If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Snow thoughts

I like snow, for a lot of reasons.

Firstly, no matter how muddy, dank, overgrown and generally neglected your garden is (can you see where I am coming from here?), snow makes it look lovely.

Secondly, snow makes everywhere into a playground. Walking along the lane becomes fun again, as you crunch through the crispy white stuff and throw snowballs at the dog.

Thirdly, snow makes the roads adventurous once more. I appreciate that not everyone will agree with me here, but I quite like the way than snow takes us all back to a time when going anywhere by motorised transport was an adventure, which needed skill, understanding and preparation. A long journey in the car today, whatever the conditions, is simply a matter of sitting there and letting the heated this and the automatic that do their stuff. If you wear a warm coat or a hat, it's only to get you from the front door to the car, and to keep you comfy until the heater starts working. You can, in a modern car, go anywhere at any time, with Radio 4 and your shirtsleeves on. But when the snow comes, the roads suddenly become a place where you need to prepare for what you are doing. Shovel in the boot, warm clothes on (in case of breakdown), and - crucially - a bit of skill in the old driving.

I moved to Pembrokeshire almost 20 years ago, and I never cease to be astonished at how the people here deal with snow. One inch, and it's 'do I dare go outside?' Two inches, and it's gridlock. I lived for a long time in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where we got a decent amount of snow every winter, and drifts of six feet and more were commonplace. Everybody coped. You put a few things in the car that might come in handy, you learned how to drive in slippery conditions, and you got on with it. In 13 years of living there, I never once failed to get to work because of snow. (I had to divert to a different school and spend the day impersonating a German teacher once, but that was the worst it got.)

So what is the secret? I'm sure a lot of it is familiarity. If you have to do this every year, then you soon get used to it. Drive gently, use higher gears, preserve momentum - and just occasionally, when it's safe to do so, go bonkers and really see what happens when you turn too hard or brake too sharply. You soon learn.

The best car I ever had for 'getting there' in the snow was a Citroen 2CV6. Like this one:

Light, with low power and good ground clearance, and narrow tyres that cound bite down through the snow to the hard stuff beneath. Air-cooled, so no worries about frozen radiators. And an utterly ineffective heater, so you were already dressed for the Arctic and fully prepared for the worst if it ever did get stuck. Except it didn't. Not once did YVY27V ever fail to get me where I was going. I've been up frozen hills, past lorries and 4x4s all askew on the verges and across the road, all at a steady 20 mph, and got home safe and sound. And it took me 4000 miles round Europe one summer, too. Utterly brilliant cars, and I will have another one, one day.

There have been a lot of complaints recently about the level of gritting of the roads by the local authorities. According to motorists, very little has been done. According to the authorities' spokesmen, it has been done brilliantly. As usual, what you see on the TV reports bears no relation to what you see in your own life, so you assume someone is lying. I can say for certain that the amount of gritting round here has been minimal, and a lot less than previous years, whatever the County Council say.

I'm not sure this is a bad thing, or even if we should grit roads at all. I'm rather attracted by the idea that we accept the weather and the conditions for what they are, and run our lives accordingly. Would it be such a terrible thing if we couldn't do London to Leeds in two hours for a few days of the year? People would have to relearn their winter driving skills, and invest in winter tyres (and snow chains if they lived at the top of a hill) and take a bit more care. Is that such a bad thing? Or perhaps stay at home, read a book, walk the dog, take the kids sledging? And think of all the damage that the road salt does to the shiny bits of your pride and joy. Eurgh.

Snow disrupts our cosy routines and makes us reappraise our lives and our priorities. And it's pretty. Gets my vote.

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