Last Monday it snowed. I thought that might happen if I specifically posted an article about it snowing everywhere else in the UK apart from where I was. I’d like to claim that’s why I did it, but in truth I was so delighted with the sunshine I couldn’t have wished for any other weather there and then. It didn’t snow much, just an inch or two stuck on the roofs, fences and our garden table. A quick walk proved the landscape to be underwhelmingly under-snowed-under, with no frost to rime the trees and little more than a sugar sprinkling left on the fields and farms of the surrounding hills. I came back home and scraped up all the snow in the garden to make the biggest snowman that I possibly could. Ten minutes later he developed a lean and his hat fell off. Before half an hour had gone by he’d broken in the middle.
My first snowmen were all fictional, as was most of my snow. After a proper greetings-card style white Christmas in 1981 part of South East England that I grew up in was not to see another such event for twenty eight years, thereby depriving my entire childhood of Dickensian festive memories.
My first solid snow snowman was a joint effort. I had started school at the beginning of January 1991 and can only have been attending for a few weeks when it snowed. My mum made me wear leg-warmers for the first (and last) time in my life. They were red and hideous. I couldn’t really understand why I had to wear them just because it had snowed, when we’d had plenty of colder mornings previously when I’d gone out with just socks on and ordinary shoes. In fact snow can often arrive on slightly warmer winter days, with between zero and 2oc being the optimum temperature for heavy snowfall in the UK. Come break time someone had the idea to get all of the snow from the playground and make a giant snowman, enlisting the entire school (fewer than a hundred 5-11 year olds) in the project. I thought I’d found a really big lump to add to it, only to discover I’d picked up the head that one of the older kids had made.
Of course it has snowed several times since then, notably more frequently and more heavily in the South of England in the past few years than previously in my lifetime: almost always in January, and rarely settling deeply or lasting for more than one day. Occasionally it would snow mid-November and everyone would get very excited predicting white Christmases. School would rarely close, so insignificant would the coverings be. Sometimes, though, school was the best place to be when it snowed. After sitting an A level exam at college I joined my classmates back at school in time for lunch break. Knowing that any activity of the sort would be prohibited on school grounds we conducted an epic snowball fight on the snow covered sweeps of semi-landscaped ground between the main road and the bus station. (Much safer than it sounds, this was a sort of dead space/green space cut through by a footpath that connected two underpasses, well away from the actual road and covered in a suitably deep and previously untouched snow accumulation.) We returned to school for lessons that afternoon rosy-cheeked, frozen-fingered, and invigorated, albeit with varying degrees of soaked and chilled school uniforms. I couldn’t move my fingers and one ear was numb where a lump of the white stuff had become wedged in my outer ear.
21st December 2009 and half way through the afternoon it’s snowing in Wokingham town centre. The shock is not just that this is the closest I’d ever come to a white Christmas but that this was the second time in a week that it had snowed. Later on it is still falling, and getting quite deep. A customer tells us the bus service has been suspended. Cars are stopping in the street. Customers have stopped coming in. For possibly the first time ever, the shop closes early, as nearly all of us rely on public transport to get home. I cross my fingers for a hard frost and continuing snowfall. Predictably the following day the shop is quiet but the stalwart regular customers (all pensionable age) make it in. By 24th December it hasn’t snowed again, and most of the settled snow had gone. Where it remains it is compacted and unattractively grey.
Christmas day and although it hasn’t snowed again overnight there is enough snow lying untouched on my mum’s back garden for me to consider it a genuine white Christmas. It has sort of crystalised together and granulated rather like near-solidified sugar-water when making white mice. After breakfast I go outside and build a snowman – the first since the joint effort in the playground – in my pyjamas.
November 2010 and in Falmouth I wake to the longest roll of thunder I’ve ever heard. Still cradling my hot water bottle I poke my head of my cocoon of blankets and jumpers. It is freezing. The gap where my window doesn’t quite shut is starting to be a problem. I brace myself for my exit, knowing that the heat of the shower will help. The hair dryer is definitely necessary this morning. I truss myself in winter clothes and pack an umbrella just in case, even though in Falmouth it’s almost always too windy for one to be effective. Between my house and the bus stop, a three minute walk, the temperature tangibly plummets. By the time we reach the Esso garage at the top of the hill the bus windows are hammered with hail stones. We cross the snow line just after Penryn as we ascend the hill towards college. As the bus climbs the steep driveway onto campus it feels like entering the arctic circle: this place has its own microclimate. Between the bus stop and the seminar rooms the snow starts to fall, round little balls like polystyrene or stage snow. Half the class have made it in. One has had to turn back. One reports in late with tales of woe on the high roads. After class I wait 45 minutes for a bus, go back inside for soup and a sandwich (tomato and roasted garlic on a Monday is always worthwhile), then start walking. Why oh why didn’t I wear thicker socks inside my boots. I catch up with a bus half way down Penryn high street. It takes us home on an alternative route: there are some hills in Falmouth no one would want to drive down in weather like this, least of all a bus. My housemate’s home from work early, drying his belongings – safety boots, hi-viz jacket, overcoat and a half-written novel – on the radiators after someone slid into the back of his car. It was a 4×4, of course.
Christmas day 2010 and after possibly the coldest night on record at -18°c we awake to brilliant blue skies in Worcestershire. It snowed a few days ago before my Mum and I arrived here at my sister’s house, and with temperatures as low as they have been it’s still here. Presents and food take up most of the morning, but I drag my Mum out for a walk after lunch. It is a beautiful day. The snow is both powdery and light; dense and heavy. The top layer is propagating crystals where several days’ refreezing has overlaid the surface. Every twig and stem visible above the drifts are decorated with fringes of frost. The sun is bright, rendering the sky bluer, the ground whiter, the snow sparklier. I now understand Christmas cards covered in glitter and the line in that famous grief poem that goes I am the diamond glints on snow. Shadows aren’t grey and brown but sapphire and turquoise. We return to the house and accidentally-on-purpose made lots of noise to rouse the troops so we can all go sledging. When we get back an hour or so later a light is showing in the oven. My sister thinks it must mean the turkey is ready. Actually it was the filament burning out. Luckily the turkey is done, but we have mashed potato with our festive dinner this year. I don’t think anybody’s going to remember that in conjunction with the snow.
January 2013 and the unspeakable white stuff brings Great Britain to a standstill. Arguments abound over school closures, and someone from the Environment Agency reckons if everyone in England builds a snowman it might help reduce the flood risk from snow melt, because compacted snow melts more slowly than free lying. At least, I thought last Tuesday morning, looking out of my window at the sludge of ice on the patio table – the only evidence of what barely counted as this winter’s only snowfall in Falmouth after my own tiny snowman had all but disintegrated – I’ve done my bit.
Then we had a rain shower followed by a hail storm. And then there was nothing left at all.
Not quite as exciting as Raymond Briggs’ Snowman? Well if you’re disappointed then click here to watch the original short film.
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