Let’s Talk About the Weather

A neighbor's evergreen

The New Year traditionally shows up in cartoons as a toddler in a diaper, coming into the frame on one side as the old year, an old man, exits via the other. But if the 2010 baby visits England, I hope somebody gives the poor thing some clothes. I’m thinking a full snow suit, a cap with ear flaps, and some of those mittens that have a string that goes through your sleeves so you can’t lose them.

England is having the coldest winter in thirty years. Americans are used to Dickens-based costume dramas showing London in the snow, but London, and the whole south of England, rarely gets snow, certainly not snow that sticks for more than a day.

But we’ve had snow this year, all right. The post(US: mail) hasn’t been delivered in a week. And the milkman missed our deliveries all last week but was back on track yesterday, to the relief of my milk-loving spouse who regards a supply of fresh organic semi-skimmed in glass bottles on the doorstep in the mornings as sufficient reason to prefer living in the UK to living anywhere else.

We don't usually get snow, so when this came, we thought it was worth a photo, but then...

Having a milkman turns out to be a much greener way to shop than you might think. They don’t just deliver milk. They’re not even limited to dairy products, though they’ve got all that: cheese, butter, yoghurt. They also bring everything from organic vegetables to aluminum foil (UK: aluminium foil) to potting compost. And they’ve been using electric vehicles called milk floats since the 1940s. (Before that it was horse-drawn carts, before that it was milkman-drawn barrows.) Back then, some big cities had three deliveries a day, but don’t tell my husband; he’ll pine.

...but then the snow got serious!

Dairies chose milk floats because they’re quiet, long before the phrase carbon footprint appeared in the language. Don’t want to upset the customers by waking them up; they might decide to go shopping for the milk themselves. Milk floats are still in use today, and it’s no fun to be stuck behind one in traffic if you’re running late; their top speed is normally about 20 mph on a good day, downhill, with a following wind. There have been time trials, though, in which milk floats have been clocked at up to 73 mph, but these used milk floats that had been jazzed up with extras by the manufacturers, really souped-up milk floats (not a phrase I—or anyone else—has much opportunity to use).

You might have noticed that mph go by; the UK still quotes distances in miles and the milkmen still bring milk in pints, too, although most people here use metric units for everything else, as other Europeans do. Of course, British pints aren’t the same as American pints, because that would be too easy. A British pint is 20 fluid ounces, 4 more than its American counterpart. The Brits also have a word Americans don’t: pinta. That can mean a pint of beer, but is vastly more often used to mean a pint of milk, just as cuppa is used for a cup of tea.

A snow fort some guys built in a near-by field; you can't tell from the photo, but it's full height, tall enough for adults.

When you order your pinta from the milkman, you get an remarkable choice of different milks including gold top milk, which has extra cream. Bluetits, birds commonly found in gardens here, apparently learned to tell the gold foil bottle tops from the others and would pierce the tops with their beaks to get at the cream; some people keep plastic tumblers around, for the milkmen to put over the bottles of gold top milk so the birds can’t get it. And the cream definitely does rise to the top here, because the milkman brings unhomogenized milk. If you want your milk homogenized, you have to ask for that specially.

Icicles on a neighbor's clematis vine.

After the snow hit, my husband got out and energetically shoveled the stuff away, broke up the ice on the front steps with a shovel, and put out salt to clear a path, fearing that the milkman might otherwise pass us by. Oh, and that way the post could be delivered, too. Milk deliveries started up before postal deliveries, though. Apparently the Royal Mail doesn’t have that “snow nor rain…nor dark of night” thing going on.

But look—I’m complaining about the post and talking about the weather. I must be British. And if that New Year’s baby comes around, well, at least we’ve got milk.



Filed under Culture, Current events, Food

14 responses to “Let’s Talk About the Weather

  1. Tricia

    Seems like everywhere else got the snow worse than the East Midlands. We’ve had it more like your first bench picture, and not much more than that. Although it snowed all day here today, it hasn’t stuck at all and has just made slush on the pavement.

    In other weird UK weather news, did you hear about the self-rolling snow balls? Possibly evidence of aliens or snow fairies… http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/weather/6950788/Snow-stories-rare-self-rolling-snow-balls-found-in-UK.html

  2. Larry

    I enjoyed this post as well. Happy new year a bit late. We finally warmed up above O C today for the first time this year. Cheers

  3. Beth

    “The thing of it is”… when Brits experience weather (good or bad) we nearly all do so together. When your country is only 600 miles long from tip to toe, you share a lot of stuff. So now, Mary-Ellen, you can ‘remember the winter of 2009’ and you can talk with friends, neighbours and shop keepers. In a few years time, when we get another week of snow, you can stand over your shovel saying …”Yes, but not as bad as the winter of 2009”.

    Pints of milk? In the Sixties there was an advertisement on all the billboards:
    Teachers complained but we kids loved it.

  4. Betsy

    Well it’s been cold here too. Just today I had to put on a light jacket before I walked the dogs. Brrrrr

  5. Kristine Krozek

    I wrote this back when I read this lovely post but, having been busy having a major surgery in the interim, did not get around to posting it until now.

    When we walked Offa’s Dyke Path (in Wales) in 1998, we stopped one day for a leisurely chat with a milkman on his route with his young son (that particular day being a school holiday). With a big supermarket under construction nearby, he predicted that his days as a milkman were numbered. He then went on to speak about the many ways in which milkmen — at least those whose routes were in rural areas – served as unofficial social service agencies supporting shut-ins and the elderly. He said he collected parcels at the Post Office, picked up the odd grocery item, and brought prescriptions from the pharmacy; that he noticed when someone’s curtains hadn’t moved in days and would
    stop to check if he were concerned; and that he stopped to chat with people who had little other contact with the outside world. He made it clear that these practices were common in rural areas where, as he saw it, long hours at work, commutes and dual income families had left the housebound elderly with a much diminished chance of friendship and contact with nearby neighbors than in earlier times. He said he felt that, for many shut-ins, the milkman was often the sole remaining lifeline and that it would be a pity when they were all gone — and that’s before you even start talking about the lovely,
    creamy, unhomogenized milk.

    • Interesting! A couple of years ago our milkman was recognized with a local award because of the kinds of things you’re talking about. Unfortunately, so many people on his route arranged for milk to be delivered that they had to split the route in two and give half of it to another milkman, so Award-Winning Milkman doesn’t deliver our milk any more.

      If you have time on your hands while recuperating, you can read about it at the URL below; you’ll find the article on the next-to-last page. There’s a photo of the milkman, with a glass of milk (no points for originality to that photographer):

  6. Also, I wonder how young the son was. One of the things we had to learn for our citizenship test was what jobs are prohibited to kids, and one of them is delivering milk. (Presumably they want kids to get enough sleep.) So your friendly milkman may have been contravening an Act of Parliament!

  7. Our one and only trip to London was in February of 1987. (We went in February only because we tagged it to a business trip.) The newspapers billed that February as the “COLDEST WINTER IN 40 YEARS.” We had three weeks and had hoped to see some of the countryside as well as the city. Not to be. There was no way we would chance driving on the ‘wrong side’ of icy roads and the trains were breaking down at record rates. Thus, we concentrated on London. The first day of our trip we slept in and decided to laze around our hotel for the day. Wong again. Our cheap hotel which catered to business people didn’t have heat or hot water after 9 am. By noon we could see our breath in the room. Therefore, most days we were at the British Museum at opening time and left at its closing. I wore the same pair of wool slacks every day. When we got to the theatre in the evening, I’d go into the restroom and take off the pants and pull on a skirt which was stuffed into my purse. At the end of the evening, I’d reverse the process. I look back fondly to that vacation. If it hadn’t been for the weather, I’d never have gotten my husband to spend days exploring the British Museum. Today I live in Arizona and spend February enjoying the view of the snowy mountains while basking in the valley temperatures of 60 degrees.

    • Thanks for your comment! I remember England back in the 80s, even then it was still a less prosperous place (for most people) than the US, and there never seemed to be enough hot water or central heating to go around. Sorry you felt the chill, but what a great excuse to hang out at the British Museum!

      And I’ve got relatives in Arizona, a climate I could never get used to. The landscape is impressive, but I soon start to starve for the look of something green.

      If you haven’t been here since 1987, surely it’s time to come back!

    • Oh! Now I’ve been to your blog and found a familiar name there; you must have come in because of Margaret Case’s recommendaiton. I had assumed you were one of the people who surfed in to my blog after the plug from Roger Ebert. I hope you’ll come back! I plan to tap into yours occasionally for the birds and blooms and books — keep writing —

  8. After reading about your Ottoline & Garsington post on the Virginia Woolf listserv, I also found this post about the abnormally cold winter of 2010. Interesting, especially since English weather is one of my favorite topics.

    • Thanks for your comment! Since you’re interested in English weather (why? Well, to each her own), you might be interested in a competition being run by Walker’s crisps (US: potato chips):

      You buy a packet of crisps, go to the Walker’s website, type in the code from the packet, pick a place in Britain (the web site has a map, marked off in squares, and you can’t use one that’s already taken), pick a day, and predict whether it’ll rain that day in your square. I won £10 that way yesterday — though it did mean admitting to the world that I eat crisps, which in this health-conscious aid will be seen by some as mortal sin. At least I’m not going to go back and use the £10 to buy more crisps (though it’s tempting).

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