It’s been a wild old night with gales and snow blowing into drifts on the hills. Here in York, there’s very little evidence of the front that went through whilst we slept. I’m looking out of the patio doors at a vast expanse of blue sky and the sun is casting long shadows as it makes its appearance in the east, there are clouds but they’re wispy and the odd vapour trail from passing aircraft is holding together well so the jetstream’s not looking too active.
I receive the expected text and it’s positive, Peter is doing a risk assessment in Swainby. It’s a complex procedure that involves him looking out of his bedroom window so you can see that the training he’s received has paid off.
The drive through the Vale of York is glorious and I meet Dave ready for the excellent Abbott’s bus service to Osmotherley.
Whilst the sun is shining albeit, at the acutest angle, it creates long black shadows on the white snow. In Osmotherley we decamp the bus and with a cheery, “See you later” to Marian who’s driving this shuttle and transported us safely over the roads of salt, snow and occasional ice. We make out way up the hill towards the reservoir. The village is so different in the winter months. During the other three seasons there is scarcely a parking space and today there are many. The snow is six to eight inches deep but this is an estimate made by a man so it may be less! There are wheel marks where commuters have already made their getaway or the odd tradesman has parked and is now busy fixing some plumbing or working on electrical problems.
The shop is open and we call in to purchase a banana and some sweets to sustain us should there be any issues over the top and there’s a lady trying to de-bobble a small dog who’s got bobbles of snow in her fur and is looking decidedly uncomfortable both with the actual snow and also with the process to remove it.
As we pass Ruebury Lane there are some road works and evidence of the strength of the wind through the night in the form of huge drifts where there are gaps in the wall or hedge.
The drifts remind me of Christmas 1962 when snow began to fall but it was initially in heavy showers then blue skies like today. There were drifts in the lane where I lived but nothing that we thought of as anything but seasonal. We were so excited at having a ‘white Christmas’ and celebrated by creating slides outside our houses by first of all jumping up and down on the snow to compact it then running at the compacted snow and landing with our feet at an angle and our arms windmilling in an attempt to remain upright. Within a few minutes, the desired effect was being achieved and the snow was developing a skin of ice. We didn’t know it then but this would be our playground for nearly three months as the “Big Freeze” of 1963 set in.
Christmas was outstanding as Father Christmas was able to use his traditional means of transport to deliver the presents but by the end of January, it was beginning to be quite serious both for us and for the country. There’d be daily bulletins on the TV that we’d only just acquired the previous year before Dad had died. It had two channels, Channel 2 was BBC and Channel 10 was ITV. We always watched the BBC News and they brought us pictures of farmers trying to find sheep that had been covered in the blizzards, steam engines and even whole trains stuck in huge drifts, snow ploughs trying to force their way into isolated villages, stranded motorists in cars that were not going anywhere for another month or even two, and airlifts of food and provisions to isolated cottages in the middle of the moors and mountains.
The above was the National situation, from a personal and local point of view we had to walk more than a mile to school always through snow but sometimes through drifts and blizzards. We wore at least two pullovers over shirts and vests. I was allowed to wear my new ‘long trousers’ with two pairs of socks and wellies on my feet together with a pair of socks on my hands and a big coat that was a hand-me-down because “It’ll probably start thawing next week”.
The reason for the ready supply of socks was Mam and Nana were always knitting and when they were between pullovers, they knitted socks just to keep their hands busy. Watching them was a revelation. They rarely looked down at the needles but followed a pattern that would baffle a computer programmer in its complexity and the final result would be a woollen masterpiece with Cabling, Fair Isle, Herringbone, Diamond and Plain, not all on the same garment but all talked about in detail when my Mam’s neighbour Margaret came across for a cuppa tea. There’d also be complaints of having to “pull it out…” and then they’d show the part-finished garment and point at a mistake made three days earlier – it essentially meant undoing lots of work because of the dropped stitch. The mistake was probably unnoticeable to anyone else, but they knew and that was enough.
The hoped-for thaw didn’t occur until nearly Easter and our daily trudge through the snow to school became a real freezing ordeal. It was as bad for the kids from the villages as the school buses would get stuck and arrive late or need to go early with their cargo of anxious kids. Weekends were a thrill though and we made every effort to use our leisure time to maximum sledging advantage but now, as I look towards Scarth Nick and where we intend to walk, I see more drifts that we’ll need to plough through and my mind returns to the here and now and the need for extra care.
*/ End WobblyScene
Click on any photo to see them in full resolution – it’s a beautiful day
The sun is starting to melt some of the snow that’s been blown onto the trunks, branches, and twigs of the trees and it’s anchored itself in the crevices of the bark. Gazing into Cote Ghyll is like looking at a picture postcard of winter. It’s so beautiful in the bright sun that it’s almost surreal and we get to see it because we jumped on a bus and walked for twenty minutes. Even better, it’s all for free!
There are trees on either side of the road and the sun is loosening the snow that’s accumulated overnight creating soft white bombs that burst on our heads like raw eggs in a comedy sketch.
Cod Beck Reservoir is always a fabulous sight and today it doesn’t disappoint. The backdrop is soft white cottonwool trees with beautiful rippling reflections in the cold water framed with the dull mat finish of the viscous water that’s part way through the solar-powered process that transforms the ice back to its liquid state.
We enter the narrow wood at the edge of the reservoir. We were only here last week and I could see the tips of some adventurous plants peeping through the leafy mulch. Those same plants are probably regretting their impatience although the irony is that the snow cover may well be keeping them warmer than would be the case if it had been a hard hoar frost.
Click on any photo to see them in full resolution – it’s a beautiful day
It was foggy last week, but nothing like that now, the atmosphere is as clear as I’ve seen it all winter and everything is standing out in clear relief. Peter is looking for photo opportunities and in fairness, so am I. It’s not hard as the trees and branches are creating ornate frames that lead our eyes to the three ‘D’ world beyond and we make the most of it.
We exit the wood and walk back onto the road where good views both ways keep us safe from the odd 4×4 and enable us to clear Scarth Wood Moor using the easy route although, on the descent, where the road has remained in the shade, there is still treacherous black ice that’s almost impossible to see and our sticks become third legs that keep us upright on a number of occasions.
Scarth Wood Moor is knee-deep (and up to the waist in the drifts) and the struggle that we’re experiencing now casts me back, yet again, to my childhood at Castle Hills when we would gather with our homemade sledges In winter. Both High Castle Hills and Low Castle Hills were annexed for sledging and during the more prolonged snows the whole of High Cas became a sledging resort and we found every way possible to negotiate a small wooden sledge down different parts of the hill.
Low Castle Hills (Low Cas)
Was the favourite when we were very young during the 1950s and we were allowed to go there with our sledges unsupervised provided the beck wasn’t in flood. This was just as well as we became bored by just sledging down the hill and across the lane so we devised various ways of making it more exciting. One of the cunning plans was to sledge down a steeper element that meant we were actually pointing towards the beck so an element of steerage was necessary to get it realigned to finish the run as close as we could get to Bennetts (Freddie Best’s) kindling and logs factory which was up a minor slope on the other side of the lane. There were few ‘beck accidents’ which was fortunate as the thermal shock in the swift-flowing and ice-covered water in mid-winter may well have had unpleasant consequences.
On one occasion the inevitable happened whilst I was there. We waded into the freezing water and it was so cold it hurt our ankles and knees but we fished him out and took him straight into Bennetts where my Mam supervised and reassured him as he stripped to his underwear. His clothes were all placed in front of the pot-bellied stove which was the sole source of heating for the whole of the huge work area. Our soggy chum was still sobbing and shivering in the lukewarm building but now responding to the glowing stove as we watched his clothes and our socks steaming on the makeshift dryer that the workers had set up using some pig mesh and two brush handles. My Mam kept an eye on him and kept reassuring him from time to time. One of the men was busy with a kettle and brought back a chipped enamel cup filled with hot tea with some sugar in it. We shared that cuppa whilst we all stood huddled together enjoying the yellow hot glow from the stove, I can taste it now!
His clothes were going to smell of burning wood and creosote but at least he wouldn’t die of hyperthermia.
About Bennett Industries…
Freddie Best (Bennetts) was what you might call an entrepreneur although he was bankrupt once and had been locked up because of it (it was the practice then). You could identify all of his workers by counting their fingers. My Mam worked there for some time after my Dad had died and there were unguarded saws and chopping machines that were very unforgiving if you allowed the smoke from the cigarette hanging from your lips to distort your view of the railway sleeper being pushed through the circular saw or being manoeuvred through the chopper. I did a bit of box stuffing there when I was about twelve. I had to fill cardboard boxes with the kindling produced on the machines by the three-fingered workers above. It was piece-work and I got three pence a box (just over 1p) it doesn’t seem much now but in 1963 I could get a quarter of Midget Gems for 3d (1p) which was a lot for someone as young as me. I could easily earn 2/6d (half a crown) 12.5p in a bit over an hour and that would get me into the Saturday Matinee at the pictures which would be 1/9d (about 8p) with 9d (4p) left over which would buy crisps that had a blue bag of salt in them plus a lot of other things. As an aside, if you had a half-crown, you had a coin with considerable buying power and you were always a little bit reluctant to break into it even if you got a two-bob piece (2/-) in your change. it still didn’t feel as good as having that half-crown weight in your pocket!
It’s probably illegal to employ a twelve-year-old now and the working environment would certainly not be acceptable but that was 1963. Cliff Richards and the Shadows were planning their ‘Summer Holiday’ and the Beetles were sharing some excellent news in telling us, “She Loves You”.
High Castle Hills (High Cas)
Route 1 – The Big One
The steep part of High Cas was exciting and fast but the corrugations that were left when the railway line was excavated meant that you vibrated all the way down then at the bottom your teeth fell out. We could flatten it out over time by compacting the snow into the corrugations and tamping it down by turning our sledges upside down and using the flat side as a tamper. This idea didn’t last long though for two reasons. The first was time, whilst we were busy making the ‘run’ we were wasting ‘proper’ sledging time on the other two slopes. However, the main reason was the ditch that ran adjacent to the main north/south railway line. It had the combined effect of saving our lives by cutting the run short and nearly killing us with frostbite by, not so gently, delivering us into the icy water that ran under the ice that was hidden by a year’s growth of reeds.
We’d prepared the run well and decided on testing it by having three sledges set off in parallel. On this occasion, they weren’t tethered together so we fully expected them to separate on the way down between the two blokes carrying the plank (yes, you read that correctly). It was a big advertising hoarding, there were three on the hillside but this one had a gap between the men that were carrying the plank! The whole structure was about 20ft (5m) wide with a gap between the men of 10ft (3m) so you might observe that going through it in parallel would be ‘challenging’.
So, the scene is set and we’re rocking the sledges backwards and forwards in the snow to coat the metal runners with ice and, hopefully, go a bit faster. From experience, I knew my sledge had the edge in terms of speed but that was on the other slopes that were less steep. This gradient may reduce the advantage so the possibility that we might arrive at the hoarding still in parallel was high. It would certainly make it more interesting and perhaps a little more exciting if one of us miscalculated especially at the speed we’d be going by the time we were passing between them. I was the middle sledge so the risks to me were minimal but I’m only thinking that now, sixty years ago my twelve-year-old self was concentrating on the ‘action’ and the thought of hitting the hoarding wasn’t in the risk assessment. As it turned out there was no miscalculation and we shot under the plank at a breathtaking speed, at the bottom of the hill we were still accelerating and heading towards the main line. Three pairs of eyes were looking right which was the direction from which the Southbound expresses would come. We expected (and hoped) that we’d hit some drifts that would terminate the adventure rather than end up straddling the rails like a lady-in-distress in the silent movies of old. We had started dragging at least one leg to pull the sledge to one side but that created two different hazards. It meant we were aligning ourselves with the route of the hidden ditch and I was blinding the two riders of the following sledges with snow from my outstretched leg.
Just to give the following photo some scale,
The two blokes are about 12ft or 4m tall – it’s big!
It was an exhilarating feeling zipping along on smooth snow (we hadn’t tamped it down this far) then the front of the sledge went under the snow, and it went dark. The feeling in my stomach was like I’d just gone over a hump-back bridge as gravity claimed both the sledge and myself and sucked us into what became a snow cave.
I disappeared from view.
It never occurred to me that it would be dark under snow but I can vouch for it now. I was becoming anxious as the cover of snow had completely hidden the ditch so I didn’t know it was there but now I did, it begged another question; how deep is it? I was still travelling at quite a rate although, with no visual stimulus, I had no idea how fast. The ice that had formed over the running water at the bottom of the ditch was now cutting my fingers as I clung to the front of the sledge and then my head plunged into the cold water. I’d never known cold like it. It wasn’t deep enough for me to be submerged but my imagination already had me well under when the sledge stopped. The cold was so intense I didn’t have time to think and I wasn’t really sure which way was up but I let go of the front of the sledge and climbed out of the ditch like the birth of a Yeti. I was covered in snow and shivering like a frightened puppy but trying to (ironically) look cool. The other two had managed to cut a curve that was short of the ditch and watched me disappear in disbelief. Then the laughter started. To this day I know it wasn’t funny and I think we were probably hysterical but we laughed until we saw the blood dripping off my hands and inspected the backs of them for the damage caused by the ice. The actual bleeding had stopped but the blood and the water that had diluted it meant there was quite a lot of red snow where I had burst out of the ditch and staggered back towards my two sledging companions now looking as white as the virgin snow that was now spattered with the evidence of my rebirth.
As I shivered my way back home my mind was already working on the lies that I needed to tell my Mam. What subterfuge would get me off the hook? What possible excuse could I give my Mam to avoid a bollocking? We came to the conclusion there wasn’t one. I’d have to show her my hands which were now blue with cold and lack of blood and hope for the best. By the time I got home I was so cold and the pain in my extremities so intense I was in floods of tears so I got the sympathy vote and all was well but normally, getting hurt through reckless play invited a serious bollocking and the occasional clip to emphasise the point.
Route 2 – The Blue Mountain
Was down the East side which was quite dramatic at the beginning but levelled out and you had to have a particularly good sledge to make it into the next field. However, after much use, the snow would be compacted and icy, at this point, you could go to town on sandpaper but there were accidents when sledges ran out of control and hit one of the three huts anchored in the field. There was plenty of room not to hit them but they were like wooden magnets and on more than one occasion sledge-pilots would disappear. The middle hut was very special in as much as the whole of the side panel was hinged on two nails so if you hit the bottom it would spin and you and the sledge would end up inside the hut with the side panel having spun half a turn looking perfectly normal. We thought there’d been a miraculous disappearance the first time it happened until we heard the hysterics from inside the hut. These huts also doubled as shelters if there were heavy snow storms and would be barely tolerable if two or three were smoking but we persevered!
Route 3 – The Cresta
Involved an initially slow and comfortable descent along the North of the hill. This was followed by a more exciting stage that demanded a full 180-degree turn whilst trying to avoid the fence. If you’d overdone the speed during the first stage then this would be tricky and there would be two or three broken fingers a season caused by the sledge, now out of control, careering along the bottom of the fence whilst the rider was desperately trying to adopt one of three strategies all of them unplanned…
Strategy 1. Stop – if you managed to bring the careering sledge to a halt you got to breathe again but the reality was that you’d failed and even if there was no one watching you’d still hang your head for not completing the course.
Strategy 2. Turn your body rather more acutely than the trajectory that the sledge had adopted – better known as the ejector technique. This would leave the sledge to make a solo finish along the bottom of the hill whilst the rider bounced and rolled along accumulating snow like a cartoon snowball.
Strategy 3. You managed to get the speed right, the angle of attack perfect and the final trajectory accurate and you coupled that with avoiding the bottom rail of the fence then the walk back up the hill was done with pride and mounting confidence for the next run.
It was interesting that if a serious accident did occur and fingers, or on one occasion an elbow, seemed to be at an unusual or even bizarre angle then we’d drift down to the Friarage accident unit and get a doctor or nurse to have a quick look at it before we went home. I remember going with Terry Cation (one of the nicest people you could care to be with and a dear friend – sadly no longer with us) to the Friarage and it turned out he had a broken arm. I don’t remember parents being involved until he turned up at home with a pot on but maybe that’s the mists of time and it certainly would not be the case now.
Over the cattle grid and we’re right into Clain Wood where we can see the Vale of Mowbray through the trees. The Pennines are clear in the distance and the size of our beautiful county is evident.
George is immediately in front of me and mischievously pulls on a branch just before I get to it. He lets it go with perfect timing had it not been for the fact that I’d stopped to take a photograph. The half-ton of snow that falls out of the tree lands harmlessly a couple of yards in front of me and I resolve to have revenge – watch this space!
Click on any photo to see them in full resolution – it’s a beautiful day
We turn right at the fork to extend the walk a little and also avoid the steps which in this weather will have all kinds of hidden gotchas and as a result, lethal. It’s a steady climb and Dave sums it up, “This hill is fluffing steep”, was hi expression… well I think that’s what he said!
At the junction, we turn left and now have the triple pleasure of walking downhill in virgin snow with the fabulous view of Whorl Hill immediately before us and Roseberry in the background.
There’s a short pause whilst we regroup. The stragglers have drank their bottles of water and the odd flask of tea and this combines with the cold weather to trigger a bladder response that enables them to use cursive letters whilst writing their names in the snow…
It’s not easy creating discrete letters at our age, the control that is necessary is long gone!
On our way down Cardiac Hill, we see the paw prints of foxes and the cloven hoof prints of deer but the ones that have us completely perplexed are the rabbit tracks that lead to the side of the path then stop. There’s no loop back and no obvious landing in the branches and bracken to the side and no sign of a struggle or blood – completely baffled?
We cross the Cleveland Way again but there’s no sign of human activity, we’re the only ones daft enough and privileged enough to be out here today and that makes it even better.
The walk back into Swainby is steady and we’re all gearing up for the pies at the Rusty Bike cafe and by the time we arrive we’re drowning in Pavlov’s dog saliva in anticipation.
It’s bitterly cold although we haven’t noticed it due to our walking and when we enter the cafe we’re instantly cocooned in the heat of the room generated by the huge wood burning stove coupled with the warmth of the atmosphere produced by the lovely people that welcome us.
Excellent food at the end of a wonderful walk.
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Thanks G x