Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Get a grip! It's only snow

We may be in the middle of a cold snap, but you think that this January has been bad? You should have been around in 1963 - the coldest winter for 223 years, writes Paul Hopkins

Do you think we'll get a white Christmas? Wouldn't it be grand altogether? And no sooner have our wishes been granted, more or less, than a whole run of expletives are given free range.

Chaos, crashes, closures, cancelations. Roads treacherous, schools shut, grit running out. Salt running out. Porridge running out. Arctic blast. Paralysed. Sixteen inches. Brace yourself. More to come. Deep freeze. The cold wars. Global warming.

Okay, admittedly it has been pretty bad in many parts of the UK and the fatalities are deeply regrettable, but how come, at the first drop of a snowflake or two, we go all ga-ga headlong into a siege mentality? Hoarding up, locking up, and giving up as if the world and his wife were never going to be the same again.

The snow patrols come out, or don't as the case might be, and the weather man on the box has a grin to his countenance, as if to say "This will learn ye'" amid dire warnings about staying indoors and doing absolutely nothing. Hold your breath until it goes away. The world has come to a standstill.

It's snow for pity's sake, one of the wonders of this wonder-filled world we inhabit.

As JB Priestly said: "The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another, quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?"

According to those harbingers of climate change at the Met Office, it is "the coldest for 30 years'', but "not the worst''. That distinction belongs to 1962/63 and I well remember the wee hours of Boxing Day coming from a Christmas night party at my uncle's, with my parents and younger brother.

Traipsing through the soft, cold velvety down of snow, crunch, crunch, crunch, my black-brogued child's feet falling, disappearing, one after the other into a squeaking full foot of pure white excitement, as we brazened the elements for the mile home, the sound of the fluttering flake fall, the hushed and muffled voices of two boys against knotted scarves and furry ear-muffs and gloved hands to make, and prepare for battle, the snowball.

Or put so succinctly by Robert Frost: "The only other sound's the sweep, Of easy wind and downy flake."

Inside of me was all aglow at the wizardry of a winter wonderland, hoping Mr Snowman would still be waiting in the walled garden where my brother and I had left him on Christmas morning.

As it happens, the determined Mr S stuck around for some considerable time. That winter, I learnt years later, was the coldest since 1740. January 1963 was the coldest recorded in the island of Ireland and the Shannon froze over at Limerick for the first time in living memory. Up to 18 inches of snow fell that New Year's Eve.

The winters of 1962/63 and 1981/82 saw very heavy snowfall in Northern Ireland.

Even though in '62 it wasn't the first snow of the year, no one was prepared for it. Up to 1,200 men and 107 mechanical units worked vainly throughout the night in Belfast alone and SOS messages were issued on radio and television for volunteers to help keep the main roads and bus routes open.

In Ballycastle and Carrickfergus, schoolchildren became marooned on their way home from school (what fun!) and had to be given shelter. Telephone exchanges at Portaferry, Strangford and Mayobridge were put out of action, and Nutt's Corner airport was closed to all traffic. Even the Albert Clock stopped working.

Power supplies were affected in east Antrim, north Down and parts of Co Armagh, and in Islandmagee an electricity board repair gang called out to deal with a downed power line became stranded themselves and had to be put up for the night by a local farmer.

Snowploughs were in action on the Glenshane Pass between Maghera and Dungiven as soon as the snow started falling, but as the drifts piled higher they were forced to give up the unequal battle.

In Ballyclare there was two feet of snow over the entire town, with drifts up to 10ft deep in some places. By teatime on February 5, all traffic in the town had come to a standstill.

It took another week for the snow to thaw. Three districts in the Antrim hills remained cut off until the middle of February. Five families in the townland of Cappagh, about nine miles from Glenarm, had been snowed in since Christmas and supplies had to be flown in by helicopter. Belfast stores claimed the blocked roads and icy conditions had been disastrous for trade.

Young and all as I was in 1962, I don't recall any one complaining. We were all made of hardier stuff back then - we grit and bore it.

And it was all wondrously exciting - at least in the mind of a very young boy - and the memory of it all still thaws again from the frozen recess of my mind each time I see a snowflake fall.

So let's celebrate nature in its bleak transitory moment with this snow that transforms us from the everyday banal, where even walking takes us in a different direction, where good neighbourliness and kindness kicks in, and we are given a brief respite from the ordinary and mundane while nature overhauls itself.

Be positive! You can take a day or two off work and not feel guilty. You can watch the children, off from school, lose themselves in its munificence.

Electricity gone, no TV? Linger over conversation by candle light and the glow of a warm fire. No sound from next door? Check that your neighbour, alone, is holding fast. No transport? Break up that orange crate in the backyard and build a sleigh.

Cut off by impassable roads? Don't panic, keep warm and wait for the posse to arrive.

No snow, no ski-ing, no downhill racer, no snowboarding, tubing, nor tobogganing. No snow, no avalanche, no blizzard, no dusting, flurry, frost nor snow fort.

And if the world does seem, somehow, to be standing momentarily still, enjoy that moment and its escape from the hectic to'-ing and fro'-ing of a world that every now and then, thankfully, throws up the unexpected.

Besides, there's very little else you can do about it, for nature always wins the day and takes its course - whatever the weather.

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