London in Winter

I was out scraping a light frost off my windshield yesterday, and I was once again thinking about what a mild winter we’ve had. Of course it’s all anyone is talking about these days, no snow, no freezing temperatures, crocus blooming and daffodils already poking up through the ground here in mid-February. I was wearing a wool blazer, it’s all I needed, and it occurred to me that I have hardly worn a coat this winter.

It called to mind something I read recently about English winters. It wasn’t until I started studying the seasons regularly that I learned that winter here in the United States and what passes for winter over in the UK are two different animals. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing in Great Britain, unlike the United States, where entire months in some parts of the country will hover well under 32 degrees. When the first English colonists settled here, that group we have come to know with proprietary naivete as The Pilgrims, they were shocked at how cold it was. Massachusetts is well south of the British Isles; shouldn’t it be, if anything, a little warmer? Ah, but climate is more complicated than that, and the flow of Atlantic Ocean currents made all the difference. Many Pilgrims nearly froze to death in those first few winters.

It kind of makes you wonder about all the British poetry that talks about freezing winters. There’s Shakespeare’s famous poem Winter:

When icicles hang by the wall,
and Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
and Tom bears logs into the hall,
and milk comes frozen home in pail . . .

Sounds terribly, bitter cold, but remember, it rarely gets below freezing there. Does that milk come frozen out of cow? But again, we have to consider that climate is more complicated than that.

From about 1550 to 1850, Northern Europe experienced something known as The Little Ice Age. It wasn’t really an ice age; there wasn’t significant expansion of glaciers or anything like that. But average temperatures during these few centuries ran unaccountably colder than normal. During these years, the Thames River froze over; there was even a Thames Frost Fair, featuring skating and sledding and all manner of activities on the ice. In the winter of 1683-84 the Thames remained frozen for two months. Rivers in the Netherlands experienced similar freezing, and the economies of whole villages in the Swiss Alps collapsed due to the unaccustomed cold.

So you may wonder, why then did the cold of Massachusetts take The Pilgrims so by surprise? After all, the Mayflower made land in 1620, well within the Little Ice Age. The answer is that North America experienced the effects of the Little Ice Age as well, and was also that much colder. In fact, if you think about it, much of the early history of our nation occurred in times that were colder than we now know. It gives you more respect for the pioneering achievements of our forebears to know that, among all the challenges they faced, winter was that much worse. Knowing more about historical climates can add a whole new dimension to our understanding of history.

This also explains much about a seeming preoccupation with frigid winters among British writers. When Shakespeare intimates that he saw milk coming home frozen, there’s no need to excuse it as poetic license. To have ‘. . . the winter of our discontent made glorious by this sun of York,’ the opening lines of his Richard III, was likely a more striking image in its time. Robert Burns wrote Winter: A Dirge in 1781, in which ‘the stormy North sends driving forth/the blinding sleet and snaw.’ Keats had his Drear-nighted December and Coleridge his Frost at Midnight. And all of those poor urchins inhabiting the streets of Charles Dickens’s London were not just shivering in their rags–they were freezing. Knowledge of the climate during these years gives us a new perspective on these works.

These day, I wouldn’t mind trading American winter for English winter, regardless of how its poets have reviled it. While I have enjoyed this mild winter, I know it’s leading into a hot, humid summer–another thing they don’t know much about in jolly old England.