Rarely have we appreciated a summer so little, and yet been sadder to see it go. For all the horrors of the pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns, safe socialising in warm weather was a doddle compared to what lies ahead.
A socially-distanced walk in the park, a carefully constructed outdoor dinner, a well-regulated beer garden – all could be performed in relative safety. Now winter is wrapping the nation in its icy grip, and even the most well-fortified beer blanket can struggle against a cold night.
But there is – and always has been – plenty to like about winter. The long, dark evenings lit by fire or candlelight, the restorative qualities of mulled wine and cocoa, the cloud of mist that accompanies every breath. Winter is beautiful, even if it makes you work for it.
Here’s how to perfect your patio and host outside your home, making sure a sociable summer doesn’t become a winter of discontent…
OK, so we’re starting off really simple here, but it is astonishing how often, and how badly people underdress. We’re instinctively unwilling to break longstanding sartorial rules, and the idea or wearing two T-shirts or two jumpers just seems somehow wrong.
Leave all those tropes behind and wear everything you physically can, because if you’re sitting still, the cold will creep into your bones through the tiniest chink in your armour. If you’re too warm, you can take something off, but if you’re too cold, you’re going to be miserable.
Warn your guests to wear lots of extra layers, because market research suggests that, if left to their own devices, they probably won’t. Consider investing in some furry blankets that you can dole out for extra hosting points – preferably the sort that can then go straight in the washing machine.
Snug as a bug
Heating of some sort is a must for al fresco dining outside of summer, and there are various ways of transporting some hygge from your front room to your patio. Glowing coals and real flame both lend a lovely back-to-nature feel, and turn an outdoor evening setting into something special.
Fire pits can be run on gas or filled with wood or charcoal, or you can opt for a brazier or even a kettle barbecue. Charcoal needs to be lit some 45 minutes before you need it, then guests will arrive to a warm, welcoming glow from the get-go.
If live fire isn’t your thing, there are plenty of outdoor heaters. Those not mains connected mostly run on bottled gas and aren’t hugely eco-friendly, and the most effective options (like those that frequent pub courtyards) are pretty pricey. If it’s your only option for safe socialising, you may consider it worthwhile regardless.
Rain rain, go away…
BYOB does not stand for bring your own brolly, and if rain is forecast, you need a proper covering. Covered patios are mana from heaven, but difficult to arrange on the fly, so opt instead for an awning, or better yet, a gazebo.
A roof with no sides is almost as Covid-safe as being out in the open, and will protect you from all but the most horizontal rain. Pop-up, four-pole gazebos are widely available, easy to set up, and pack down into a simple carry bag. A classic three by three metre unit is large enough for four to six people, with at least a metre distancing in between.
Lunchtime may be easier for out-of-season al fresco entertaining, because no matter how dry or warm you are, by 6.30pm, you may not be able to see. Fire pits and braziers may offer the flickering light of the fireside, but for an ordinary evening, some sort of artificial lighting is a must.
Plug-in lanterns and spotlights are common and easy to hook up, while wall-mounted outdoor lamps come in a range of styles, and can mostly be installed without tradespeople spending too long inside your home.
Consider using directed, accent lighting to illuminate your patio and table, while leaving the space around you delightfully dark and mysterious, or running fairy lights through trees for peak festivity. If you can’t use the mains, rechargeable lanterns are generally cheap and should easily last the evening, while solar-powered lights can brighten your garden by night and juice up during the day.
Pick your spot
If the outside of your home isn’t suited to socialising, you should be able to transpose your setup to a winter picnic. Chances are you can’t bring the brazier, but blankets, a pop-up gazebo, fully charged lamps and filled thermoses should easily fit in the back of a car. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle, but these days, we’ll do that and more for a change of scene.
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