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The Dales in winter: a welcome fall of snow

Friday 30 January 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard came home last week from a short trip abroad - and was overjoyed to find the Dales under a (thin) blanket of snow. But it was not always thus...

TIME WAS when heavy snow in the Yorkshire Dales was not only a regular occurrence but also one which many locals feared. I am old enough to remember the winter of 1946-47 which, for me and my childhood friends, was an absolute joy of non-stop winter games that went on well into the spring.

For farmers, however, it was a nightmare of dead stock, rampant flu and pneumonia, and for some bankruptcy. Tens of thousands of sheep were buried alive in snowdrifts 20 feet deep and many farm workers, fighting to the point of exhaustion in often vain efforts to save them, succumbed to illnesses which were then very serious: penicillin had been discovered but was still in critically short supply.

To make things worse, thousands of miners had gone on strike so the country was in the grip of a fuel crisis. Coal was still the main source of domestic heating and there was little to be had. When Dales coal merchants did receive scant supplies, they could not deliver it to many remote communities anyway - the roads were blocked.

Snow in the Dales

When spring eventually came, in late April or even May on higher ground, farmers had no stock to take to market and the bankruptcies began. For country folk who had just endured six years of world war, it was a bitter, bitter time.

So why was it that, after returning from a short break in the Mediterranean sun this week, was I overjoyed to find the Dales nestling under a blanket of snow - a thinish blanket, admittedly, but still enough to give the fells a Christmas card look?

It is a difficult feeling to explain, and no doubt took me back to those winter days of childhood, but I think the reason is this: we still have seasons here in England and, although they can be maddeningly frustrating at times when our transport systems collapse, they give life a proper rhythm.

The island in the Med we had just left is chocker block with exiled Brits who spent the entire winter months there. The sun shone every day and although there was a chill wind for two or three days, you could still sunbathe if you could find a sheltered spot.

Yet the first question anyone we met asked was: "Is it snowing at home. We do miss the snow..." It's the same all over the world, from Florida to Bali. We Brits cough up small fortunes to escape the winter - and then miss it!

Winters, of course, are not what they used to be. I have lived in the high Pennines since 1971 and only once have I failed to get my car home - and that was when a lady neighbour clearing snow from her drive forced me to stop rather than run her over. Once you stop on a snowy hill, it is difficult to get moving again.

But that was a long time ago. I now have four-wheel drive and this week's snow was a bit of fun. Farmers have quad bikes which would manage this week's light falls with ease. And virtually no-one relies of coal for heating today - most remote farms have oil and, if the owners had sense to top up their tanks before winter struck, should have remained as snug as bugs in the proverbial rug.

So after the Mediterranean sunshine, I felt no guilt in enjoying the snow. And there is a historic reason why we Brits should say thank you for winter.

An old history professor at York University told me years ago that winter was the reason why North Europeans colonised the world and invented the capitalist system.

The luckier areas of what we now call the Third World have weather systems which allow them to grow food, fish or hunt all year round. In regions which weren't desert, native people had little reason to store food - which, in Northern Europe was the difference between life and death.

By storing food, people were actually becoming primitive capitalists, with produce that could be sold or bartered for tools or weapons. The British became very good at this indeed and ended up ruling a third of the world.

Now whatever you think about colonialism, it was this system which gave the so-called West the drive to create today's 4 x 4s, central heating and the computer on which you are reading this. So let's be thankful for winter - and enjoy the snow whilst it lasts.

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