February’s weird weather really is snow joke

Socially-distant footsteps in recent snow across a field just off Weavers Way near North Walsham

Socially-distant footsteps in recent snow across a field just off Weavers Way near North Walsham - Credit: Liz Quigely

We’ve had enough weather already this year to ensure “pandemic” won’t be the only label in use when it comes to summing up 2021.

It must have been the first time we experienced the weirdly wonderful double of being snowed up in a lockdown. For several of us that simply meant a dramatic change of scenery as we carried on peering out of our windows.

“Stay indoors” reminders were hardly needed – and it must have severely reduced numbers of highly adventurous folk in Bristol, Braintree and Brandon who fancied a day trip to the Norfolk coast to walk the dogs, ask when crabs will be back on the menu and to decorate second homes in bolthole blue.

I maintained a safe distance from any real snowy adventures and kept in touch with relatives and friends who had something fresh to talk about after so few variants on a virus theme since start of January.

An ancient Chinese proverb reminds us it’s better to feel the chill blast of winter than the hot breath of a pursuing elephant. I was turning that over in my fur-lined mind when an amusing slant on wintry conditions arrived from an old friend with a quirky sense of humour.

He reported his local snow-clearing team had been extremely busy around the clock. “And now that area around the clock is clear, they can start work on the streets”. I should have been pleased he didn’t pose his usual question –“How do men who drive the snowplough get to work in the morning?”.

Another chum confined to barracks nipped in to make it a chilly version of Three Men in a Boat with Jerome K. Jerome’s timeless verdict on it all; “We shall never be content until each man makes his own weather – and keeps it to himself”.

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Brother-in-law Maurice Laws, widely known as Biff during all his years next to Norfolk soil, is my main contact for snippets frozen in time from our old home parish of Beeston-with-Bittering during giant snowdrifts of 1947.

He’s a winter or two ahead of me and can recall vividly episodes from that white-out causing so much disruption and hardships for months, especially in remote rural areas. Bertie Laws, Biff’s father, was Beeston’s council roadman at the time.

The village nestles in a hollow, the parish church standing sentry on one side and what’s left on an old red barn keeping look-out on the other. It’s never taken a genius to work out we were likely to get bunged up for a day or two if snow came riding in either way on a puckish breeze.

“The wooden snowplough was parked at Church Farm in 1947, over a mile outside the village” Biff reminded me. “Horses were much better than skidding tractors when it came to fetching it and getting down to work clearing blocked roads and lanes”.

Yes, he remembered how a party of men and boys from the village dug their way across fields with shovels to reach Litcham Bakery a couple of miles away to return with vital provisions. He agreed that expedition had been embroidered and exaggerated many times since.

One version saluted similar bands of bread-hunters from Mileham and Tittleshall converging on luxurious Litcham loaves at the same time, only to be pipped at the counter by the toast of Beeston society. Tasty slice of folklore.

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I was in at the start of our coldest winter since 1740 as weather hugged too many headlines from Boxing Day in 1962 until early March in the new year. The region shuddered under a heavy white blanket.

Drifts whipped up by gale-force winds blocked roads and left armies of snowploughs fighting hopeless battles. Frozen rivers, ice floes at sea, sugar-beet released by pick-axe and rabbits turning to furze and bark for food became constant themes

I struggled to get back to my first job as a cub reporter in Thetford after my festive break. Charlie Draper’s pick-up truck, my Boxing Day taxi, skidded and bounced its way from my Beeston home to Dunham, where I caught my train back to Breckland.

It was a painfully slow journey as an arctic world began taking ominous shape. A rail trip from Thetford to Dereham in the middle of February to take up a new post on the local newspaper beat also assumed epic proportions.

First assignment – “Find out which roads are open”.

Skip's Aside: The kettle was never far from the hob in our old homestead, especially when winter winds rattled doors and windows.

Teapot and strainer worked overtime, not just in the name of family refreshments but also to welcome and sustain a constant cavalcade of visitors.

It was extremely rare for any caller to leave without sampling the cup that cheers although Father did his best to put off a certain harridan in the village notorious for her idle gossip and busy imagination.

Warnings hat she was on the way invariably saw him grab an old enamel bowl, turn up his trousers, peel off his socks and devote all available hot water to a feet-washing exercise.

On one more memorable occasion, Mrs Tittle-Tattle was beaten to our door by the parson on his monthly circuit. He drew all kinds of biblical connotations from Father’s homely ablutions, waited steadfastly for his cup of tea – and departed immediately the dear lady darkened our door.

He couldn’t stand her either. Mother mumbled something about rats, sinking ships, smelly socks and sins finding people out …

I must emphasise this beggar-thy-neighbour game was played wholly out of respect for rules held dear by most small communities in rural Norfolk when I was a lad.

Busybodies had to be kept in check and if they couldn’t take a hint, usually trimmed with harmless humour, well, a dash or two of native cunning could be employed.

It wasn’t out of the question for members of your own family to be given the treatment, although there were obvious dangers of revenge spirit overflowing at christenings, weddings and funerals when something a bit stronger than tea was on hand.

My earliest memories include playful jabs aimed at grown-up legs while I built brick mountains and then demolished them under our kitchen table. Gradually

I matched legs and voices before kindly delivery men crouched to chuck me under the chin and ask if I’d been a good little boy sine last week.

My responses must have been fairly encouraging in view of invitations to emerge from under the table for a few lessons in mardling and mixing before starting school. Surely the proper Norfolk way to get going.

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