        BTW, did you read about our Pavement Persian?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The real problem with British weather isn’t it’s variability (although, I have had Eastern Europeans complain at me that it was a clear mild day when they woke up, so why is it snowing now?!) The problem is the complete lack of preparation. Cornwall, in particular, gets absoltely gridlocked in the snow because no one grits the road and people literally die in the summer (a phenomenon given the interesting name: harvesting — the premature deaths during heatwaves, of people who would probably have died that month anyway).

    Liked by 3 people

    • I can’t argue, but I will say that it’s hard to expect Cornwall to be prepared for snow, or for serious heat, when they happen so seldom. In New York City, where I grew up, they used to put on the front of the garbage trucks, which are huge and heavy enough to manage them. New York doesn’t get heavy snows often, but they happen often enough to make it worthwhile. When I moved to Minnesota, I was amazed at the fleet of dedicated snowplows they kept. They do an impressive job of clearing snow in both rural areas and cities, and the cities have rules about parking after storms so that the streets are clear for the plows. It’s impressive–but then it’s a rare year when they don’t get heavy snow storms.

      I’ve seen very little snow since I moved here, but I can report that our road didn’t get gritted at all. But it had all melted in a day or two.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed this post. On the England Tripadvisor forum, many people from North America ask what the weather will be like in Cornwall in a particular month. I have often just given links to the met office website or to passages from Daphne du Maurier’s books. I think a link to this post might not be a bad idea!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not sure how much good it would do them, but it would do me all kinds of good.

      I’ve had friends ask about the best month to visit, meaning when the weather’s likely to be driest. I still haven’t figured out what to say. When we used to come here as visitors, someone always apologized to us for the weather and said there’d been a beautiful week or two just before we got here. So if we were still visitors, the answer would be a week or two before us.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. One morning when I was visiting my brother in Iowa, he asked me to go start his car. It had been in the 60s the evening before. I stepped out, wearing very little to discover that the temp had dropped over 40 degrees overnight. Folks in the US Midwest get the weather award. They have that and floods and tornados.

    One of my favorite documentaries was on our attempts to “fix” the Mississippi River and thd consequences we caused. That and thd flooding due to diminishing quantities of delta land. I’m with you on prevention. I hope 2016 is a happy one for you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I live in Ohio and we have a saying here.. “Don’t like the weather? Stick around for a day. It’ll change.” And I remember getting a day off of school in March because an Ice storm coated everything in an inch of ice in the early Am hours… and we went to the park that afternoon in shorts and long sleeved tees. I imagine Minnesota is the same with colder winters and more lake effect snow.

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    • The lake effect snow is fairly localized. It affects Duluth and the north shore of Lake Superior. But I have a somewhat parallel memory from Minneapolis. We had a freakishly warm day in, I think, early spring, when suddenly everyone was running around in short sleeves. We went to one of the Minneapolis city lakes, Calhoun, and it felt like a whole ‘nother day–cold–because the ice hadn’t frozen yet and it was turning the park around it into, basically, a giant icebox.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s probably the most in-depth account of Cornish weather that’s ever been written. Wish I had it years ago when trying to prepare Italian engineers – yes, engineers, though I’m not sure how that fits into your discourse – for possible friendly conversations on UK buses and trains. I’ve also come to the conclusion Minnesota would be too cold for me :) Finally, I love calling tourists “holidaymakers”, I’ll feel better disposed towards them next time I have to go to the center here ….

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The flooding looks to be terrible this year, globally and not just in the UK. It’s definitely time for people who understand such things to take a different approach and undoing some of the meddling of humans might well be the best start.

    As to comparative weather, I must admit that two of the things I am enjoying most about life in America is properly demarcated seasons and light in winter.

    I once spent a winter teaching in an internal classroom with nothing but artificial lighting and a light well. I commuted back and forth in the total darkness and saw no proper daylight during the day. I realized them how awful it must be to be a vampire. Even now, two years in, my kids remark about how nice it is to be walking to and from school in daylight. We’ve given up the long summer nights, of course, but at least the sunshine isn’t keeping my kids awake so it’s a trade off I am willing to make.

    Argyll in particular was just relentless rain. Summer it was more likely to be fine drizzle and winter was sharp needles of hard icy rain but it was just constant rain whatever the season. Friends living elsewhere would comment on my Facebook photos wondering if we ever risked going out wearing just one layer and marveling at photos of my kids paddling at the beach with naked legs but tops, hoodies and gilets on top. Here in PA, therefore, I appreciate the stability of the weather and the way the seasons differ from each other. The fact it doesn’t rain every single day of the year feels like I received the gift that keeps on giving.

    So, of all the things I miss about Britain, the weather definitely isn’t one of them. Not even on days when I’ve had to clear snow three times.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Helen,
    Isn’t it Texas, that has the most unpredictable weather? Like they say, “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, wait 5 minutes!” ;)
    Enjoy the British weather [I’ve heard it say that you CAN do that ;) ] and have a great 2016,
    Pit

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wild Thing says the Texas weather is mostly goddamn hot–nothing unpredictable about that. Although she did admit that the blue northers were a factor. And I’d add that you have to take into account that she’s from Amarillo, where it only rains in odd numbered years.

      I actually like (elements of) the British weather. After 40 years in Minnesota, I think I’ve moved to the tropics. Have a great 2016 yourself.

      Like

      • Sure, Texas weather can be damn hot. But even Amarillo does have snow – and not only in odd years, I believe. Here in Fredericksburg at the moment it’s just 39 Fahrenheit, overcast, and with a slight drizzle.
        I can easily imagine how you feel in Britain after 40 years in Minnesota, even if I havcen’t been up there (yet).

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I remember a day in June in Exeter on a choir tour years ago. The temperature reached the low 80’s, and the locals were complaining about the frightful heat. My choir (from Virginia) finally took off our sweaters. We laid our choir robes on the cathedral lawn and relaxed on them as we did our best to soak up what little sun there was.

    We have weeks in the summer here in the DC area where the heat reaches 100º every day and the humidity never drops below 90%. I could do with some Cornwall weather on those days.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes indeed. I remember the temp hitting 103 in Minnesota. Our offices were closed for construction and the entire organization was theoretically working from home. I shuffled papers for an hour or so before I realized that I hadn’t done anything with them, so I walked to an air conditioned coffee house, dodging from shade-pool to shade-pool. I think I did actually get some work done there, but I don’t honestly remember. I wasn’t, at least, doing any less than I’d managed at home.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Happy New Year to you and yours. That includes the furry four-legged ones!

    Weather! I suspect I experienced something similar to your Minn. experience during years in the Utah Rockies. Ugh! I’ve discovered that my southern Oregon coast is similar to your Cornwall weather and I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate it. We also don’t build houses on the river’s flood planes. It’s rather fun to have lakes appearing in the winter when the cows have been moved to higher ground. Our biggest problem seems to be roads crumbling, either dropping off of seaside cliffs, or mudslides burying them. I wouldn’t trade this weather for anything. Isn’t it wonderful to actually like the weather where you’ve chosen to live?

    As for the drought on the west coast… I think this El Nino has helped quite a bit with record amounts of snow on the mountains in places, but it’s also created havoc with flooding and houses being wiped out by mudslides. It’s all pretty crazy in places. In addition to the usual global warming culprits, we’ve brought a lot of this on ourselves by covering so much ground with our concrete. These rains don’t get a chance to seep into the earth as they were meant to. Instead they all concentrate and wash into the nearest drains on out to wherever they discharge. You just can’t fool with Momma Nature.

    You suppose we’ll ever learn?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d like to hope so, but some days I do despair and change the question to whether we’ll learn in time–because we don’t seem to have an endless amount of it anymore.

      And after that bit of cheery commentary, it’s hard to follow it with the standard good wishes for the new year, but I do wish you a good year–and moderate rains.

      Like

  13. Oh my goodness, Ellen! Those first two paragraphs had me in hysterics! I’m convinced I would mostly adore it there. I don’t know how long I could go before I missed snow, but I do enjoy clouds and rain and gray.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. All this discussion about the weather makes me happy I live in Southern California. We have our weather challenges (drought, El Niño to name just two), but we don’t have freezing cold and we don’t have constant grey. I know this area isn’t for everyone, but I was sitting on my deck in short sleeves this first day of 2016, enjoying the warm sun. Life is good!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Happy New Year Ellen! I’m slowly crawling back into social media and my first stop is here. Enjoyed this, especially the line about burning your bridges by throwing away your MN coats ;) Living in Essex I can (sort of) gloat that it is the driest county, but we don’t have the spectacularly lush scenery of much of Cornwall. I’d rather have cold, clear days than all these grey days but then again, I had a lot of (very, very) cold clear days growing up in Northern MN and I’m sure I would have swapped those for warmer grey days!

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  16. I’ve lived in Swansea for over 14 years now, and I still don’t miss the extremes of weather from the US Midwest. I do miss the total amount of brightness, but have invested in a SAD lamp. It’s a worthwhile trade. For example, I was able to pick spinach from the raised bed in the back garden this week, whereas back in Michigan 16 years ago, I was shovelling snow every day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Last spring I had some spinach that had grown over the winter but it was leathery and as tough as my shoe. This year, the rhubarb’s convinced it’s spring and having died back at the right time is sending up shoots at the wrong time.

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      • The spinach I picked was on the big side, and went straight into a soup. The next leaves I get should be smaller and amenable to whatever I want.
        Our rhubarb is also sending up shoots already. Perhaps this should be seen as an opportunity to ‘force’ some, by putting a bucket over it to protect from freezing if we do get cold weather, and encourage delicate tender stalks for early in the season?

        Liked by 1 person

  17. A very enjoyable post, and laughed the way you described jackets that look like the Michelin Tire Man. We have those jackets here in Canada as well. Although I don’t enjoy reduced daylight hours in winter, I love all 4 seasons….the way you also have it in Minnesota. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a native New Yorker and the Minnesota version of those four seasons was more than I could handle. Every fall I’d tell myself I could learn to love the winter, then it would get cold and I’d remember that cold causes physical pain. I do miss warm evenings, but the winter? I can’t tell you how relieved I am to be out of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. The climate in Cornwall is quite different from many other areas of the UK. Pipes in London freeze in the winter. The most extreme winters though are in Scotland. As for why people talk about the weather, I think it’s just part of an opening line, something to say: “You’ve brought the weather with you,then?” to a visitor who arrives when it’s raining. Pretty much like asking someone how they are when you’re not actually interested. (Not that that’s me, you understand…. *coughs*)

    Oh and to your commenter who mentioned bulding on the flood plain in the UK (which I agree is damn irresponsible), I had some American friends a few years ago who bought a home in North Dakota – on a flood plain, so it’ not just here…

    Liked by 1 person

    • About building on flood plains in the U.S.: all too true. Entire developments have been built on them. It’s insane.

      My partner was a family therapist before she retired, and once in a great while she’d run into a client–something I knew because when she’d, without thinking, say “how are you?” they’d answer her. At length. She learned to say things like “it’s great to see you.”

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