When did our meteorological musings get so metaphorical?

Autumn glories linger on – but the gateway to winter is open

Autumn glories linger on – but the gateway to winter is open - Credit: Archant

There's plenty of hot air when it comes to talking about the weather. Keith Skipper asks why we're so keen to talk in such riddles about something so simple

I love autumn in all its leaf-lacquered glory, especially after a summer sizzling with record-breaking spells of discomfort for those of us who feel Norfolk life should be a breeze.

Now, after mooching in the way of a few razorblade winds minding their own frisky business along Cromer seafront, I feel obliged to look forward to a long, hard winter. Well, it saves a lot of valuable time and a fair amount of deeper feeling to get it over early.

It's hard to fight this weird preoccupation for scanning horizons in search of bleak omens either side of the merry festive season. As if schedules pointing to even more banality television, political posturing at every level, the agonising of football managers one poor result away from the sack and even more roadworks in and around Norwich weren't enough!

We rehearse on sultry summer evenings and gentle autumn afternoons by calling up startlingly original lines like 'Bound to pay for this lot!' and 'Long-range forecast says we should enjoy it while we can'.

Just add 'Hope they don't muck about with our heating allowance' and 'Aunt Aggie's legs are playing up again' and the path to chilly perdition is wide open. Enough to make Billy's bunions smart long before their swell-by date.

Hard to believe, perhaps, but mild and uneventful winters way outnumber wild and numbing ones. It's just that we only remember the rough ones. I spent my entire childhood trying to dig through an avalanche of stories about the trials of 1947. I bored our sons rigid with my own frozen tales from my first winter at work in 1963.

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Even though many of us were convinced at Sunday school that man makes the almanac, but God makes the weather, we still scan the skies, hedgerows and old books of country lore for possible pointers to unpleasant patches.

Tomorrow, November 11, does not only mark a highly significant Armistice Sunday. It's also St Martin's Day when legend has it that if the wind's in the north-west, a severe winter's on the way. However, if the wind's in the south-west, it will stay there until February and so set up a mild one.

After reminding ourselves not to sit on the grass in any month with an R in it, it's time for garden crops inspection. If your onions have thin skins, expect a mild winter. If they're thick and tough, the going will be cold and rough.

Of course, all this straightforward information probably cultivated by the likes of Percy Thrower, Michael Fish and Mystic Meg, can be lost in a lather of economic edicts and political prognostications designed to sharpen up the nation for a blizzard of severe examinations.

They steal from Shakespeare, Churchill and anyone else capable of turning a good phrase to prepare us for a winter of discontent when the Dunkirk spirit must flow while we tighten our belts, trim our sails, draw in our horns, dig for victory and give thanks we're all in this together.

Evoking a wartime climate may seem a shrewd marketing ploy despite a notable lack of gas masks, air-raid shelters and bewildered evacuees. But it's not all Dad's Army fun and games. The Great Frost of 1940 bites deeply into any warmly defiant memories from the first months after the outbreak of hostilities.

The weather in January 1940 – a year destined to be one of the most important in our history – was bitterly cold with snow. By the middle of the month Norfolk and Suffolk were held in the grip of one of the most severe frosts of the century.

Roads were blocked, rivers and broads frozen and villages cut off. A fierce north-easterly blew for several weeks. And it was all a big secret. References to the weather were censored for 15 days for fear the information would be useful to the enemy. It didn't matter much. The whole of Europe had returned to those Ice Age conditions.

I wonder if a ban on any broadcasting or publication of meteorological matters for a couple of weeks might prepare us better for inevitable challenges coming up. One thing less to worry about as shopping fever, parking mayhem and shrinking pockets put thickening cloud, isolated showers and moderate winds in the shade.

Then again … it could be more profitable to lock up all fiscal forecasters until daffodils dance again next spring.