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The big freeze: the good, bad and unready

Friday 15 January 2010

As the snow on his car finally melts, but only to leave his back lane like an ice skating rink, our countryside commentator John Sheard recalls his childhood winter in 1947 and compares our modern day reactions to the present cold snap.

MY SISTER has in an ancient photograph album a tiny black and white print of her standing next to – but carefully not touching – the telephone wires behind her. This was taken in the winter of 1947, when she was no more than three feet tall, and those wires normally stood some 12 feet high.

These, however, were not normal times. The reason why she was so close to the wires was that she was standing on a snowdrift ten feet deep and there were hundreds like it within a mile of our home. For us children, it was a winter of constant play. For adults, it was hell on earth – as if hell really had frozen over.

As bad as 1947?

As I write this, there is a slight thaw underway and the foot-deep snow on the roof of my car has largely melted. Unfortunately, that melt water has frozen solid overnight and the back lane behind our house is a lethal skating rink between two stone walls and the parked cars of my neighbours.

At the same time, there are weather warnings that the snow will be back, perhaps even worse than last weekend – not that I believe the weather forecasts these days, after a “barbecue summer” that was to be followed by a “warm winter” according the multi-million-pound computers at the Met Office.

Whatever happens, however, it has given me pause to think about our human reactions to this year’s snow which, pretty bad though it has been so far, nowhere compares with the horrors of 1947, when an estimated 50,000 sheep died in snowdrifts here in the Yorkshire Dales.

Scores of country folk – snowed in for weeks on end – went down with bronchitis and sometimes fatal pneumonia. Penicillin had just been invented, you see, but was in pitifully short supply because most of it had gone to troops a still recovering from horrendous illnesses suffered during the campaign against Japan in World War 11.

In those days, in the villages and towns, people always cleared the snow from the pavements in front of their houses. They did this out of community pride, not because they are forced to, as it is a legal obligation to this day in America and Germany.

We daren’t do it now, of course, because to do so would make us legally liable if anyone slipped and was injured on our patch. Back in 1947, the “no win, no fee” ambulance chasing lawyers did not rule the legal system. The Law Society made it illegal for solicitors to advertise in the local paper, never mind on national TV as they do today, and offenders could be struck off.

It is their pernicious efforts, combined with the pathetic unpreparedness of Government, that have allowed the massed ranks of the ‘elf ‘n safety lobby to make our lives ever more circumscribed – causing thousands of schools to be closed and hundreds of football matches to be cancelled in case someone slips and breaks an ankle.

But there were even worse evils in 1947: in the longest, coldest snap of the 20th Century, the miners went on strike at a time when the vast majority of British homes relied on coal for what passed as heating (I regularly woke up with Jack Frost silvering the inside of my bedroom windows). The miners were demanding nationalisation, which they got, sentencing the nation to half a century of industrial blackmail.

This time round, if the nation is to run out of heating fuel, it will not be the miners who carry the blame but their incompetent former sympathisers in Westminster, who after 12 years in power have just realised that North Sea gas is running out and we need atomic power stations. These should have been ordered a decade ago, and would now be up and running.

Instead, they are building thousands of onshore windfarms which would have been totally useless in the present situation: the reason for the unprecedented cold at nights – with temperatures in some areas colder than the South Pole – was that a high pressure zone was sitting stationary over much of Northern Europe and this means virtually no wind!

I was more interested in the way that country folk rally round in times of crisis...

And then, of course, there came the nationwide shortage of salt and grit which has meant that thousands of miles of country lanes remained impassable for days on end. The Government, of course, blamed the highways authorities – mainly the county councils – for this, conveniently overlooking the fact that Government grants to the shire counties for such services have been consistently re-distributed to urban areas ever since New Labour came to power.

Pondering these anomalies, however, I was more interested in the way that country folk rally round in times of crisis. The Country Land and Business Association took the trouble of issuing a public thank you to framers who had used their tractors to pull stranded motorists out of ditches (see News, last Friday) and out came one of the most heartening statistics I have seen in a very long time.

As both the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology came out with appeals to people to feed birds in their gardens or on their farms (See News, Monday) Tesco announced that the sales of birdseed has gone up by 140%.

Now I not usually a Tesco fan – I hate their planning policies and their treatment of suppliers – but the fact that their cost-conscious consumers were lashing out to save our wild birds raised the cold cockles of my heart a degree or two.

In this, I can claim a little personal satisfaction. I have struggled the half mile or so to my allotment, on truly treacherous paths and mindful of my healing stitches from a pre-Christmas hernia operation, to feed and water my birds. This involved lugging a two litre bottle of hot water which, hopefully, stayed unfrozen for an hour or so that my avian friends could get a sip or two.

There were millions of country folk carrying out similarly small but important tasks for their friends, neighbours, and even the strangers stranded in their cars. So, all in all, things are not much different to those difficult days back in 1947 or that other cold snap in 1962-63.

Most of us have freezers, although ours is almost empty, so starvation has not been a major threat even for those snowed in. Antibiotics are plentiful, if you can get to the chemist. But I smiled, though, when the Government called on us to show the “Blitz spirit” which we did in1947 having just won a world war. But it begs the question: who is the enemy now?

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