As a small boy, an old friend of mine wrote a poem in praise of snow. It went something like this: “Yo Ho, the Snow / The Snow, Yo Ho!” Not bad, eh? Well, that’s how I felt last Wednesday when I woke to find picture book snow falling in big white lumps. The snow kept coming all day, until 5 p.m, leaving the town under a six-inch-deep quilt. Conifers on the hillside, caked in glorious gloops of white, reminded me of Tove Janson’s Moomintroll children’s books.
Suitably kitted out, I set off up a favourite wooded valley, clomping through pristine whiteness. All the branches were coated with one to three inches of crystalline powder, creating a dazzling latticework of light. Many were bowed so low under the weight that I had to crouch beneath them to find the path. Or knock the snow off, so they sprang out of the way – spoiling the visual effect, but eliciting an almost palpable gasp of relief from the overhanging tree-people. Avoiding paths that would be dangerous in such conditions -some lead you down steep stone steps, others take you close to precipitous drops- I paused by the remains of a former water mill and wondered about child labourers arriving for work on winter mornings, two hundred years ago.
Following some barely negotiable steps up to the fields above, it soon became apparent that the snow was much deeper there. Walking conditions became more difficult, and falling snow was limiting visibility, so I turned back into the intimacy of the wood and re-traced my steps.
Everything seemed right with my bit of the world. I’d only been at the bus stop a few minutes when someone stopped, unbidden, and offered me a lift into town. Of course, for the sheep, deer, and many birds -not least the somewhat bemused flock of redwings I came across, the snow is a direct threat to life. And in the U.K. some thirty to forty thousand more humans -mostly elderly folk- die in winter than in summer. Saturn/Chronos, astrological ‘ruler’ of both winter and old age, is not known as the Grim Reaper for nothing.
Nowadays proper snow is unusual here, and it typically thaws in a few days, leaving streaks and blotches on the higher hills. A neighbouring town used to have a set of traffic lights indicating whether routes over the Pennines were closed by snow, but these dissapeared some years ago. The valley now has new street furniture in the form of flood warning sirens. Various species of birds and butterflies that were once limited to the South of England are now resident in the North. Flocks of Egrets grace the Lancashire coast. Nuthatches and speckled wood butterflies are common in our local woods. Perhaps because I was born at this time of year, I feel more ‘at home’ at midwinter than at any other time of the year, and miss the days when a white blanket would lay, for weeks on end, on ‘the tops’ round here.