WINTER Part Four

Some people think it might be the influence of sunspots on our global weather that cause an occasional return to a brief Ice Age every few years or so, but whatever the cause, the snow was deeper and the ice thicker in Lakeland winters of the past. Last week, elderly people re-captured the romance of snow and ice, with moonlit skating parties and ski-ing trips on Helvellyn - but this week, in the last of this series on winter, we look back at some icy blasts from the past when life was anything but romantic in mid-winter.

Life on the farm started every morning in pitch dark, and its hardly surprising that few people took a bath more than once a week; the ice often had to be broken on the water in the bedroom wash stand before even the briefest lick and promise could be completed. Many farm lads slept on the kitchen floor near the fire in winter, while the scullery maid and farm girls took their stone hot-water bottles up to attic bedrooms, and usually curled up together for warmth.

Children often helped with feeding the animals and milking before they set out to walk a couple of miles or more to school.

"Three to four miles was quite ordinary, and some were even more. One little boy came late one morning and I said to him, 'Where have you been?' and he said, 'Just sauntering.' Three and a half miles he'd walked, and it was quite a difficult walk, was his. And you know, they came even when it was thick snow and it was impossible even for the mail cart to get through. They came to school and I can remember one child coming to school through the snow, and the snow fell all day and four o'clock it was getting dark and nearly impossible. I thought, this child will be buried under it so I carried her on my back, I think about three quarters of a mile. I was in a state when I got back home again, nearly put my back out, that child, but they came and I can remember when we had the school concert we had snow and I thought nobody would turn up - the fathers left the sheep and brought the children on their backs covered with sacks, you know, so that the concert went on, the weather didn't matter. And one particularly cold school was Wickersgill, on the top of Shap summit. It isn't a school now but that was a terribly, terribly cold place."

Not even the prospect of reaching another school at Rosgill on the back of a motorbike in gale force winds deterred the teachers:

"I used to go on the back of the head teacher's motorbike. I was bigger than she was - she was very daring having a motorbike in those days. And do you know, it was so violent, was the wind, we were blown off one day. We just happened to have two gates opposite one another and the draught from the one right through to the other one took us right off across to this gate and we off we fell. We weren't any the worse for it. We went, and the children went to any end to get to school - the cold didn't stop us."

Snow, ice and gales weren't the only hazards. A sudden change in temperature, a heavy rainfall in February or March which melted the snow on the fells, and the ensuing flood could be so dramatic, it could sweep up behind a man if he had his back turned:

"There was an awful disaster in 1899 near Ambleside. The Miller Bridge, as we know it now, is utterly different, totally different from the one that was there because that bridge was swept away in that flood and unfortunately there was two children drowned in it going to school. My grandfather took them so far and he wouldn't let 'em go, he would go with 'em and never leave them. And the bridge was on piers, similar type of a bridge as you'd find at either end of Rydal Lake; that's the same type of a bridge it was then, just a flat, straight bridge. Well, they'd gone over and the water was coming over then, just starting to come over and whether they slipped or it had just surged up I don't know, and they were swept away. And they were called Warreners, from Brow Head Farm, they were the people who were farming it and it was a terrible thing, was that, 'cos things like that didn't happen every day in those days and everyone was upset about it."

A man working downstream had his back to the river, and failed to hear the flood surging behind:

"He was doing something in the fields by the river on the farmland there, and the beck swept over and he found he was being encircled with it and he couldn't get through it, so he saved his life by climbing a tree and he was rescued by boat. He shouted for help and they got a boat round."

Some of the more philanthropic landowners and employers actually devised schemes to keep men in work during the hard winter months, and saved jobs for them to do at that time. In Ambleside Colonel Rhodes took on men employed in seasonal jobs, and together with those laid off because of the weather,his new work team would lay water pipes to a big house, or even alter the course of a river which frequently flooded. However hard times were, nobody actually starved in winter. Firewood was there for the gathering, a rabbit or pigeon for the pot could always be had, neighbours would usually help each other and some employers provided free coal for those living in tied cottages. Priorities were clear - the first prize in the Ambleside Volunteers Christmas Shoot was always a cart of coal:

"Some estate gardeners lived in the lodges free of charge and they lived rent and rate free and that was a big thing and they'd get all the wood and sticks and that, and they'd be burning coal fires. My grandfather got given his coal free, and he won the Volunteers Christmas Shoot twice, and the first prize was a cart of coal and he said, 'Well, it's no use to me, I get my coal, I'll let somebody have it that's a bit harder up that has nothing like that, it'll do them more good than it will me.'"