If winter in Britain is characterised by anything – other than train delays and novelty gourd-flavoured coffee – it is darkness. And cold. Oh yes, and rain. As autumn slides into winter, mist turns to drizzle and sunset is replaced by mid-afternoon gloom, it can be hard to prepare for the months ahead. What to wear, how to warm up, even how to summon up the energy to get through the season. We asked a range of people whose outdoor work – from scaffolding to veterinary medicine – makes them experts in winter survival for their tips.
The greatest hurdle to winter living is state of mind. To a greater or lesser extent, all of us will find our mood affected by changes in weather, reduced daylight and a drop in temperature. The secret, says Graham Singer, a scaffolder working across Essex and London, is to give yourself milestones. “I’ve been doing it since I was 15, so I know it’s coming,” he laughs. “Sometimes, you know as soon as you step out of the vehicle that everything’s going to be soaked in a few minutes, so you resign yourself to that fact. Just keep in mind that in a few hours, you’ll be back in the warm. Take it hour by hour – don’t think about the whole day, but just the next job. Tomorrow can’t be any worse.”
Issa Robson, a vet who works in Northumberland with large animals, takes it one step further, saying that, with the right protection in place, cold weather can make you feel pretty powerful. “I don’t think: ‘Oh, it’s raining,’” she says. “Once I’ve got all my kit on I actually feel pretty invincible. We lived on the west coast of Scotland so I learned that, if you’re in the right coat, you can do anything.” Cold, she says, can also be a question of attitude. “As long as your core is warm – your neck and chest – you can be pretty self-sustainable. Your fingers and feet might be cold, but you don’t feel cold yourself.”
Professional dog walker Sheila Mathieson has perhaps my favourite motto when it comes to working outside: you can only get wet once. “Once you’re wet, you’re wet – that’s as bad as it’s going to get. Nothing changes. That’s your lot,” she says. “You’ve just got to look forward to getting back inside, jumping in the shower and getting dry. There’s no point thinking about what it’s going to be like out there. Just bite the bullet and get out there. I tell myself I have no choice; the dogs come first.”
Once the temperature starts to drop, it is hard to underestimate the importance of movement. Tim Wright, a postman from Oxford, says that if you can keep moving for a quarter of an hour, you can overcome whatever the weather is doing around you. “For the first 10 or 15 minutes when you start, everything is frozen. Minus 12C is pretty extreme but when there’s a hard frost, as long as you keep going for that first 15 minutes, you’re fine. We have to wear fingerless gloves because we need to feel the letters, so the tips of our fingers are freezing. But, like I said, just keep moving. After that: bingo. The key is to keep your body pumping.”
When working as a lifeguard at the open-air pools on Hampstead Heath in London, I was advised to do as much exercise as I could during what little daylight we could find. That might mean a bike ride after your shift or, for office workers, a jog during your lunch break. Getting a hit of endorphins on a cold Tuesday in February can make all the difference to your immune system and your mental health.
As anyone who has ever had to play netball in January in borrowed school shorts and a T-shirt can tell you; clothing is important. Everybody I spoke to mentioned base layers. When I was a child, my father, a builder, would go off to work on a roof or digging foundations with a pair of my mum’s tights under his work trousers. These days, says Singer, everybody from scaffolders to footballers should invest in a pair of thermal joggers and a couple of tops. “Start with as many layers as you can. Then, as the day goes on – particularly if it’s a nice, crisp winter day – you’ll be taking one off every half-hour. Mind you, by the end of the day, you’ll be putting them back on again.”
For Robson, the right gear starts from the bottom. “I’m a fan of big pants,” she says down the phone from her unheated kitchen. “Pants that don’t cover your waist are a waste of time. If you want to stay warm, you can’t have that bit of your back exposed.” She also recommends thermal leggings and snow gear. “When I was working for long stretches in minus 16C, I wore my snowboarding trousers. They’re insulated and quite waterproof.” But her favourite bit of kit is Smartwool mountaineering socks. “It’s almost like having a carpet in your sock.”
Hollie Newton, a writer and fisherwoman living in Dorset, tells me that what you keep in your coat pockets is just as important as the coat itself. “I always have a couple of those glove warmers in my pockets, as well as a vacuum flask with a really good hot chocolate.” On her feet? “On the boat I tend to be barefoot – I really do love the cold – but in the real depths of winter, I wear bright yellow Dunlop wellies. I actually think if you try not to get wet, you’ve lost the game before you even start.”
For agricultural workers, cold frosty mornings will often coincide with fiddly outdoor jobs such as raising electric fences, filling drinking troughs or attending to livestock. “I put on a barrier cream every night because once your hands get chapped, cracked or split – particularly if you’re working with water – it becomes pretty unbearable,” says Charles Bennett, an organic farmer who works near Tiddington in Warwickshire. “Cowmen have this lanolin-type stuff they put on the cows’ udders that also protects their hands.”
For Kelvin Markham, a builder and maintenance worker based in Oxfordshire, an upbeat disposition and physically active job are all you need. “My wife says I’ve got rhino skin – all the rain, the cold, it just seems to slide off me. Dig in, throw yourself into it and you’ll soon get hot. Even in mid-winter, when it’s below freezing, you’ll still see me in just a jumper after a couple of hours.”
While cold winter days can be draining, they are hopefully balanced out by the promise of the long warm days that will eventually come round again. “Sometimes, we’ll joke to each other; what the hell are we doing here? Standing out here, in this weather, with our hands around freezing cold metal tubes, on scaffolding boards that are three inches thick with snow,” says Singer. “But I do enjoy what I do. Even during the winter I wouldn’t change it.”