Weather can play some funny tricks on the memory; but whatever else elderly people may differ about, there's one point on which the decision is unanimous...the summers seventy or eighty years ago were longer, hotter and sunnier than ever they are now. This certainly isn't difficult to imagine, considering the last three Lakeland "summers"; yet would our own summers today seem hotter if we had to keep perishable food edible without a fridge, or our offices and workshops cool without electric fans and air conditioning?
And if the summers were sunnier, were the winters colder too? It would certainly seem so, by all accounts.
It never rained, but it poured; it rarely snowed without a blizzard too,and many a frost became a freeze-up which transformed the lakes into magical ice rinks.Such large numbers of elderly people remember such bitterly cold winters, that they can't all be wrong; but would our milder winter weather seem more exciting nowadays if we hadn't huge mechanical snow ploughs to clear roads, efficient heating in our homes and round-the-clock weather forecasting on radio and television to forewarn us? This month "The Way We Were" looks at memories of winter, the hardships and privations, and at the way bad weather affected everybody directly and instantly, without the comfortable cushioning that simple technology provides today, which also distances us from nature and the elements and our knowledge of them.But cold weather could be fun, too, and our grandparents knew how to enjoy it to the full with home-made skis and skates,as we shall hear later in the series.
Dealing with winter's snow and ice today costs hundreds of thousands out of the County Council's budget, with networks of gritters, salters and snowploughs. But snow clearance seventy years ago was just as vital, to get supplies of food through to outlying farms and villages, often using nothing more than spade work and a horse-drawn wooden snow plough. This is what happened one winter in Langdale around 1920:
"We snow ploughed up at Birk How thirteen times in a fortnight, with two horses, and the last time we came down we made a narrow path, there was nowhere to put it, there was that much - and the quarries all stopped and it started to freeze and this road was completely blocked, so they hired quarry men to cut it all out. They cut it from here right up to the top of Blea Tarn Hill and on to Fell Foot. I should think it took them a week, cutting it, anyone that could use a spade, they had to cut it all out and it was only a track when they got it out, but plenty of room for horses and carts and we came down on our sledge and picked stuff up from Colwith here somewhere.
"It was bad snow, that, it blew that much. It was that deep we couldn't walk in the field, I remember. I was about ten and it was that deep that when you put your leg in, you couldn't pull it out. We had a bad do then, aye, and nowt could get up, like."
Deep snow could last six or eight weeks at a time, and it was essential to lay supplies of food down in advance. "Watching the weather" in those days was a far cry from switching on to Michael Fish at the London Weather Centre:
"They used to watch the weather in those days, you had to watch the weather otherwise its no good if you get snown up...I've seen snow up to the height of the roof top at Sunny Bank and I had to come through the bedroom window to get out with a spade and dig myself out!"
"Don't you forget it - the old people in those days had more sense than the weather people have now. Now when it was going to snow, you could see across under Wansfell, you could see those sheep coming right along there in a long line, one after another, at the back of the wall and the sheep used to line up behind the wall and they used to get covered with snow. And this was the only place where there was sheep, they survived because behind the wall they got the air. Now if they'd been in the open, they'd have suffocated."
In the hard, cold winters of the post-war depression years of the 1920s, deep snow often brought quarries to a standstill, and men were laid off. But its an ill wind, as they say, and blizzards also brought employment for others.It was customary for the unemployed to walk to Bowness on Monday to sign on the jobless register and return on Friday to draw a few coppers unemployment benefit. One Friday it began to snow on the long walk back from Bowness to Grasmere:
"It started snowing, and it snowed like mad, and it snowed and snowed ower t'weekend, and it piled up on t'roads...and Mr Files came puffing round and he said, are you going to Bowness yet and when I said yes, he said, "Well you can come on the council because look at all this snow, it'll be all to shift, Dunmail Raise is blocked and we've only that little old wooden snow plough and one 'orse, it won't touch it, so I'm getting as many men as I can and it'll be to cut out with shovels." And we did, cut it out right from t'bottom to t'top wi' shovels and slung it ower t'meadows because snow plough was practically useless."
But when the snow finally melted,the snow clearer persuaded the foreman that one good turn deserved another, and his spell of unemployment ended for good when he was taken on permanently, breaking stones for road-making. Was such weather just an exception or were all the winters colder?
"We had a lot more snow in the old days than we ever do now, every winter...I think the winters have grown less severe all the time because when I was a child I remember the snow being up to the hedges, the same height as the hedges. I remember Ullswater being frozen over; my sister was training for a teacher at Penrith and she used to cycle home at weekends and she cycled UP Ullswater, getting on the lake at Pooley Bridge. She had to get off where there was a gap that hadn't been frozen, and she got on again, and she rode up!"