551.5 Snow

As I write this (2009.02.05) we are nearing the end of a week of snowy weather. Anyone reading this in, say, Norway or Canada will not be very impressed by the official statistics, but here in Britain we don’t get much of this so it usually catches us unawares.

Allegedly London is having the most snow it has had in 18 years. This would, I suppose, take us back to the winter of 1990/1991. Without research all I know about 1991 is that it was the last complete year in which I worked for the London Borough of Hackney. I don’t remember anything exceptional about the weather, so if 2008/2009 is as bad as 1990/1991 maybe it isn’t that bad after all.

I can shed a little light on two previous great winters that have been mentioned in comparisons. The first is 1947. This is of course the year when I was born. Unlike my mother (who occasionally said that she started the Great War by being born in 1914) I’m not going to look for any causal link here. Not even the obvious one, as I was already in gestation before the winter arrived. But a little reading or just the occasional television documentary will tell you that this really was a winter to remember, not least as it came in the midst of post-war austerity, and there were huge shortages of coal (and anything else that would burn), not so much for lack of supplies, but because the bad weather disrupted the railways which would have distributed it. Have you ever wondered why so many railway stations have, immediately adjoining, a large piece of waste ground apparently serving no purpose? That, my friends, is the former Coal Yard.

Not far from our house my father had an allotment. These allotments are still there (look for Trentwood Side Enfield on Google Maps). In the depths of winter 1947 he would not normally have gone anywhere near a snowbound allotment, but he did in fact spend a lot of time there scavenging for firewood, apparently with some success. I did the same in my own back garden last autumn, but found rather less; but it got us through Christmas quite nicely.

I have personal memories of the second great winter, which I think was 1963. I was then in my fifth year at Enfield Grammar School. There was snow on the ground for three weeks, which in a populous suburb is genuinely exceptional.

It started, as far as I can tell, on Christmas Eve, when we visited an aunt of mine then living in London Road (or it may have been another aunt living in Enfield Town). My reason for thinking it was Christmas Eve is that we went there by bus but were expecting to walk back. I imagine it started snowing while we were there, as if it had already been snowing we would presumably have cancelled.

I vividly remember walking home. I think some refreshing liquids had been taken as we were taking a lot of care with our footing on the slippery pavements. More to the point, we had our dog with us, an ageing cocker spaniel, and she wasn’t at all used to long walks. With this in mind we weren’t too surprised to notice her slowing down quite a bit as we went along. However, roughly as we were passing the Magistrates’ Court (since closed; it was on Windmill Hill opposite the War Memorial), so about one-third of the way home, she stopped completely.

We soon discovered the reason. You may know that cocker spaniels are quite hairy dogs. It turned out that our poor Lyn was completely clogged up with snow. We gathered her up and de-iced the undercarriage and this put new life in her. We had to do this a couple more times along the way, but eventually we got home safely (I think I did fall over once). Sadly this seems to have been too much of a shock to the system for the poor dog as she died a few months later.

As time went on, the new school term started and the snow was still on the ground; except that in the town centre, with little or no new snow falling, it had turned into a treacherous layer of hard ice, something like 2cm. thick, which caused a lot of accidents. Somehow some friends of mine discovered that this ice was quite brittle, and that if broken it revealed clean dry safe pavement underneath. So during our school lunchtimes we made it our business to go to different parts of the town centre, smash up bits of ice, and kick them into the gutter. This may seem public-spirited, but we just thought it was fun. It didn’t do our shoes much good though.

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