The Myth of the Great British Summer


Out in my small North London garden, flowers are blooming. Dew is fresh on the Japanese maple under a canopy of green from the lime tree. Next door’s cat prowls for squirrels and the sun will shine here for a couple of hours before moving behind the row of houses. This is the best of summer. I know enough to savor it, because these idle hours of perfect weather are few and far between. My husband is the gardener and he spends considerably more time out here, usually in less than idyllic weather, planning, planting, pruning and watering. He always wanted his own patch of green to tend.

This golden hour is what we wish summer in England could always be—it’s the weather of garden parties; messing about in boats; Pimm’s and straw hats and watching the tennis ball pock-pock back and forth. It’s cream teas, street parties, cricket matches, Lake District hikes, lazy afternoons in riverside pubs, Champagne at white marquee weddings, kids and dogs frolicking discreetly at the water’s edge, the fresh smell after a light rain, rambles featuring wild swimming, and the Great British Bake Off.

A lot of marketing goes into stoking the image of the Great British Summer, nurturing our belief in this magical time when England will somehow be transformed to a village fete in the 1950s… From the pages of Country Life, Tatler, and Waitrose Food Monthly, certain tropes of this fantasy world emerge.

There must be colorful bunting, preferably handmade (at least in appearance).

Light is required, the kind of light to make it impossible to believe it gets dark here between 4pm and 9am, for 6 months of every year. This comes in one of two moods: either the gentle Turner watercolor type or color-drenched, Boden-catalogue bright (I think they shoot that catalog in Spain).

All that sun’s going to make you thirsty, so here are some frosty drinks with straws and bits of fruit and cucumber floating in them: Elderflower cordial, Pimm’s cup, lager, lemonade, lemonade mixed with lager (called a Shandy, nicer than it sounds). And don’t forget the Sangria (from Spain). But the tea will still be hot and still be served with milk, even sugar, come on—live dangerously. Iced tea is not a thing in Great Britain, but neither is “beach body ready”—proof, as Anne Lamott would say, that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Strawberries are necessary—not the giant water-bomb kind which taste of nothing—but the tiny homegrown world-without-vine-weevils ones. Fruit bursts forth—blackberries plump on the vine, peaches (from Spain) dripping with juice, summer puddings purple with blackcurrants. There have to be scones with cream and jam, or their glorious cake counterpart: Victoria Sponge. Unless we are in Nigella Country, and then it’s bound to be a squidgy Pavlova with an indecorous amount of cream and pomegranate seeds. Presiding over the barbecue: dashing Dads in novelty aprons, brandishing their huge tongs over platters of grilled meat, and tastefully not-too-tanned women in Emilia Wickstead dresses with very skinny upper arms who may, or may not, be mothers.

These images reassure us: Summer will be different this time! We will make the most of it!

I’m here from the future to say that while we have made the most of it, the Great British Summer was not all it was cracked up to be.

The unofficial kick-off of summer in the US is Memorial Day weekend. In London, it’s the Chelsea Flower Show. Because it happens to fall on my birthday, I tend to remember the ignominious things that happen around that time of the year. Like my annual sodden slog through the Chelsea Flower Show. Has it ever not rained? Take it from me, don’t shiver in the cute cardigan that matches your dress. Leave those pristine pumps at home. What you want is a Barbour jacket and Hunter boots. Never mind that it is considered naff (uncool) to wear wellies in the city. Chelsea during the garden show is virtually the country. Do as I do and plan your outfit around the worst-case scenario weather, so you are in with at least a chance of sweltering in your waxed cotton while everyone else has gone for the spray tan and off-shoulder tops.

Conversely, there will be one perfect day for your strappy sun dress or smart white linen shorts and that will be the day you wear black jeans, sneakers, a sweater (that will earn its name by mid-morning) and a scarf, because the forecast was for wool. Sometimes, that perfect summer day comes in April or October—surprise!

From April to October, my daughter takes tennis lessons outdoors. Supposedly we don’t have to pay for the lessons that are cancelled due to rain. The trouble with this policy is that we don’t seem to agree on what constitutes refund-worthy rain. So the parents in their rain slickers drink their tea and contemplate this holy mystery: how much would it have to be raining in order to officially cancel the lesson?

Alas for my kids, the best weather of the day—emerging bright sun, maximum temperatures, and frisky animals in the back garden—reliably arrives at their bedtime. The hours between 7 and 10 can be the nicest ones to spend outside. The huge crowds at the pub across the street from our house certainly seem to think so!

And if, like the pub crowd, you happen upon the holy grail—the perfect summer atmosphere for the perfect summer activity—you will be so surprised that you will talk about the weather constantly throughout the day and keep giving your companions credit:

“You brought the weather, didn’t you?”

“You couldn’t have asked for a better day, could you?”

“Soak it up while you can!”

If you need proof that British summer weather is contrary as hell, look no further than the Great British Bake Off. Alert viewers will note that it is always pouring outside of the tent, except for any time the bakers are assigned multi-layer pastry or ice cream, when it suddenly gets just humid or warm enough to present a problem.

We love to complain about it, but the wonderful thing about British weather is it is rarely extreme. It stays pretty green through the winter here, and while there is the occasional flood or bad rain storm, it’s exceptional. Many Americans come from places where the weather can be excessive. I have lived in Florida (hurricanes), Boston (nor’easters) and New York (temperature swings from -20F to 120F). By contrast, the weather in London seems really tame. Yet people talk about the tiny variations with the intensity of climate specialists. When we first moved here, this perplexed me. As I got to know the climate—and my friends and neighbors—better, it all made sense. Small talk about the weather is the ideal icebreaker, whether you intend to have a long and deep conversation or simply share a few words and move on with your day. The weather is uncontroversial and universal, yet unpredictable enough to engage our attention. No season is more engaging than British summer: the agony of anticipation! As we gird ourselves for disappointment.

If you come to visit us in summer time, please bring the Proper Gear: a coat that is actually waterproof, a nice umbrella (this is for leaving on the bus) and a shoddy umbrella (the one you’ll actually use). Barbour jackets are great, but only really waterproof when new. You have to re-wax them—a messy process. Wellies really don’t work well in the city, and your feet will get too hot. I recommend a couple of pairs of comfortable leather shoes, waterproofed with spray (this needs to be redone every few weeks to be effective), so you can wear one pair and dry the other on alternate days.

If you want guaranteed sun, I’m afraid you will have to book a trip to Spain. And the week you spend in Spain fighting over sun loungers could just turn out to be the one optimal week in the UK. So try to be patient. The best of the Great British Summer is right around the corner! If you hold out and let other people go to Spain, you will have it all to yourself. Which means more Pimm’s for you—and no small talk about the weather.

[This column originally appeared in Anglotopia Magazine. If you'd like to subscribe, or you're an Anglophile looking for a one-stop website for all your favorite things, check it out here.]

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