Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from my recently released book Adventures in Anglotopia. Available now from bookstores everywhere (links at the bottom). You can order a signed copy directly from us (though you will have to wait a few weeks for it).
When I had the chance to study at Oxford for a week in the summer, it was a truly wonderful time to be there. It was between term time, so the city had a different vibe. The environment wasn’t as studious; the proper students simply weren’t around. My rooms in the old Oxford college were actually somewhat new, so I didn’t boil as much as I thought I would. It also rained a few times, which brought a wonderful coolness to the air. Of course, during the day, the city was mobbed with tour groups – some ruder than others. I’ll never forget our tour guide telling off another tour guide for being too loud (they were using loudspeakers – LOUDSPEAKERS). But after about 4:00 p.m., the center of Oxford emptied out as the tour buses left. Then, the ancient stone university came alive in the late afternoon sunlight that seemed to last all the way until sunset.
Britain often saves its major events for the summer months because they know the weather will be better. The Queen’s real birthday is in April, but her “official” birthday is in June because the weather is better and it’s much more conducive for grand state celebrations. Both Royal Weddings I’ve been to took place in the beginning of summertime. I can’t imagine them taking place in November or February – that would have been awful. Instead, both Prince William and Prince Harry had gloriously warm and sunny clear skies for their weddings.
English summers are even wonderful when it rains. The rain is inevitable. The British expect it every day at any time. That’s why everyone always has an umbrella with them or keeps a warm jacket in their cars. Even after all my travels in Britain, I’ve still been caught out by the rain. When I visited Oxford, I finished my stay there by venturing over to Blenheim Palace for a Battle Proms concert. The Battle Proms is a series of concerts every summer that is basically a facsimile of The Last Night of the Proms but with a Spitfire flyby and canons. It sounded like a gloriously British evening when I booked it.
When I arrived in Woodstock, the town next to Blenheim Palace, it was raining. The rain didn’t stop. I was really surprised that the concert wasn’t canceled. I pondered not going, but it was the whole reason I was there. Blenheim is a wonderful place to visit, but I’d already been there before. I gathered my bag, the foldable chair I’d brought, snacks, my zip-up hoodie, and my umbrella and figured I just needed to be British about it.
I walked from Woodstock all the way up the drive to Blenheim in the rain. I was relieved to see I was not alone in doing this. I waited at the free shuttle stop with everyone else as the rain increased in its intensity. I managed to stay dry under the umbrella. I relished the heated and dry bus as it took us to the pitch on the estate where the concert was being held. The rain continued. I found a spot not too far from the stage, and was shocked to see how much earlier other people had arrived. I was also shocked at how prepared they were. They had small tents, blankets, and many people were in proper winter coats. In July.
Clearly, I didn’t get the memo.
It was still a few hours before the concert, and I basically sat there, in the rain, huddled under my umbrella, trying to stay dry while I waited for the concert to begin. I did stay somewhat dry, but my bag did not, and my back did not. Eventually, it became clear I was not going to survive the night without getting soaked. The hosts of the concert tried to keep it fun and light and to keep us entertained. The orchestra practiced, which was strange because it was like a pre-concert. Then, we got word that the Spitfire was canceled. There was no way it could fly in the cloudy weather, or that we could even see it if it was. By that point, I was really only there for the Spitfire.
It was fun to watch the Brits around me making the most of it. They’d brought picnics and vats of tea. And beer. They were staying warm, and they were having fun. But as night began to fall, the temperature dropped, the rain persisted. I looked at my phone, and it told me that it was in the 40s (Fahrenheit). In July. The concert started, and it was lovely. At intermission, I could not stop shivering, and I was soaked. I threw in the towel, packed up my gear, and made a lonely walk back to the bus stop that would ferry me back to the entrance so I could walk the rest of the way back to my hotel in the rain.
It was only me and two other people on the bus. We felt like the defeated cavalry in a war. We weren’t prepared and couldn’t survive a single English summer concert. Still, there was nothing more glorious than sitting on the front lawn of Blenheim Palace, enjoying the festive atmosphere of the Battle Proms concert, even in the rain. English summers are glorious, even when they let you down. The show must go on. Try not to be disappointed. The British are used to this, and they weren’t disappointed. Mustn’t grumble. Just a bit of rain – but you can bet I’ll be better prepared next time!
I’m a broken record: we don’t travel to Britain for the weather. When the weather is wonderful, Britain is wonderful. Case in point, British summers are better than all other possible summers. Summers are much milder in Britain than we’re used to in North America, but they’re still hot. The British are so used to moaning about their terrible weather, they’re deliriously happy for a few months in the summer when it’s nice. Summer in Britain is Britain at its societal best.
I did not experience my first British summer until 2010 when we visited on business trip for a week in July. It was a shock to our systems. We were woefully unprepared for it. I had packed for business, so I roasted in all my clothing. The flat we were staying in was a 300-year-old Georgian building with grand windows. It faced the sun directly. There was no air conditioning or ventilation. It wasn’t so bad during the day, but the day was deceiving because those 300-year-old bricks were soaking in all that glorious summer heat, which means we roasted in our bed at night. And, let me tell you, Jackie was pregnant with our firstborn at the time and she was not happy.
The summer heat in Britain is much different than the humid heat we get in Northwest Indiana in the summer, or the dry heat I experienced growing up in Texas. Because of Britain’s position on the globe, the direction of the sunlight is simply different, so it feels much different. It’s not as stifling as a humid heat, and it’s not as horrible as the “I want to die” heat in the desert. It’s much more pleasant – except when it’s not. Because Britain doesn’t get that hot (again this is comparative, Brits will disagree with everything I’m writing in this chapter), the country is not designed to be hot.
Most modern buildings will have air conditioners (or air-con as the British call it), but most buildings in Britain are not new. Even a lot of new ones don’t have air-con because why pay for it when you don’t need it that much? So, while the heat is more gentle and pleasant, you simply never get a break from it. You never have a chance to cool down, so you spend all day sweating profusely. Then, you don’t cool down at night because of the warm stone buildings. Though when you’re boiling, a cool summer breeze at night through your windows is heavenly.
The old stone buildings tend to stay cool during the day, but at night, they stop being cool and become ovens. This is particularly fun when you are traveling with a six-month-old baby. We were staying in a very nice hotel in the Cotswolds, and it had been modernized to a comfortable standard. But there was no aircon (so, not that modern, then), and the building was made of stone. Our six-month-old son was a very difficult baby (well, eight years later, he’s still very difficult, but I digress), and we had a huge problem trying to get him to sleep (well, we still do).
We were jet lagged, it was late, and he simply would not stop crying We tried everything. Nothing would make him happy. It was the heat combined with baby jet lag, combined with an indescribable pain that manifested itself in torture for his parents. Finally, it got to the point where we grabbed the stroller, forgoing our shoes and still wearing our pajamas, and went for a stroll through the grounds of the hotel at night. It was so very cool outside the room. It was lovely. Almost chilly. The background noise of the hotel was the River Windrush roaring in the distance. We walked our son until he fell asleep. At one point, we stopped and walked into the dewy grass with our bare feet, and it was the most wonderful feeling.
I was actually grateful for my son being so difficult as Jackie and I got to share a magical moment together in the Cotswold night.
The British as a people are so grateful for any semblance of summer, they can hardly contain their glee. The summer headlines in the British newspapers are always hilarious when they celebrate wonderful summer weather. My favorite is one from long ago that proclaimed it was “too hot for tops,” and presented several pictures of women sunbathing like the French. In the summer, the British become a seaside people. As an island race, they look for any excuse to go to the seaside – and most Brits do not live far from it. No part of England is more than 82 miles from the coast. When the weather is wonderful, you cannot find a place to lay down on the beaches of Britain.
Even if the weather is not wonderful, the British are not going to let that ruin a chance to go to the seaside. When we recently traveled in Cornwall in September, it was still very summer-like (summer lasts longer that far north). The weather was fair; we had clear blue skies our whole trip. But it was still rather cool. When we visited St. Ives, the beaches were still packed. Despite the wind, people had mobbed the beach. They simply came prepared. They brought along portable wind barriers that blocked the blowing sand and gravel. Leave it to the British to create inventions that allow them to enjoy the beach in the sun, even if it’s windy. People were still swimming despite the water being rather cold. There were plenty of wetsuits. We struggled to get a table at restaurants along the shore.
The entire English aristocratic social calendar revolves around the summer weather. While the season sort of starts in April with the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, it doesn’t kick into full gear until May; then once Wimbledon arrives, it’s officially high summer in Britain, and it’s time to break out the big hats and the strawberries and cream. This is a nation that has an entire opera festival that takes place outdoors called Glyndebourne. And then there are the garden shows, which allow Brits to show off that they’re truly the most “green-fingered” of all the countries. It’s such an important event; the Queen even attends – even at her advanced age.
Britain being wonderful in the summer is no grand secret – that’s why it’s the most popular time for tourists to visit. It can be a bit exhausting, navigating a country under siege by tourists. You have to rethink your trip to avoid them. You may want to visit a place like Bibury and photograph Arlington Row, but every tourist in the world also wants to do that. If you try to go in July, as I did, you simply won’t be able to find a place to park within a couple miles of this charming little village. The same goes for Castle Combe. Some people just drive up, pop out of their cars, take their selfies, pop back in, and drive off, not even bothering to stop and enjoy the place (which is wonderful).
Whether you’re exploring London, attending an outdoor concert, or climbing a fell in the Lake District, if you do it in the summer, it will automatically be better. You just have to be prepared. Uncertainty is exactly what makes British summers so wonderful. You just have to plan for all scenarios, which is hard to do with airline luggage restrictions. Having to quit an outdoor concert halfway through to prevent hypothermia makes for a funny story, but I really wish I could have stayed to the end of that concert. And I really, really, wish there had been a Spitfire. I’ll be back for the Great British summer, and I’ll go to a Battle Proms concert again. I’ll need to bring a separate suitcase for all the gear required to be properly prepared.
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