Trip for a Christmas in the Cold

In the mid-1980s, with four African colleagues, I carried out a research study on the experience of African postgraduates who had taken courses on adult education in Britain. There were over 300 of them, and they came from four countries: Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa; Ghana and Sierra Leone in West Africa.

They had various views on such things as the relevance of the curriculum they had followed, the effectiveness of the teaching methods, and the relationship with their tutors. But on what was the biggest problem they faced living in Britain they were unanimous in their response. They said it was the cold.

I didn’t believe them then. I do now.

I thought that the ex-students were putting forward a more socially acceptable factor than, say, loneliness or the difficulty of making intimate relationships. But, after spending ten days in Britain this Christmas – even in the milder south of the country – I can well understand the problem, even the pain, those postgraduates felt in the winter times.

I hadn’t been back there for thirty years at Christmastime so, like the postgraduates, I wasn’t acclimatised to the cold. For most of the mornings when I woke up, there was ice on the window panes; when I braved getting out from under the duvet and looked outside, the lawn and the cars parked in the road had a white covering of frost.

Where my daughter, Sarah, lived with her husband and my two granddaughters in the pretty village of Bathford near Bath in the south-west, the sun doesn’t even peep over the hill behind the house from November to February, so the frost stayed all day on the cars and the lawn. But when the house’s central eating came on, the ice melted on the window panes.

So it was so good to sit beside the radiator at breakfast time and warm my back. You only really feel the pleasure of warmth when a part of you still feels cold. I guess that is why I was so keen that we visited old English pubs – so that I could warm my backside beside a blazing log fire. And so we did – quite often.

The roads from Sarah’s house down to Bath are narrow and twisty, with high hedges and blind corners. So I was unduly apprehensive about my daughter’s confident driving. Drivers obviously trust each other not to do crazy things in Britain more than they do in Kenya – with reason, I guess.

Otherwise, I was relaxed and well indulged. The traditional Christmas fare is better suited to a cold climate, isn’t it? I remember the first one I had here. It was at the Nairobi University Adult Education Centre up at Kikuyu. The sun was high in a blue sky so we set the table outside. There was turkey, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts – with all the usual trimmings. After that we had the heavy Christmas pudding with brandy sauce.

The company was good; the food was well cooked – but it didn’t seem quite right somehow. Not only that – because it was so warm I took my shirt off and got my belly painfully sunburnt.

In England this time and eating at different houses of relatives – and at not a few old inns – the fare was more varied: as well as the obligatory turkey, there was salmon in pie crust, roast venison – together with an inexhaustible supply of mince pies, fruit cake and chocolates.

We picked up the venison from a wonderful Neston Farm Shop and Kitchen near Bath – a place filled with homely goodies of chutneys, jams, local beers and wines. And that’s where I had my first taste of warm mulled wine, which is so much better appreciated when you stand inside beside a fire and look out to the frosted hills.

Another indulgence was a train ride to the cathedral town of Salisbury to meet my other daughter Catherine and my other three granddaughters. It was the Great Western Railway. I was surprised at the caring style of the station waiting rooms, with their photos of the railway’s history on the walls, magazines in a rack, and even books for exchanges on a shelf.

There, too, we had our lunch in one of Salisbury’s ancient inns. This one, The Cloisters, is said to date back to AD 1330, and it still has some of its 14th century architectural features. It also has a waiter with the kind of dry English wit that would have well fitted him for a part in the timeless Faulty Towers TV comedy series.

The whole trip made me more appreciative of the historic towns and the open countryside of south-west England – its rolling hills and the patchwork of fields. But I also came to better understand what the African postgraduates said about the challenge of the British weather in its winter times.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation