This Sceptered Isle was a phrase describing Britain, from the quill of Shakespeare. The past fortnight however it has been more a case of “this snowbound isle”. Well it is winter after all, but somehow Britain copes badly with it. All around the northern hemisphere, countries and communities expect harsh winter weather and appear to deal with it admirably. From Lake Wobegon to Linköping, Yukon to Yakutsk, the temperature plummets, waterways freeze, road and rail are covered with snow, yet it seems that people manage to get by.
But for some reason this is not the case in Britain. Snow comes as if by surprise, the news bulletins stop covering actual news and instead presenters stand about in snowbound towns and on road junctions, talking meaninglessly and incessantly on live tv about how much snow there is and how people cannot get about.
Footage is shown of cars skidding through ice, of impassable motorways, closed runways with snow-laden planes and of rail networks caught out by experiencing winter weather in winter. To this, the British public heave sighs of disbelief at how ill equipped the country’s infrastructure and services are.
Some winters are undeniably harsh in the UK and there is cause for concern. This past month has been bad in places and 2010 had a particularly cold elongated spell, although neither of these are anything like those of 1947 and 1963.
In 1947 Britain was still struggling with the traumas of World War II, and food, clothing and petrol rationing were still in place. That winter snow fell somewhere in the UK for 55 consecutive days between January and March, and snowdrifts were up to 7 m (21 feet) deep. Coal was in short supply as it could not be delivered; I imagine the best way to survive would have been on plenty of hardy homemade winter vegetable soups, and wrapping yourself up in an army surplus blanket and night cap.
1963 was the coldest UK winter for 200 years- skating on the River Thames and other frozen rivers took place. Even the sea froze in places, including four miles out of Dunkirk off of France. Although rationing had long since finished, central heating was far from universal and January 1963 was the coldest month of the 20th century. It can’t have been much fun, and then as sadly, this week, there were many tragedies; people dying in cars buried in snowdrifts or cars skidding off roads and into rivers.
Although Britain, and Britons, are better equipped for severe winters than ever before, problems still occur. Weather forecasters’ issue warnings and spokepersons from the Auromobile Association and Royal Automobile Club advise people not to travel unless essential (and often not to travel even then). But people do, and you hear tales of passengers stuck on stranded trains for hours on end. Or in the middle of the night on radio phone-ins there will be a call from drivers stuck in their cars on a remote road, or a busy motorway. Hemmed in by the severity of the fast falling or densely packed snow, or on a road that has been blocked by trees falling down, fallen due to the weight of snow on branches.
For children and the young at heart however, the simple pleasures of building a snowman, tobogganing or a snowball fight, plus the off chance that the school or office might have to close, snow is always a welcome sight. And soon, a thaw is in sight and then the tv news is full of reporters standing on flooded streets and footage of flooded fields and burst riverbanks dominate our screens…
Is it just the UK that copes with its snow badly or does everywhere else fall foul of the weather too?