Friday, February 06, 2009

It's been an odd week in the UK. The snow came on Monday, and we awoke to a thick covering of snow, the thickest for 18 years. Of course, all the public services fell over: while the press was full of annoying comments from the mayors of Scandinavian towns expressing surprise that the whole country grinds to a halt for a sprinkling of snow, it was obvious that our councils can't horde snow ploughs and road salt on the off chance that it will snow like this.

For every idiot expressing suprise that global warming should lead to a few day's snow, hinting that we are all wrong, wrong, WRONG... there was someone smug explaining the role of the gulf stream and the possible future of the UK without it.

And Boris the London Mayor fulfilled every news editors expectations, by inserting a bit of controversy into a news day which was snow, snow, closed schools and snow, by waiving the congestion charge in central London and admonishing everyone that it wasn't an excuse for a mass skive. I can imagine fists shaken at the tv screen all over London, as the buses were cancelled entirely and most of the underground was down. You want us in work Boris, make sure your transport for London system is working....

Even dedicated people had to be more or less heroic to make the trek to work, One of the radiography staff at Guy's hospital set off as usual at 5.30am, and took eight hours instead of the usual one and a half, to reach work. Many people walked miles. Even so, if you lived outside London and worked in the centre, you had to either be some kind of desperate, or stupid, to make the journey. All the advice was not to go out unless it was essential.

By Tuesday, the snow had melted slightly and refrozen. Most of the schools were still closed, and the press was full of grumpy comments from parents not wanting to have a day off to look after children: it sends the wrong message they said: "If it gets difficult you should give up and take a day off work." Mostly, people enjoyed the day off, and took the chance they hadn't had for years, to toboggan down any convenient hill or slope on whatever came to hand. Trays, suitcases, inflatable mattresses, or in the case of a group of particularly adventurous girls, the roof of a car.

Unfortunately, a few people, including that group of girls, underestimated how fast an object will travel on snow covered in ice, and there were accidents. The roof of the car crashed through a barbed wire fence, one girl was killed and the other two injured. It seemed, as it always seems when a young person dies, that she was a shining example, with handfuls of A* qualifications and a bright future snuffed out. It made me wonder whether, in retrospect, her parents were glad she had spent those 16 years at her books, studying hard, or whether she ought to have spent more of them having fun in the snow.

By Wednesday most of the snow on pavements was gone, and the transport system seemed to be back to normal, although the Metropolitan line into London fell over while I was travelling down it. It seemed the crisis was over....

On Wednesday night across a swathe of the country, another 20 centimetres fell. My aunt in Turkdean, a small village in Gloucestershire, found that the 20 centimetres which had fallen on Monday, lay slightly squished, melted, refrozen, under the next 20 centimetres. No one had been able to leave the village by car for four days by Thursday morning. One adventurous soul had trudged each day to Northleach, to get the papers.

Our snow was melting, and turning a cautionary black colour on the edges of roads. In other parts of the country, we watched as news reporters were covered in a light sprinkling of snow during their reports from the snowiest places in Britain. The mayors of Scandinavian countries were still being wheeled out to tell us we were pathetic for not being able to cope with the odd 20 inches of snow. The salt stocks for gritting began to run out.

Friday morning I awoke to sleety snow, and a new covering in our garden. There was the longest and loudest roll of thunder I had ever heard, and our area seemed to mark the division between those parts of the country still thickly covered with snow, and those who were being lavishly rained upon. Our weather here veered between snow, sleet, rain and back to snow again.

The news programmes were now firmly reporting the disconnect between the amount of rock salt being gritted onto the roads, and the amount it was possible to mine... 25,000 tons a day being used on the roads, 30,000 tons a week being mined. The councils who had been criticised for lack of readiness earlier in the week were now busy demonstrating how impossible it was to salt roads adequately when snow was falling in the quantity it was. One reporter caused merriment in our house by being gradually covered in snow in the course of a demonstration of the inadequacy of grit to cope with the weather: his hair, shoulders, eyebrows and eyelashes collected a delicate lace-like ledge of snow.

Councils began to ration gritting to the major roads, although the rationale for this is hard to fathom: people have to start their journeys from the place where their car is parked, if that's an ice rink side road, it will be just as dangerous to drive from there to the main road....

Now on Saturday morning it seems colder than ever. Our snow is mostly melted in this area, but it seems that in the south particularly to the west, the rest of the country is still covered. The weekend weather is a prospect of clear skies but cold temperatures followed by more snow on Monday. What happens if rock salt stocks continue to deplete and the freezing conditions continue, is anyone's guess. I'm just thankful that we live on the edge of London and have very good transport links here. And that I have an (artificial) fur coat.

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