Gerald Haigh looks at the effect of hard winters – not only on people, but on the wildlife of our country

There’s nothing new about hard winters of course, yet every time we have one, people come up with stories about how much worse it was in ’63 or ’47 – which it was. But, of course, in both those cases, our country was a different place, and comparisons aren’t easy to make.

Everybody feeling warm? We’ve certainly had some cold weather over the past weeks. Colder than usual in fact. But we do have really cold winters from time to time in our country, with lots of snow and ice. Here’s someone reminiscing about cold winters, and thinking about how his attitude to them has changed over the years.

Story

‘Cold? This is nothing. In my day it was really cold in the winter.’

Mr Jackson was reminiscing again. He was looking after his two grandchildren, Marcus and Jess, because their school was closed.

‘In my day, we had a wonderful time when the snow fell. I remember the winter of 1946/47. I was at junior school at the time. It just seemed to go on forever. We had blizzards on my birthday in early March. Trains were stranded, full of people, and lots of farms and houses were cut off. And the worst thing was that, because we were still recovering from the War, there was a shortage of everything, like food, and coal for heating. Even in the coalyards there were problems because the coal heaps were frozen solid.

‘But we kids thought it was great. We had proper sledge runs, with built up sides like the Cresta Run, and we had long slides on the playground that we queued up to go down. And the snowball fights! You should have seen them!’

‘Not so good for old folk, though, Grandad,’ said Jess. ‘No,’ said Grandad. ‘And now I sympathise with them. They just couldn’t get out, and ambulances couldn’t get to them if they were ill. Dreadful really. I feel a bit cut off myself now. The roads are kept clear, but the pavements are like glass, and lots of older folk like me are just stuck inside.’ ‘Bad for the birds, too,’ said Marcus. ‘I know you’re trying hard to keep their water from freezing.’ ‘I keep going out with a kettle of hot water,’ said Grandad. ‘Doing my best. If I’d thought about it I’d have got one of those bird baths, with a solar heater, but they’re expensive, and we don’t get long winters like this very often.’ ‘Will all the birds die?’ said Jess, looking very concerned. ‘Some surely will,’ said Grandad. ‘Especially very small ones whose bodies aren’t very resistant to the cold and who need to eat lots of insects to stay alive. But you know, our country has always had very different kinds of weather, and nature has a way of evening things out.’ ‘How do you mean?’ asked Marcus. ‘Well, some creatures do better in hard winters. Bats, for example.’ ‘Why’s that?’ asked Marcus. ‘Because they hibernate. They go into barns and church towers and so on and sleep through the winter. And if the winter’s cold and long they’ll sleep longer. If the winter’s mild, hibernating creatures often wake up too early and then they don’t survive. The same with bumble bees. Everyone’s worried about there being fewer bumble bees around, but a hard winter could help them by making sure they don’t wake up early and starve.’ ‘So a hard winter’s not all bad news for nature?’ said Marcus. ‘Not really,’ said Grandad. ‘It kills off some garden pests and so on. But the trouble is we’ve had so many mild winters that a lot of birds have got used to them. Some birds that used to live along the South coast of England have gradually gone North, and some of them will suffer.’ ‘We need to look after them, then,’ said Jess. ‘We do our best,’ said Grandad. ‘I like to hang fat balls up. They really like them. And they like seeds. Best is to get stuff from a pet shop, because not everything’s safe for birds.’ ‘I suppose it’s a bit like it is for humans,’ said Jess. ‘Some people like the snow and the cold. Others don’t.’ ‘True enough,’ said Grandad. ‘But I guess the number who are badly affected by it is much greater than the number who enjoy it. If people can’t get to work, or to school, or can’t fly off on holiday, or get to the hospital to visit their relatives, then that’s really bad news.’

‘Mind you,’ said Marcus ‘we’re having a day off school.’

Grandad laughed. ‘And, I’m having a whole day of having you two with me.’

‘Is that good or bad?’ asked Jess.

Grandad laughed even more.

‘I’ll let you know at the end of the day,’ he said.

Conclusion

The bad winter of 1946 to 1947 came at the worst possible time for our country. We were struggling to recover from the war, trying to produce more coal and iron. We needed everyone at work, and all transport running, but for several weeks much of the country came to a halt. By the beginning of March there was deep snow everywhere, but as the country approached the middle of March, warm air and rain came from the Atlantic, causing a sudden thaw that brought devastating floods. Most of the East Anglian Fens were under water, and large parts of Southern Yorkshire. There seemed no end to the misery. But, of course, the spring and summer eventually came, and people were left with stories to tell.

A prayer

Lord, we thank you for the variety in our weather that keeps our countryside green, and provides us with rich plant and animal life. But we think particularly about all people who are badly affected by extreme weather. Give them strength and courage, and be with all who try to help them.

A thought

After the winter, the spring is never far behind.

Other things to think about

  • Who in your own family has had good experiences of the cold weather, and who has had bad ones? What’s the balance, do you think, for the whole family? Good or bad?
  • Can you find people with stories of the hard winters of ‘46/47, or the very long freeze from Boxing Day to early March in 1963?

Further information

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: Gerald Haigh

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