|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
|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...