On a frosty early morning, with dawn just breaking, I was fetching the food caddy from the shed to put out for the bin-men when I heard a loud, rhythmic swishing sound overhead, like the blades of a wind turbine. I looked up to see a spectacular swan, flying low, slow and straight, gleaming white and stretched out to the full 1.5m (5ft) length and 2.5m (8ft) width of the UK’s largest resident bird. As it disappeared northwards, another identical swan followed in its wake, taking precisely the same line through the grey half-light and generating the same whooshing, throbbing pulse from extravagant, powerful wing-beats. These two mute swans (Cyngus olor; alarch dof in Welsh) were probably on a return journey to Roath Park Lake from a feeding sortie on the coast, or perhaps they were just out and about enjoying their exhilarating swan-ness before the poison and tumult of rush-hour Cardiff ruined their airy arena.

Swans like the cold; there are no swan species in the tropics or all of Africa. I, on the other hand, loathe it. How I envy their layer of fat and insulating feathers! The older I get the more I begin to understand the motives of those millions of ghastly Brit pensioners who overwinter in Spain, obliviously destroying the environment and culture while they sit around in the warmth reading the Daily Express, seeping into their Tena incontinence pads, guzzling deep-fried chips and displaying their leathery wrinkles and sagging bosoms – and that’s just the men…

I wouldn’t dream of inflicting myself on Spain, or Catalonia for that matter. I’m of the view that you play the hand you’re dealt, you be where you are, you stand your ground – and, unfortunately for me, that means dank, chilly Cardiff. The solution is obvious: hibernation. It’s the solution discovered by all sorts of animals that prefer to avoid the pain of winter, such as squirrels, bats, hamsters, gerbils, dormice, chipmunks, bears, lemurs, raccoons, skunks, hedgehogs, bees, wasps, butterflies, snakes, sharks, tortoises and turtles, to say nothing of the winter dormancy cleverly induced by the leaf-fall of deciduous trees and the die-back of herbaceous plants. Because I’m the sort of open-minded human capable of learning from other creatures, I have followed the three-toed lemur’s lead and gradually developed the ability to hibernate – to the point where I can now merely flick a switch in my brain and sleep through the worst of a Welsh winter, snug as a bug in a rug as Nan used to say.

Like the English language itself, the word ‘winter’ is of Germanic origin, from the same root as ‘water’. The concept is so universal and fundamental that the early word each language gave to the season withstood all subsequent linguistic upheavals and population movements. All the other Germanic languages (eg: Danish, Dutch, Frisian, German, Norwegian, Swedish) also call it ‘winter’ or ‘vinter’. On the other hand, the Romance languages (eg: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish) derived their word for winter from the Latin ‘hibernum’, originally meaning just ‘cold’ – resulting in ‘hiver’, ‘inverno’ and ‘invierno’. Each language family has stuck to its formative construction, so the Slavic languages (eg: Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian) call it ‘zima’, the Uralic languages (eg: Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian) use variations of ‘tal’, and in the Celtic languages winter is ‘geimhreadh’ in Irish Gaelic, ‘geamhradh’ in Scottish Gaelic, ‘goañv’ in Breton, gwaf in Cornish and gaeaf in Welsh. Whatever the Tower of Babel divergences, all came from the same Neolithic proto-Indo-European source. Gaeaf? This guy have had enough of it! And it’s only January.

The worst Welsh winter since records began (which in unimportant Wales was as recently as 1910) is a toss-up between 1946/47 and 1962/63. Up to now 2017/2018 is not in that bracket – just typically dire rather than exceptionally dreadful. However, I wouldn’t dream of peeling myself out of my extra-thick thermal long johns until April at the very earliest. Extreme cold is 20 times more deadly than extreme heat (confirmation that humans are naturally equatorial and our scattering outwards from that warm zone was a big mistake). It only requires core body temperature to drop one degree below the normal range of 36.5-37.5°C for hypothermia to begin to kick in, and below 32ºC there’s usually no way back.

Hypothermia is not a pleasant way to die, as evidenced by the fact so few people choose it as a suicide method despite it requiring no equipment or technical expertise and being eminently achievable. Historically, those most liable to ‘catch your death of cold’ – a phrase of American origin coined by Maine humourist Seba Smith (1792-1868) in 1843 – were drunks, polar explorers, mountaineers and mariners; but nowadays an icy end is a routine denouement for those deemed surplus-to-requirements by capitalism: in the UK in the 21st century 30,000 a year die of cold, nearly always because of poverty. One of the most freaky things about a death from hypothermia is the phenomenon of ‘paradoxical undressing’, which happens in nearly half of all cases. This occurs at the very end, when a surge of blood to the extremities, a last desperate attempt by the body to save itself, causes the freezing person to feel boiling hot and rip off all their clothing. People who die outdoors of hypothermia are thus often found stark naked and initially incorrectly assumed to have been sexually assaulted. I will not attempt to wring more morbid mileage out of that last sentence with a supplementary bad taste wisecrack: the hall radiator needs bleeding…