The weather dominates life in the UK. It determines the general public mood, it influences what people carry in their pockets and bags, it shapes outfits and it is the default conversation topic. This is to be expected, given that in any area, the weather can go from foggy to sunny to overcast in just a few hours.
The weather is so changeable, in fact, that it is not uncommon for one village to see bright sunshine when a neighbouring town is soaked in rain. This regional variation is caused by microclimates, small areas where the atmospheric conditions are different enough to cause fluctuations in weather patterns.
These are some of the most remarkable microclimates in the UK.
Warmest and coolest places
Central London is, perhaps surprisingly, the UK’s warmest area, with temperatures averaging 11.7 degrees Celsius. The City and surrounding areas benefit from what is known as an ‘urban heat island’. Urban heat islands are caused by the giant concrete and brick buildings and expansive tarmac. Like giant radiators, the building materials absorb heat during the day and release it slowly at night, warming up the surrounding air. This phenomenon is the reason why snow rarely settles in the capital – and why Londoners are often so unprepared when it does stick.
The people in Banffshire in Scotland don’t have the same problems. They live in the snowiest place in the UK, seeing on average 63.8 days of snow or sleet each year. This is due in part to the section of the Cairngorms mountain range that covers the area. This includes Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in the UK.
Mountains affect the surrounding areas in many ways. They of course lead to snowfall, but they can also cause lower-lying areas to be more temperate. Belfast is sheltered by mountains on all sides, so it is protected from the cold winds that affect much of Northern Ireland. That makes the city good for certain types of horticulture, as is evidenced by its many gardens.
Weird and wonderful climates
Every country has warmer areas and cooler ones, but the exciting thing about UK microclimates are the anomalies. Wales has a well-deserved reputation for being wet: the mountains near the sea encourage cloud formation and rainfall. Despite that, parts of the south-western coastal strip of Pembrokeshire get almost as much sun as the sunniest parts of the southern English coast. The Welsh coast averages 1700 hours of sunshine each year, compared to the 1750 hours seen in southern England.
Similar levels of sunshine are found in the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. These popular gardens feature camellias and tree ferns, both of which are normally more at home in the heat and humidity of subtropical climes than in England. Cornwall usually has some of the warmest temperatures in England, but this particular corner is protected in a dell, making it even more suitable for growing exotic plants.
The Nyetimber vineyard in West Sussex also grows unexpected plants: this vineyard grows the grapes that go in their award-winning Classic Cuvée. In 2010, the sparkling wine won the top prize at the World Sparkling Wine Championships in Verona, beating out more famous champagnes like Bollinger. Southeast England in general is a great place to have a vineyard, as the microclimate and the soil is similar to that in the Champagne region of France.
If sunny days in Wales and award-winning wine in West Sussex is unusual enough, try thinking about palm trees in Scotland. The village of Plockton in the Highlands is in the middle of a balmy pocket. It is protected from the prevailing winds, and the warm air of the North Atlantic Drift keeps it toasty enough to grow cabbage trees, which are from New Zealand and look like palm trees.
These climates may be anomalies, but one Welsh microclimate seems to encapsulate the changeable nature of British weather in a strange way. Pembrey Sands in Carmarthenshire can be the warmest and coolest place in Wales. It has sandy soil that warms up during the day but loses the heat very quickly at night.
It is the very change-able nature of British weather that makes it all so fascinating, frustrating and always at the forefront of our collective mind.