The Beast from the East

Button up, kiddies, because we’re going to talk about Britain’s recent storm. I’m limping in well behind the event, but I usually do. It’s part of my charm, and you’re just going to have to take my word for that.

At the end of February, Britain got whacked with a snowstorm, called, since it came in on an east wind, the Beast from the East. It shut the country down.

How much snow does it take to do that? Drumalbin, in Scotland, got 50 centiwhatsits. That’s in the neighborhood of 20 inches, which—Minnesotan that I am (or was; I could argue it either way)—even I will admit is enough to count as a legitimate snowstorm. Further south, Cambridgeshire got 26 centithings. Let’s call that a foot of the stuff. It blows around, so I don’t feel the need to be exact.

Relevant photo: Crocuses that survived the freeze.

Here in Cornwall, we got less. I’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s talk about the country shutting down: Cars got stuck, turning highways into parking lots, and drivers and passengers got stuck with them, waiting in their cars for I have no idea what. Rescue? Instructions? Warmer weather? Enlightenment? I understand why you wouldn’t want to walk away from your car in a snowstorm, but on the other hand, how long do you sit with it?

In one highway-slash-parking lot, the driver of a bakery truck gave up on the idea of delivering his goodies and passed them out to the folks he was stuck in the snow with. He was a hero, at least for a while, and got in all the papers. I’m not sure what happened when he got back to work—the papers haven’t covered that. If the bakery has any sense, they’ll give him a bonus, because they got great publicity, but I wouldn’t want to bet on that happening.

Someone I know of took in drivers who got stranded near her house. They were with her for a few days.

A woman was in the news because she left her car on the side of the road and walked to safety. She came back to find it had been towed and it was going to cost a shitload of money to get it back. And to make it worse, before she left it there she asked a cop if it was would be okay and he said sure, it would be fine.

Schools closed. Roads closed. Trains were canceled. Houses lost power. The supermarkets ran short of milk, bread, fruit, vegetables, and whatever else you happened to want. The Daily Mail wrote scary stories about sixteen-inch snowdrifts.

You Minnesotans, stop that. If you hardly ever see a snowdrift, sixteen inches is impressive.

British friends say two things to us in these conditions.

One: Isn’t it beautiful (or some variation on that)? It is and you can have my share. I’ve seen enough snow to last me several lifetimes. I don’t expect to get any extra lifetimes in which to spend my stockpile, but in case I do, I’m ready.

Two: How is it that we can’t handle this when Canada/Poland/Finland/wherever it is you told me you’re from don’t shut down every time they have a snowstorm.

It’s mostly true that they don’t, but any of those places can counts on having a fistful of snowstorms per year, so they invest in more than a fistful of snowplows, not to mention mountains of sand mixed with some strange chemical that melts ice and rusts cars. Their citizens are born clutching tiny snow shovels. It makes childbirth incredibly hard but once you get that out of the way, snowstorms are nothing.

On top of that, people in those places know how to drive in snow. And the ones who just can’t learn? They get Darwined out of the herd not long after they get their driving licenses.

Okay, now we can get to Cornwall: I can’t find a reliable source to tell you how much snow we got here, so let’s consult me. I’m anything but reliable, especially with numbers, but I am available. Where I live, in North Cornwall—which you can also call it East Cornwall if you’re in the mood; it’s not exactly the same, but it’ll do—we got an inch or two. South and west of us (that’s called down west), they got more. How much more? I wasn’t there, but it hit them earlier and seems to have caused them more trouble.

The last Cornish snow I saw was wet. It packed into ice almost immediately, so it was lethal. That was eight years ago, give or take a year or three, and I didn’t drive in it. Anything around here that isn’t a hill is a curve, so driving on ice? I’ll just do some baking, make a cup of tea, and stay home, thanks. That’s one of the best things about being retired. But this recent snow was powdery and dry and easy to drive in, and the temperature–unusually–was far enough below freezing to keep it from half-melting and then turning to ice.

Even I will admit that it was pretty. And as soon as a decent layer had fallen, the streets around us blossomed with parents pulling small kids on plastic sleds, which was also pretty.

Where did the sleds come from in this land of almost no snow? No idea. Fax, maybe. You order them online and the machine spits them out almost immediately.

I’ve heard that up on the moors the snow was heavier. Whatever weather the rest of Cornwall gets—wind, rain, heat, snow (you notice I haven’t mentioned sun)—the moors get more of it.

The county did some plowing and salting, but they start with the main roads and we’re on the way to nowhere, so they wouldn’t get to us before July, by which time its sort of beside the point. Around us, it was farmers who did the plowing with their tractors. Of course—and I say this for the benefit of people who’ve never lived with snow—when roads get plowed, snow gets pushed to the side, and if you have a driveway guess what happens to it? A lovely, dense layer of snow compacts across it and if you hope to get out you have to shovel your way through it. It’s heavy, heavy work. I did it a lot when I lived in Minnesota, sometimes breaking a (much too narrow) slot through the snowbank in front of the house so we could reach the street and sometimes to dig our cars out after the alley had been plowed.

Okay, I admit it: Some years we didn’t get that slot to the street cut after the first storm, and with each storm that followed it became harder to shovel through the snowbank. Getting from sidewalk to street involved mountaineering.

Our excuse was that it’s damn hard work. And in Cornwall almost nobody owns a snow shovel. We don’t even own a snow shovel, never mind a–oh, what are they called? Not icebreakers–those are ships. And not ice scrapers–those are for windshields. I have been gone a long time. One of those blades on a shovel-type handle that’s meant to deal with ice.

Anyway, for lack of the right tools, people end up trying to dig themselves out with soup spoons.

So that was the Beast from the East. Not at all bad where we were but tough further north and on the moors.

The next day, the Beast from the East met a wind from the west, a storm named Emma. (I’m not sure the Beast from the East didn’t get a formal name while Emma did. Weather people move in mysterious ways.) The combination brought freezing rain to Cornwall. Everything had a nice, slick layer of ice on it, and that stuff can kill you.

What did my partner and I do? Stayed the hell indoors. I may call her Wild Thing, but she’s not that wild.

With the ice, the village was cut off. Again,we’re on the way to exactly nowhere. It would take the county as long to get around to salting our road as it would take our current national government to locate both its brain and its heart. So when the driver who was supposed to deliver milk to the village store called to say he wasn’t coming because if he once got into the village he wouldn’t get back out, the store put out a call on Facebook, asking if anyone with a four-by-four could meet the truck.

The store got its milk. That’s life in a village.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never owned a four-by-four, but I’m pretty sure they’re no better on ice that a two-by-two. Never mind, though. They got through.

It wasn’t just the snow and ice that affected us, though. The houses around here are built—oddly enough—for Cornish weather, which rarely dips below zero and never stays there long. Except when it does. What I’m trying to say is that water pipes seem to be put in any which way.

Okay, I’m not a plumber. I’m sure a good bit of thought goes into them, but a friend’s water pipes turned out to be above ground. Insulated, but above ground. That looked like a sensible thing to do when the house was built.

Guess whose water pipes froze solid for a few days?

In northern Minnesota, the frost reaches five feet into the earth. In southern Minnesota—we’re soft down there—it only goes down 3 feet, six inches. Wild Thing and I were told once that footings had to go down either six or seven feet (I can’t remember which) to keep the frost from messing with them. Water pipes? They go through the center of the earth. Just to be safe.

Our friend wasn’t the only one whose pipes froze. So did an assortment of other people’s. So did water mains all around the country. Parts of London went without water for days—long after the temperatures rose.

The day after the freeze, as the temperatures rose and the ice started to melt, the delivery trucks reappeared and the store ran out of milk. The dairy’s pipes had frozen and it took them a day or so to recover. The supermarket’s shelves were still pretty bare days days after the thaw.

The thaw? It came the next day. The temperature got up into the forties–above zero for the metrically inclined–and the whole mess disappeared and we got back to normal. Even the daffodils, snowdrops, crocuses, and primroses that had frozen (see the rare relevant picture, above) recovered. When I lived in Minnesota, I longed for weather that behaved that way.

A week or so later, another storm system brought snow and ice warnings (and I think some actual snow and ice) to the north of us. It was called the Pest from the West.

This is what happens when a country starts naming its storms. People have way too much fun with it.