Saturday 28 January 2017

Baby, it's cold outside by Julie Summers

Seventy seven years ago today Great Britain was paralysed by the most dramatic cold snap of the twentieth century. Winter 1947 was cold. Very cold indeed and there was a lot of snow for a very long time and people who lived through it will assure you it was the worst on record. But the end of January 1940 saw weather of such severity that even at the time the forecasters predicted it would be considered, in the future, the weather event of the century.

London, 28 January 1940

On 28 January 1940 there was an ice storm which Virginia Woolf described in her diary: ‘Everything glass glazed. Each blade is coated, has a rim of pure glass. Walking is like treading on stubble. The stiles and gates have a shiny, green varnish of ice.’ The cause of the weather was a warm Atlantic front meeting continental high pressure over England. The rain fell on ground already frozen and covered with drifting snow and was engulfed by the freezing air. 

Bolton under feet of snow, January 1940

Antony Woodward and Robert Penn published a book in 2007 called The Wrong Kind of Snow. As a keen weather-watcher I cannot recommend this delightful book highly enough. It charts the extremes of British weather day by day over the last 350 years. Of that fearful ice storm they wrote:
On impact, the rain turns instantly to ice: plants turn to glass rods, machines become ice sculptures, trees are split in two, wild ponies in the mountains of Wales are entombed in ice. In Kent, birds die in flight when their wings lock solid. Roads are like skating rinks, railway points cannot be change, thousands of telegraph poles collapse. The country is paralysed.

Birds on the Thames at Oxford, December 2016
I could not bring myself to show frozen birds or ponies!

What a sight it must have been and how miserable to wake up to towels frozen solid in bathrooms, no running water anywhere, ice on the inside of bedroom windows and a complete lack of any transport for essentials such as bread, milk, coal. The ice storm lasted for five days and left a deep impression on those who lived through it.

My friends in the USA or continental Europe raise their eyes to the (weather bringing) heavens when I talk about the weather. 'You British are fixated by it!' they laugh. It is true. When I lived in Germany in the 1980s we had snow on the ground in my village south of Munich from December to April and I was once caught in a full-blown ice storm in Philadelphia which made a strong impression on me but those were both weather events that occur quite regularly and in countries that are used to dealing with them.

Enjoying the British weather at an outdoor concert, Summer 2016
Watching the weather is a national pastime. I have never been able satisfactorily to explain to people living on vast continents why we talk about it incessantly. In The Wrong Kind of Snow I think you might find the answer. It is the lack of extremes and the minute variability which we cherish. Woodward and Penn point out that London gets less rain that many places in the USA, and Paris for that matter. But it gets it in drizzle form. Britain is, on the whole, damp, mild and benign. They point out that overcast skies and persistent drizzle have given Britain the best grass in the world and helped us to become one of the most advanced economies in the world from wool.

The 'perfect lawn', Trinity College Oxford

It has given us perfect turf for cricket, lawn tennis, hockey and bowls and it nurtures the English Garden to be the envy of the world. Dr Johnson once said: 'In our island every man goes to bed unable to guess whether he shall behold in the morning a bright or cloudy atmosphere.' With modern weather-forecasting we do a little better than that but I still like to think that the unpredictability of our weather brings us something worth talking about. One extreme weather event such as that of 77 years ago is a blip, something stupendous and unimaginable. Well worth remembering but as for tomorrow... I'm expecting light rain all day, winds of 11 miles per hour, north veering north westerly and a temperature of around 9 Celsius. Hm. Might even get out into my garden...

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Susan Price said...

Loved the post but would like to point out that 'ice on the inside of windows' was a quite normal part of my childhood every winter. Only one room was heated and every other room was COLD. Ice formed inside all the windows, frost painted every pane.

My Dad was doing National Service in 1947/8, posted to Barnard Castle. He had to take maths classes to train him to align artillery. Wth typical army efficiency, the door of the classroom was warped and frozen shut. So the whole class and instructors - having walked through tunnels in waist-high drifts - had to climb in through the open classroom window. This was frozen open. So they did their class dressed like artic explorers, in overcoats, balaclavas, scarfs, gloves, double-socks. Every piece of clothing they could squeeze on.

Unknown said...

Ice was part of my childhood too. We had no central heating after 1973 and I remember stiff towels and chill blains. But I think January 1940 must have been especially nasty. Thank you for your comment. Much appreciated.

Spade and Dagger said...

I remember being a student in a house with an unheated downstairs bathroom & a toilet bowl that regularly froze as it was being 'used'. Anything left on the kitchen units similarly froze solid. The joys of a pre-central heating era !!

Janie Hampton said...

Thanks, Julie for reminding us of the joys of heating! The winter of 1962/3 was also freezing and in London we skated on the Serpentine and Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. The pipes all froze and we gathered snow from the garden to put in the loo - I still remember the vile smell as it melted, and went black - pollution.
Every winter I had itchy painful chillblains - and was told it was normal and would improve once I was pregnant! Nobody said it was mild frostbite, and prevented by warm bedrooms and decent footwear.

Susan Price said...

Ah yes, the joys of chilblains! Had them every year. My fingers used to go numb right back to my hand. Never heard it was 'mild frostbite' though.