Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early Aughts, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

The Weather in Britain vs. North America,
or I’ve Looked at Clouds from Both Sides Now

davHere I am, 11 months into my first year as a resident of the United Kingdom—how time flies! —and so far in this blog series, I’ve covered various and sundry aspects of my nascent British life, including, most recently, battling a vexing device that’s omnipresent in British homes. Yet until now I’ve ignored a concern that looms in the collective psyche here like an ominous, swollen cloud hovering over pale holiday-goers on a pebble-strewn English Channel beach: the weather.  How could I neglect this topic for so long? It’s not as if the Brits don’t talk about it constantly. On any given day, in any café or on any street corner, you’ll hear this typical exchange: “Awright? Nice day for it, innit?” “Yes, blimey, loads better than yesterday. Yesterday was bollocks.” “Too right, mate. Yesterday can f*ck right off. It was pissing down with rain!”

And that’s just between two elderly ladies. You should hear how the local builders and sailors address the issue. Sure, people all over the world chat about the weather in passing, but for the British, it’s an obsession.

To a North American, this preoccupation is remarkable given how temperate it is in the U.K. by comparison. In the southern United States, where I was born and raised, your everyday weather barely merits a mention. To point out that it’s hot and humid in Florida is akin to saying, “Dang, that Gulf of Mexico over yonder looks kinda wet, don’t it? Now, hold my moonshine, Lurlene, I’m gonna go wrestle me a gator.” (Apologies. I got way too far into character there for a moment.) Conversations about the climate are largely reserved for extreme events, which are terrifyingly abundant: howling hurricanes, ferocious tornadoes, and those brief but hyperviolent rainstorms– dubbed “gully washers” — that can waterlog the landscape on summer days.

In Canada, where until recently my partner and I lived for more than a decade, extreme weather is also perpetually parsed, often over coffee and maple-dipped doughnuts at a Tim Hortons. But there the talk inevitably takes on the push-and-pull of a sports competition, with each party vying to see just who has withstood the harshest conditions. “You think your -25°C in southern Ontario is cold? Hell, when I was growing up back in Calgary/Saskatoon/Winnipeg, there’d be many a February morning when it would plunge to 700 below! You’d walk out of the house and immediately freeze into a block of ice. When it came time for school, all the neighbourhood ice-block children would be loaded onto a dogsled, dragged to the schoolhouse, and stacked around the furnace. It took half the school year just to thaw us out!” At times, this Canadian one-upmanship can be nonverbal but no less shaming. On frosty winter days, when my partner and I would be trudging to the supermarket swaddled in 12 layers of protective apparel, it was not unusual to pass cocky Canucks prancing down the street hatless, in short sleeves, and occasionally even wearing flip-flops. Innate ruggedness or insanity? You be the judge.

In a way, it’s good that I’ve waited almost a year to blog about the weather in England because now I have lived through all four seasons here. Well, nearly all four, and, admittedly, in one small section of the country, but like most men, I consider even a scant amount of experience sufficient enough to make me an expert on anything. So I can state with the utmost confidence that the weather in Britain is relatively mild and steady. Portsmouth, on the southern coast, where we live, supposedly reaps residual benefits from a micro-climate over the Isle of Wight, making it more clement than many other parts of the U.K. with a temperature range between 6°C/42° F and 21°C/70° F, give or take. But on my sporadic jaunts around England, both since we moved here and before, when we would visit the spouse’s family, I’ve encountered precious little genuinely terrible weather. My anecdotal escapades are backed up somewhat by ACTUAL SCIENCE, which tells us that the U.K. gets no full-force hurricanes and, while its tornadoes are numerous, they are generally far weaker than in the U.S. And you pretty much have to go way up into Scotland to find anything resembling the thigh-high snowdrifts and face-slashing sleet that are common across Canada during winter.

As someone who has experienced the extremes of North America’s climate personally, who has wilted under the stifling humidity of an August afternoon in Georgia and who has sloshed through a lake of sidewalk slush in wintry Toronto, the protests of my English neighbours vis-à-vis their weather can sometimes seem, well, adorable. This summer, an IKEA deliveryman made the sweaty little Southern boy in me giggle when, upon depositing a new flat-pack bookshelf in our living room, he mopped his brow and exclaimed, “Whew! I’m from Cumbria, so I’m not used to this heat!” It was a shockingly mild 20°C/68°F outside. And last winter, a local gentleman roused my inner competitive Canadian when he passed me in the street and remarked, “Ooh, it’s bloody cold out!” It was 5°C/40°F. I smiled and nodded in agreement, but inside I was like, “Mister, you don’t know cold. Hell, back in Ontario…”

So if the weather here is that moderate, what’s all the chatter about? There’s a clue in the profane confab near the beginning of this post, but I think you can all easily guess. Spoiler alert: It rains in Britain.

The British rain is legendary. Reams have been written about it, by writers as august as Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, and Iris Murdoch. Claims of unrelenting British downpours are so widespread that anyone, anywhere, can see a cartoon like this one and titter knowingly. Copious precipitation is certainly what I anticipated when I moved here, and indeed, it rains a fair amount. There’s a reason, after all, why this island is renowned for its lush, verdant countryside. In Portsmouth, according to this weather site, it rains anywhere from nine to 17 days a month, with an average monthly rainfall of 5.9 centimetres, or 2.3 inches. Do those figures seem excessive? Depends on your perspective. If you happily call Arizona home, then probably. But if you’re a Vancouverite? That’s just your run-of-the-mill April.

In my formidable near-year of first-hand observation, I’ve found the amount and frequency of rain here to be quite tolerable. And I’ll go further: I find the weather in general to be, dare I say it, splendid. Yes, it’s sometimes overcast and a few days have been soggy washouts. True, in the winter, a dense fog can creep in and linger until nightfall. And okay, there have been a few evenings this August when I’ve needed a jacket, which is totally alien to me. But there have also been many deliciously warm, sunny days. So many, in fact, that I’ve developed a nice tan on my face, neck, calves and forearms– the only patches of skin I’m prepared to show at my age. All in all, a fine balance, if you ask me.

But ask me again the same time next year, when I’ll have 23 whole months of U.K. residence under my belt and will have by then proclaimed myself to be the world’s foremost authority on British climatology. You’ll find me holding court in a seaside café, drinking tea and whinging about the rain. “Today is bollocks! This weather can f*ck right off!”

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