The art of staying warm in Britain
Listen, I know from cold. I grew up in northern New York, a region that got so much snow we didn’t see the ground from November to April and where the temperature would regularly hit -40° for a week on end. Later I lived in Toronto, where winter meant clambering through hip-high (or higher) snowdrifts to get on the streetcar.
But that, in retrospect, was child’s play. In neither of those places was I ever cold as often or for as long as in the UK, where staying warm takes advanced skillz.
Why is it so hard to keep warm here? The main problem with British cold is that it’s a damp cold — persistent, penetrating and demoralizing. Ordinary layering is no proof against damp; it has a way of seeping straight through clothes and into your bones.
Damp is deceptive. It makes the climate feel much colder than a mere glance at the thermometer would seem to indicate. It’s perfectly understandable to bundle up in down parkas, wooly hats, gloves and scarves when the temperature stands at -15°C, but you feel like an idiot doing it when it’s +15°C and the crocuses are blooming. So off you go in your thin spring jacket and by the time you reach work your nails have turned blue. Whoops.
Cold often catches you off-guard here. Central heating, double-glazing and insulation are not universal, so unexpected drafts and chilliness are normal. Plus, even summer nights can be disproportionately chilly, and temperatures year-round can fluctuate dramatically in the course of a few hours. You never know what the weather will do from hour to hour, let alone week to week. Woe betide the newcomer who steps forth on a June afternoon in nothing more than a fluttery sundress — she’s likely to be whimpering with incipient hypothermia come evening. And let’s not talk about waiting at bus stops.
To complicate matters, the Brits aren’t particularly good at managing their core temperatures either. Both my present boyfriend and my ex reproach me with pointing out how cold their country is, as though it would never have bothered them if I hadn’t brought it up. To be fair, I think that might actually be true. Natives of this chilly isle mostly cope with the cold by employing that great British panacea, denial. T.D. Wilson argues in Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious that cultural programming (“Your wedding day is the happiest day of your life”, “Nice girls don’t get angry”) can actually override our perceptions and feelings about what is happening to and within us. British cultural programming has a lot to say about the climate. Standard dogmas seem to include “It’s summer, so it’s warm”, “If I’m wearing a sweater/coat, I must be warm enough” and “It can’t be that cold if there isn’t any snow”.
These shared beliefs are so strong I’m fairly sure a lot of people here don’t even realize when they’re cold or uncomfortable. The Bloke certainly didn’t realize until he bought himself a thick, insulated peacoat from J. Crew that no other winter coat he’d owned before had actually kept him warm. Besides, putting up with discomfort is more British than doing anything about it. (Actual phone conversation — James: “The flat is freezing. I’m sitting here shivering.” Me: “Well, have you turned on the heat? Put on your thick sweater? Wrapped yourself in a blanket?” James: “…no…”)
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that being unprepared for the weather is as British as Terry Wogan and the last night at the Proms. Schools still send small children forth on a winter’s day dressed in shorts and knee socks. Girls in the north of England are legendary for hitting the town in winter in nothing but a minidress and strappy sandals. A rainy day will reveal how many Londoners don’t carry umbrellas. And let’s not forget Scott of the Antarctic.
As Stephanie says, many Brits seem to dress for a fantasy climate rather than the one they actually live in. Unfortunately the wishful wardrobe doesn’t work for me, so I’ve had to spend years learning to cope with the unique brand of cold in which Britain specializes. These are my main tactics:
Choosing the right fibers. Wool is the answer. Wool, wool and more wool. It keeps you warm even when wet, which is paramount in a damp climate. Surprisingly, considering that Britain’s wealth owes so much to the wool trade, that it still exports plenty of high-quality wool to the US and Japan and that the country is full of sheep, it can be difficult to source good wool here. Which is why I often have to resort to…
Importing wool from abroad. Oh, how I love my wool-double-cloth-with-Thinsulate American coat. And my New Zealand merino base layers. And my Italian wool-and-silk thermal camisoles. And my German wool tights. And my Italian wool stockings. And my French wool beret. And so on. To be fair, I also swear by my thrifted Scottish cashmere sweaters and Hebridean tweed, so there’s that.
But the problem is that I can’t just pile on the scarves and parkas while everyone else is wandering around in short-sleeved cotton blouses and skirts. So I keep warm while blending in by…
Using hidden insulation. Work shirts are so thin these days that unless you like showing the world your bra, a camisole is a good idea anyway. So why not make it thermal? Bella di Notte wool-and-silk thermals are warm and pretty. Real wool tights are another one of my secret weapons — wool tights under a slip and wool skirt are warmer even than long underwear and jeans. And a linen blouse under a sweater (linen is another wonderful damp deflector) is heavenly.
Do you have a secret weapon against the cold? I’d love to hear your top tips on staying snug, smug and cozy!