Christmas 1962

Most people who never experienced the blizzard of just after Christmas 1962 wouldn’t now believe what happened that night on Dartmoor. Or the rest of the country, for that matter.

And who can blame them?

We don’t get weather like that anymore. Not blizzards, anyway. Not like that.

Storms, yes, terrifyingly destructive winds like the ones that hit the country in 1987 and again in 1991. We do get those and more to come, say the experts.

But not freezing winds and snow-drifts twelve or fourteen feet high. Not deep Devon lanes filled to the tops of the hedges and lorries buried out of sight. Not sheep frozen to the spot and left to die because no-one could reach them. Not helicopters taking hay to stranded ponies. Not trains stranded for days on end and cars not leaving the garage from late December till March. Not people having to walk miles to get to a shop and having to pull the food back home on a toboggan.

Blame it on global warming or any other nice comfy name that shifts the guilt onto someone else, but whatever you call it, we simply don’t have blizzards any more. Not like that.

But, these were the ‘make and mend’ days.   The days when all adults had lived through a World War and were able to put up with things, simply because things happened.

We were tougher in those days. Or we would never have lived through it. We’d have just curled up and died.

In those days, the art of weather forecasting was far less sophisticated than it is now. Or we’d have known it was coming our way. With all the benefit that hindsight brings, of course, we should have paid more attention to the warning signs.

We lived on the edge of Dartmoor. And, when I say ‘edge,’ I really mean that. The moor was just fifty yards up the lane from our house. And that made a difference.

Two differences, in fact. First of all, there was the wind. All the snow that fell that extraordinary night came whipping straight off the moor and into the lane above us.

And then there were the ponies.

It was my father who first heard the wind, screaming outside. It was dark, by then, had been for some hours, so I don’t now remember what the time was when he said, ‘Richard, perhaps it would be a kindness if you went to the end of the drive to check if I’ve shut the gate properly.   It sounds like a pretty foul night out there and I wouldn’t want any ponies coming into the garden. You know what they’re like.’

And we did, too right we did. One thing moor folk don’t do is leave the gates open, especially in bad weather. If a storm does happen, particularly if it brings snow, the ponies will soon come down off the moor and start looking for shelter. Then you wake up in the morning and look out on a scene of utter devastation. The cabbages will have been eaten down to the stumps and the rest of the garden will look like a bombsite.

I may not have been too happy about being ‘volunteered’ like that but I did recognise the wisdom of my father’s words. What I didn’t expect was what happened next.

No sooner had I closed the front door behind me than the wind hit me in the chest like a pile-driver.

Our drive was about forty yards long and led up to the gate through dense rhodendrons. It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that I had to crawl every inch of those forty yards on my tummy, just to get to the gate. Which was, of course, shut.   Like I guessed it would be.

And it wasn’t just the wind, it was the blinding snow, topped with a glazing of black ice. You couldn’t have stood up on that drive, even if you’d wanted to and even if the wind hadn’t been howling straight down the drive. It was like trying to stand upright in a wind tunnel. A frozen solid one. The drive, in just a few hours, had turned into a skating rink.

Even though the gate was shut, I knew my father had been right to send me up there. In his mind and, I dare say in mine too was the spectre of the ghostly white figures of a dozen snow clad ponies huddled in the lane outside. And waiting for the gate to open.

Then I turned round and crawled back home.

Ann had come down to stay with us that night. In fact she’d come down the previous day but hadn’t been able to get any further than Yelverton, where I met her in a borrowed Land Rover and even then we’d had to walk the last mile because of the snow. We should have paid more attention to that.

Ann didn’t believe a word I said about the storm that was raging outside Pixeycombe, that night. She’s always said I exaggerate everything, still does, but that night I really was telling the truth. About crawling to the gate and back.

By then, people were ringing each other up and cancelling parties.

We settled down for the night, huddled round the fire. My father piled on more logs and we listened to the wind screaming and jibbering and sobbing outside. We were, by then, beginning to wonder if something big was happening.

To suspect, even to know.

We switched on the news on the television but I don’t now remember anything about what they said. I certainly don’t think they had any more of an idea what was going to hit the whole of Britain that night, anymore than we did, huddled round that cosy fire on the edge of Dartmoor.

It was the following morning that the awful reality hit us.

Actually, it wasn’t awful at all, anyway for us. For the rest of the country, perhaps. For us, though, for Ann and me in particular, it was all a huge and enormously welcome adventure. There was I, stranded on Dartmoor, hemmed in by massive and impenetrable snow drifts with the girl I loved (and still love) and wanted to marry and spend the rest of my life with. What more could a chap ask for. Sheer heaven.

The wind had dropped away and in the total stillness of a bewitched morning, we went back down the ice-clad drive, clinging to each other for support to look at the damage.

The world had turned white. And silent, like someone in shock.

Nothing moved, nothing stirred. This was the silence of the first day on earth. There was a hush and a magic, too, a bewitchment. We talked in whispers, Ann and me and my father as we reached last night’s gate and stepped out into the road beyond.

What a wonderland there was to greet us, there. The wind had spent the whole night playing sculptor and now we were here to admire its handiwork. Great twisting scallops and magical, surreal shapes had filled the whole lane, where yesterday we had walked hand in hand through the snow. Vast piles of banked snow stretched up as far as the moor beyond and heaven knows what lay up there.

But what was so weird was that, in places, the road surface was showing, black and lustrous, where the wind, capriciously, had swept the surface clean, only to pile the snow up, just a few feet away into fantasmagorical shapes.

Ann and I decided we ought to explore further up the lane. Not for any particular reason, except to be in each other’s company.

We climbed up onto a snow-drift and set off towards the moor. A few yards up the lane, at a junction, we came across a horror. A buried lorry, with only the back part showing. It was at our feet.

Now what?

Suppose the driver was still inside. In the cab. Which we couldn’t see because the cab was buried deep in the snow. Somehow we didn’t really want this. Digging down through four feet of packed snow to a dead man. Or, at least the possibility of a dead man.   Who knows? We certainly didn’t and it was no good calling the police, or anyone else, for that matter. The phones had gone dead overnight.

So, Ann held onto my feet, while I dug down, till I eventually found the roof of the cab. And then the window. Which was open, wide open. I called up to Ann who told me I had to keep going. ‘We just can’t leave the poor man here, what about his wife?’ ‘Widow, more like,’ I muttered in the darkness and the cold of that eerie snow hole. I kept burrowing.

Eventually, when I had felt all round the cab, or said I had, and found no-one, though I really had been expecting a cold dead face at any moment, I gave up and rejoined Ann. Afterwards, I nursed a guilty secret that I could have probed deeper.   I wasn’t completely sure that there hadn’t been anyone in that cab and it was only some days later that I learned that the local greengrocer had been in the lorry and had abandoned it, rather than die a cold and lonely death, out there, on the edge of the moor. ‘You’re welcome to help ourselves to any fruit or veg,’ came the message back to my parents, some days later, by which time Ann and I were back in a snowed up London.

You see, Ann and I left the next day for London. We abandoned my parents, about which I still feel a bit of shame and made for the soft metropolis, instead. Actually we both had jobs to get to and, even at that stage, we hadn’t really taken in just how hard the whole of Britain had been hit.

A long walk up to Dousland, then a ride in the same Land Rover, Ann had arrived in.

As we gazed out of the windows of the London bound train from Plymouth, we started to take in just how hard the whole country had been hit by what we had previously imagined was just a local blizzard, confined only to the moor.

And even then, we still didn’t realise the full extent of the damage, because the train pilled out of Plymouth in the dark. We could only really guess what had happened as the train inched its way through darkened station after darkened station. In a largely blacked out world, all we could make out were ghostly white shapes and huddled men grouped round braziers on ice bound platforms. Sometimes the snow was piled up so high along the tracks it was like being in a tunnel.

The other line, the one that ran from Plymouth to Waterloo via Okehampton had been blocked by abandoned trains, stranded and crewless in the wilderness that Dartmoor had that night become. One of the trains was derailed in a snow-drift and no less than five locomotives and three railway snowploughs were written off in the process of clearing the line.

A thaw did eventually set in. A couple of months later. In the meantime, though Dartmoor remained frozen solid as blizzard after blizzard piled the misery up. And everywhere else, too. All through January. Then all through February.

Of course, in London and elsewhere the main roads and the streets got cleared, traffic started to flow, people leaned to live with this new ice-age. After all, it happened in 1947, so why not 15 years later?

How were we to know that the very petrol engines we laboured so hard to get back on the road, in 1963 would, within fifty years, lead to the end of blizzards and, in its place melting polar ice caps and the age of ‘global warming?’

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