Someone please turn on the heat

Monday, February 28, 2011

I went home to Canada over the Christmas holidays, where it was (and still is) the deep midwinter.  It was a good trip, but two weeks was much too short a time, and in the last days I was there I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and sad because it felt much too familiar to be saying good bye to all the same people all over again.  How is it that I’ve managed to design my life to be so far away from friends and family?  Why am I constantly measuring the time I have with these people in hours and minutes instead of weeks and months?  Please remind me again why I live in a cold, grey, enormous city full of seven million people who don’t care whether I live or die?

But I digress.  Back to the Canadian prairies, circa late December, 2010. Anyone might expect that things were cold and uncomfortable over there, but in fact that’s only true for part of the time – the part of the time when you’re actually outside.

After a bracing 8km run in –24 degrees Celsius. (But no wind, so on the whole quite comfy.)

Sadly, in London it seems that cold-and-uncomfortable is not a sensation that’s confined to the outdoors.  Maybe I’ve just been unlucky in where I live and where I work, but I feel like I’m almost always chilly.  Morning, evening, whenever.  My fingers are cold, my toes are cold, the tip of my nose is cold… it’s slightly miserable.  And it seems like this is more or less the norm over here because the British have a very shaky grasp of the concepts of central heating, insulation and draft/draught–proofing.  I really didn’t expect that one of the things I’d miss most about Canada would be room temperature.  (The thing I noticed immediately when I arrived at Karen and Steve’s house from the airport in Winnipeg was that the house was… comfortable.  Bliss!)

Many houses in England have no insulation at all – brick ones, for instance, have brick walls.  Just brick.  Not brick-outside-with-2x4-stud-walls-and-insulation-and-drywall inside.  Just brick.  Touch the face of that brick on the inside of the house and you’re likely just 6-8 inches of chilly clay from outside air. (I should add here that I have been in homes in London where the temperature has been perfectly comfortable, but I don’t get that sense that this is something that can be counted on.)

Windows are almost invariably single-paned and often ill-fitted.  In fact, the British seem to have raised draftiness to a virtue.  I had a distressing conversation with a friend wherein she related a story about her office, which is inhabited by at least two other people.  One of her co-workers was finding the office very cold and uncomfortable and finally called in the building maintenance staff to discuss the issue (oh, how I sympathize with him).  They gathered at the window and with much gesturing and “Yes, yes, that sounds good. Do that.” noises, it became clear that the plan was to seal up the leaky window.  This was reported by my friend with some dismay.  “So we’re going to be COMPLETELY SEALED in this room!”, she said, as if this were at the very least dangerously unhealthy, and quite possibly abusive.  I wanted to shake her firmly and say, “That’s the whole point!  When it is cold OUTSIDE, the idea is to keep that cold air from coming INSIDE.  Trust me. I’m from Canada, I know how this works!”

When I told this story to my friend Kampala Rob he came back with a tale about a public service ad campaign in Scotland he’d heard about that urged people to close their windows before going to bed in the winter.  Apparently the old and infirm were impertinently freezing to death in their sleep because they insisted on going to bed with a window open.  And this was in Scotland, where they presumably know a thing or two about inclement weather.  Trust me Scotland, if your housing stock is anything like the vintage and quality we have in London, then the chances of you suffocating due to lack-of-draftiness are vanishingly small, even if you were to seal up every window in the house.  The airflow through keyholes and door jams alone will ensure a healthy supply of fresh air for eternity.

Light (and cold air) through a typical London keyhole.  (More about the ridiculously Dickensian nature of locks and keys over here in another post.)

I guess this could be part of why the English react so strongly to what is really very mildly chilly weather.  I know it must seem insufferably smug, but I can’t help but snicker at TV weather reporters who describe current conditions as “arctic” when the mercury has barely dipped below zero.  And I just had to take a photo of this weather forecast from the Evening Standard. 

Minus two? Bitterly cold? Are you kidding me?
(Apparently the coldest temperature ever recorded in Britain was -26.1 Celsius at Newport, Shropshire, 10-Jan. 1982.  Lightweights!)

Oh wait, I’m lying when I say I’m cold ALL the time.  That’s not actually true.  The tube is relatively warm, as are most shops and restaurants and pubs.  So too is the office I’m working in, but only after about noon.  When I first arrive in the morning, especially on a Monday after a weekend of unheated grimness had chilled the building to its bones, the temperature in the office is… challenging.  We’ve got an array of space heaters that everyone cranks up to maximum as soon as they walk in the door.  Then we spend a few hours inching towards a comfortable temperature, which is achieved at about noon and then promptly overshot by about 12:45, leaving us stripping off layers of clothing and mopping brows.  It’s taken me weeks to figure out the optimum moment to turn off the space heaters.  And don’t get me started about the unheated bathroom.  I could see my breath in there one day…

I really thought when I moved here that I’d find the culture comfortable and familiar.  After all, I did grow up with steak and kidney pudding for Sunday supper, and grandparents with an appropriate accent and all manner of other Anglo-accouterments.  But it turns out that there are some things that just get coded into your DNA when you grow up in North America, and it seems that a belief that one is entitled live and work at a comfortable temperature is one of those things.  I think it just honestly doesn’t occur to some Britons that they shouldn’t have to be wearing their coats half an hour after walking in the door because they haven’t warmed up yet (true story).  Maybe it’s part “stiff upper lip” and part “make do and muddle through” and part “very long wartime austerity hangover”.  Whatever it is, it’s a bizarre and uncomfortable phenomenon and one which I’ve grown very weary of in a very short amount of time.

And that’s the weather report from this chilly north London bedroom: 17 degrees with a risk of frost over night and continuing cold spells throughout the week.  Spring can’t come soon enough.

(Edited to add: I wrote this post back in the early new year when the weather was unusually cold for London, and I was living in a house that was, shall we say, heating-challenged.  I'm now happy to report that the weather is milder and, more importantly, I've moved back to the big, friendly house in Brixton where I passed six lovely weeks in the fall so things are much improved on the comforts-of-home front.)


Kathryn said...

Oh, how I can relate! I have spent all my many trips to Wales sitting inches away from the 2-bar electric fire (which they will only ever allow to have one bar operating!)and dressed in as many layers as I can squeeze into. My grandparents houses had out-houses - so - talk about COLD bathrooms! Brrrrr - I am chilled to the bone just remembering it all.

PS - How come this post didn't appear on the main page?

Roberto Hamiltoni said...


I was in tears laughing at your chilly situation and your entertaining telling of the tale.

All 4 offices of DWD over the years have been temperature regulation challenged, so I can relate to your space heater and draftiness issues.

"...Dickensian nature of locks and keys over here..." Can't wait for that chapter.

Don't let anyone tell you that you would not make a Fabulous Travel Writer. You could make money at this!

Looking forward to seeing you in June, bigtime. Any woolies from Canada I should bring? How about some of those red mittens from the Olympics. Probably on sale at The Bay these days.


Rob H.

C. Hill said...

I can so relate to this - New Zealand is the same! Yes, I know it doesn't drop below 0, or even below 5 degrees, for that matter. So when you dress appropriately for that temperature, it's never really that cold outside (at least here on the North Island. Down at the south of the South, which isn't too far from Antartica, really, it gets a little colder). But without insulation, central heating or double paned, properly installed windows, it is the same temperature inside as out (if not cooler, as the houses trap the cold).

So you have to wear the same clothing inside as out. Which is ridiculous to me, who used to wear shorts and a t-shirt around the house in -50 degree weather! And the Kiwis, who complain bitterly about how cold it is when it's +5, seem to think it is some testament to their hardiness as a race that they don't construct buildings properly. "Just put on a jumper!" they tell me when I mention it. Riiiiiiiight. "Just build houses properly!" is my ready response.

Anyway, just had to commiserate, as a fellow Winnipegger living in a strange land.

Post a Comment