Snow: A Cautionary Tale

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Sunday, 24th January 2021, 09:21

Pages from my personal diary: remembering the Big Freeze of 1963

It is quite rare to have snow settle in south Devon. Dartmoor yes, but not a light fall of snow in the early hours of the morning and it barely covered the ground.

Nevertheless it is a pleasure to see as it momentarily transforms our landscape – and especially townscape. It is likely that the snow, such as it is, will be washed away by rain or sleet by lunchtime. I am enjoying it while it lasts, from the comfort of my sitting room, and I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is the serenity and pristine-ness of snow, and how everything takes on a different appearance.

Talking about the comfort of my sitting room, and of course my morning cappuccino, the temperature indoors is hovering between 16 and 17 celsius. Had I not looked at the thermometer I would have guessed it was about 18. Put it this way, I am quite comfortable sat here in a t-shirt writing this. On other days when it is 16 degrees I would feel cold and tempted to put on a jumper. But not today.

Why do I enthuse about snow?

Growing up in south Devon – or at least our very sheltered part of Devon – we quickly learned as children that snow comes about once every ten to fifteen years. I don’t mean a snow shower that falls and melts almost before it hits the ground. That is not real snow. Real snow settles, obscuring everything, and lasts for all to enjoy for at least a few hours.

As children we loved snow, and our parents knew that. From our council house at the top of Buckland Estate we could see across the town to the ‘Newton Abbot tors’ – visible from many parts of the town. These are hound tor, hay tor and saddle tor. It would snow on the moor most years, and when it did our father would sometimes drive us up onto Dartmoor just to see, walk in and play with the snow.

Climate change is, of course, already having a dramatic effect on our climate and weather. Whatever is happening now is just the tip of the iceberg and will be amplified many times over well before the end of this century. The last few years have seen some pretty serious snowfall in south Devon, the like of which was very rare when I was growing up and right through to my 50’s.

The Big Freeze of 1963

I can remember the winter of 1962-63. At the time there were only four of us: my parents and my sister – and me of course. We were living in a slum in the town centre. The fact that it was a slum is not important in this story. What is important is that our two-roomed basement was halfway up one of the steepest hills in the town.

Although I was only 6 years old I seemed to be very cautious and, thinking about it, may have developed a vigilant, guarded and wary approach to certain things during the big freeze.

I became petrified of ice, having fallen over a number of times and hurt myself. The ice robbed me of my dignity, and I am fairly sure that it was this I felt more than the physical pain of scuffed knees and bleeding arms. The sheer embarrassment of having other people witness my helplessness. This is silly I know, but nevertheless that is how it was.

The scariest thing of all was that the steep hill led down to a main road with a lot of traffic, even in 1963. If I slipped and could not stop myself, I could fall headlong into a passing car. That fear prevented me from leaving the basement unless I really needed to.

Now it is the fear of colliding with a deadly virus that prevents me from leaving home unless I really need to. I am aware that I am more cautious than most and I think I always have been. Or at least since I was six years old.

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