Stephen McGinty: The warm glow of winter

Anglers on Inversnaid on a cold, clear day. Picture: Getty
Anglers on Inversnaid on a cold, clear day. Picture: Getty
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Coleridge wrote that there is something about being out in the cold weather that improves the soul. But, says Stephen McGinty, give me a cosy warm fire indoors any time

TODAY is the official start of winter. While there are those who believe the cold, white curtain that divides autumn from spring does not descend until the 21 December, which is the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year, they do not include among their number the weather men (and women – this is an 
equal-opportunity column even if we do believe in imprisoning them behind brackets) of the 
Met Office.

Those weather wizards (and witches) believe in neatness and that each of the four seasons should begin on the first of the month and not lazily saunter in three weeks late. Which is why, for the next three months, we shall find ourselves in winter’s grip, before being miraculously freed on 1 March, which heralds the beginning of spring.

For once the weather has chosen to agree with the Met Office. The temperature has dropped sharply, ice has creaked across the windshield of our cars and the sky above is a cold cobalt blue. If only summer had been so prompt.

I had thought about a literary brood on the subject of winter and how our attitudes to this particular season have changed in the past 250 years, on account of my current bedtime reading, Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik, a writer on the New Yorker. Then, thanks to Farmer Giles (or whatever the name of the anonymous agricultural culprit who sliced through a gas pipe and, at a slice, or a scythe, returned 3,500 homes and properties in Clackmannanshire to the frosty 18th century), my decision crystallised and so now floats down onto the page.

I would like to take a few sentences to thank those chattering, blanket-wrapped residents of Dollar for providing a timely illustration of how our enjoyment of this season of snow and ice is precariously balanced, like a hot cup of tea, on our radiators.

For a few fleeting minutes, I had even thought about writing this column in the garden shed, where in those balmy days of June, I often retire to pen a piece or two. I even walked down, almost skitting on the blanket of frozen leaves, to creak open the door, but my hands grew numb and my frozen breath began to tinkle, forcing me to beat a hasty retreat. So, although I’ve wisely opted for the study, where the temperature is a toasty 71 degrees, and a cup of scalding coffee is to hand, I am, honestly, with you in spirit.

My relationship with winter is, I imagine, much like that of most people. I adore cold, sharp clear days like yesterday, when the sun casts down a golden light and each breath is a bracing, not unpleasant, but sharp shock to the system. I detest those days, which we had not so long ago, when the rain is hard and cold and the earth turns to a sodden mulch.

As for the dark nights, my attitude has changed in recent years. Previously, I gave them no heed, and saw them as the curtain coming down on the day. Now, especially in our new offices where there are windows running along the length of two sides, I’ve noticed night’s arrival more profoundly, and it can leave me feeling morbidly depressed.

This brief state, I imagine, is how most people in Britain viewed winter until the 18th century, when we began to take on a brighter attitude. Winter was once a season to be endured, not enjoyed, when deaths were most likely to occur either through the cold or hunger if foraged supplies could not be sufficiently stretched. Yet among the things I’ve learned this week, or, well, been reminded of, is that the reason we have winter is that the Earth is on a tilted axis and as it passes on its orbit it gets less sunlight, which makes our air, land and sea colder, and that our appreciation of winter seems to have coincided with the tail end of the short ice age that appears to have gripped Europe between 1550 and 1850, when the Thames regularly froze over and was the scene for annual winter fairs.

The change in our attitudes to winter can be marked by two pieces of poetry. In 1747 Samuel Johnson wrote a poem called A Winter’s Walk, which dwelt on the absence that winter brings:

Behold, my fair, where’er we rove,

What dreary prospects round us

The naked hill, the leafless grove,

The hoary ground, the frowning 

Nor only through the wasted 

Stern Winter is thy force confess’;

Still wider spread thy horrid reign,

I feel thy power usurp my breast.

Yet less than 40 years later, Johnson’s negativity towards the season was replaced by William Cowper, a British poet who, in 1783 wrote to a friend: “I see the winter approaching without much concern, though a passionate lover of fine weather, and the pleasant scenes of summer, but the long evenings have their comfort too, and there is hardly to be found upon earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by the fireside in the winter.” Two years later he wrote, The Winter Evening’

O winter, ruler of th’ inverted
  year …

I love thee, all unlovely as thou

And dreaded as thou art! …

I crown thee king of intimate

Fireside enjoyments, home-born
And all the comforts that the lowly

Of undisturb’d retirement, and 
  the hours

Of long uninterrupted evening,

As Cowper was one of the new middle class and among the first to see the pleasures that winter can bring, how the cold can accentuate the enjoyment of warmth, but only if warmth is to be had. He wrote his poem just after a time of genuine fuel poverty, when the price of wood rose ten times in 80 years as Britain’s forests were laid waste, and at the beginning of the new coal industry.

Yet if Cowper heralded the domestic comforts that winter, like a lens of ice, draws into sharp focus, then it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who discovered winter’s ability to improve one’s soul. In 1799, while on a winter walking trip in Germany, “what sublime scenery I have beheld”.

Yet among the other frosty facts I have learned is that central heating was born in Britain, and, even better, it was a Scot who delivered the first warm blasts 
of air into the Houses of Parliament, which, one can argue, has been dispensing hot air ever since.

After the great fire of 1834, David Boswell Reid, a Scottish engineer was put in charge of providing central heating for the new parliament building. He wrote: “Though forgotten amidst the more obvious attractions of architectural arts, still in a practical point of view, the visible structure is only the shell or body of that interior atmosphere without which existence could not be supported.”

It was that “interior atmosphere” which he rose to a very pleasant temperature. While it was our own James Watt who invented the steam engine, central heating was about channelling that steam heat into pipes strong enough to withstand the pressure but small enough to fit inside homes, and it was actually a Russian, Franz San Galli who came up with the radiator. God bless him.

For many people, winter is a season to participate in sport and icy activities. I am not one of them.

Three skiing trips to Aviemore in my youth were enough to cure me of a potentially ruinously expensive habit, and while friends insist there is no better holiday than a week’s skiing in France or Italy, it takes only a few seconds to shudder and issue a swift “no thank you” after remembering the indignity of being towed up the icy face of the mountain while flat on my back and suspended on the T-bar by a solitary ski.

Like William Cowper, I believe winter is best enjoyed snugly, by a fireside.