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.
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.