This year was the first white christmas I have ever experienced. Looking around the area things all looked pretty much like your average greetings card picture (or the atypical English winter depicted in The Holiday), so we got some nice pictures of the church thanks to Richard Owen who brought his camera along with his shovel. By the 24th it was just about possible to get around, but back on the 21st December, most people around here were wishing for anything other than a white christmas, indeed for many of them getting home would have been a bonus.
I was somewhat lucky in that I can see the main road from my office, so as the snow fell and the traffic grid-locked, I stayed put. In fact along with about twenty other stranded staff I was shouted dinner by our chief executive and a couple of other directors who were also stuck in the office. By about 8:30pm, in Camberley at least, the roads were clear and I could head for home. Whilst the snow levels increased as I headed into Berkshire, the roads were passable enough for me to make it home in about an hour.
Others were less lucky. The wife of my cousin who works in Reading and lives in Amersham had a hellish eight hour journey through the areas with the biggest snowfalls. Similarly several friend who work up near Oxford had five hour journeys as again the motorways ground to a halt. Locally there were several accidents on major routes leading to traffic slowing to a halt, and trapping the gritting trucks in the jam. The situation in Basingstoke actually made the national news.
Needless to say, this has produced the other staple of a winter event in Southern England, moaning about the local councils failing to keep the roads clear, and numerous comparisons with other countries like Germany and Canada, that don’t grind to a halt in the snow.
First off, it is worth comparing what happens in a country like Canada with here. Yes the local authorities are better set up for dealing with snow, and indeed they have more equipment on standby ready to keep the roads clear, but the important thing to note is that the local drivers are properly equipped as well. It is common practice to fit special winter tyres to the cars, whereas it is unheard of in the UK – pretty well everybody was sliding around on all season or summer tyres – check out this YouTube video for the effect that winter tyres can have. Also once you get stuck, most British drivers are ill equipped. In Canada many drivers will have an emergency kit in the car, certainly Beth when she lived in rural Canada would travel in winter with a warm change of clothes in the car, a shovel to dig the car out in an emergency and a bag of grit to improve traction if needed. If you told most Brits that they needed that, they’d think it laughable, because you don’t get weather like that in England. Needless to say that is exactly the same reason the local councils don’t spend vast amounts of money on equipment that could sit largely idle in between major snow events like we had this Christmas.
It is also worth mentioning, that even in Canada they get disruptive snow fall from time to time, and they can’t deal with everything. What happened around our area last week was after an initial fairly light fall of snow on 21st the forecast was for sleet, which fell initially as rain, and then turned to snow. The problem with rain is that it washes away the grit that is put on the road, if that then freezes, and then snow falls on top you get what we got on 21st – a layer of ice with snow on top – treacherous even with good tyres and experienced drivers, let alone with most UK cars.
But I’ve been in Canada in similar conditions.
One winter trip over to Alberta it rained on the Tuesday, froze overnight and then snowed on top, leading to precisely the same sorts of conditions as we had – a layer of ice covered by snow. It was chaos. The local news swapped between pictures of chaos across Calgary, with removal trucks stranded by sheet ice, multiple accidents on the major roads, and hauled up the council staff responsible for maintaining the roads who tried to explain how they’d done their best, but there was nothing they could do. Even several days later when we headed for the airport many roads weren’t clear of ice despite the road crews working around the clock to clear it. A trip that would normally have taken us three hours took over six.
The moral of the story is that snow and ice causes chaos, even to those most experienced at dealing with it. Sure the UK could invest much more money in snow clearance, and they could mandate that all drivers fit winter tyres for the winter, but when it comes down to it, most people I’m sure would consider it not worth the money, whether out of their own pockets directly in buying a second set of tyres for their cars, or indirectly through the increased taxes to pay for the equipment. And even having spent all that money, there will still be the occasional times like this last week where however much grit you use, and however much the councils try to clear the roads, things will still grind to a halt.