The wonder of winter: A celebration of snow

The roads are treacherous, the trains are an endurance test, and the pavements... well, don’t even go there. This season’s snowfalls have disrupted our lives, but they’ve shown Britain at its loveliest, too.
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So you think this is bad?

Think it's a bit chilly out? Appalled by a few days of snowfall? Ah, diddums. At least you didn't have to endure some of nastiest winters in British history...

1683/4 Generally held to be the coldest winter ever. A "great frost" gripped the UK and central Europe from mid-December. It was the longest frost on record: the Thames remained frozen a foot deep for more than two months, and a "Frost Fair" sprang up – a tented city of shops, booths, stalls and entertainment. Enterprising boatmen pulled customers across the ice on boats with wheels attached. "Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple," wrote the diarist John Evelyn, "and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd [behaviour], so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water." Unfortunately, the ice abruptly melted on 8 February, and the fair and its revellers were awash with freezing water.

1740 An easterly gale in late December ushered in the second coldest winter on record. The Thames stayed frozen for eight weeks. Temperatures fell to minus 24C in January.

1947 Britain's most severe, protracted and dismal spell of bad weather in the 20th century began on Thursday, 23 January 1947, when snow fell on South-east England. It went on falling and freezing, and falling again, through February and well into March. January 29 was the coldest day recorded in 50 years. "All my pipes...are frozen so a bath or a wash is out of the question," reported James Lees-Milne. "The basic elements of civilisation are denied us." Worse was the energy crisis. The Government was forced to ration coal. Factories shut, electricity and gas were cut by half. Snowdrifts brought traffic to a standstill. Seventeen thousand workers at Longbridge Austin Motor Works stood idle through lack of fuel. Manny Shinwell, Minister for Fuel and Power, failed to endear himself to the freezing nation by announcing that householders would be allowed electricity for five hours a day only. Television and radio stations were suspended, newsprint rationed, and electricity used for frivolous purposes (eg greyhound racing) was banned. "Never since the Industrial Revolution have we seen a crisis come in this way," shivered the Financial Times.

1962/3 While the UK in general enjoyed above-average sunshine, England stayed frozen from Boxing Day to April with an average temperature of 0.2c (32.3F) – the only time in the 20th century when national temperatures averaged below zero for two consecutive months. In January and February, Devon and the North-east reported snowfalls 6m (18 feet) high. In Hampshire, people walked on top of frozen roadside shrubbery rather than driving on the densely-packed snow on the roads. Villages were cut off, and farmers strove to reach their starving livestock. The FA Cup Final was put back by three weeks. Sylvia Plath put her head in her gas oven and committed suicide.

1984/5 The winter of the miners' strike ushered in heavy snow nationwide in early January, followed by penetrating frosts and more snowstorms from East Anglia to Devon. Brighton seafront was cut off, schools closed early and daytime temperatures struggled to rise above minus five Centigrade. Unable to pay for their heating, striking miners and their families scavenged for coal on dangerous slag heaps, and three children died.

John Walsh

How to drive – and survive – in the snow

"Before you set out, make sure you check conditions for the entire length of the route," warns AA spokesman Gavin Hill-Smith. "There can be significant local variations in the weather. If the police are advising against travelling anywhere – heed that."

Hill-Smith says the first thing you should do is carry out proper checks on your car. Are the windscreen washers working? Are the lights functioning? Do your tyres have good enough tread and inflation?

"You should make sure your windows are completely de-misted," he continues. "We see a lot of tank commanders who are trying to look through a narrow slit and they can't see properly. And it's illegal – the police can pull you over."

When driving, you should keep your speed down, especially driving along residential, non-gritted roads. Maintain a bigger-than- normal gap between your car and the one in front – stopping distances can be 10 times as high in snow.

Higher gears can stop the wheels from spinning. "If you are sliding across some ice, don't hit the brakes. Invariably your wheels will lock and you could spin off the road. Try to steer your way through the danger."

You should plan to carry in your boot what you might expect to use under the worst of circumstances. This might include: warm clothing, blankets, rugs and sleeping bags, water and a flask of hot drink, a tow rope and waterproofs, along with a reflective jacket. A torch can be useful if you get stranded, as can a map if you're forced to take a diversion. Most importantly of all, take a fully-charged mobile. "It could save your life."

Rob Sharp

10 snowy songs

The Specials – Blank Expression

Randy Newman (covered by Harry Nilsson/St Etienne/Claudine Longet) – Snow

Snow – Informer

Au Revoir Simone – Fallen Snow

Johnny Cash – Snow in His Hair

Elliot Smith – Angel in the Snow

The Grateful Dead – Cold Rain and Snow

The Leisure Society – The Last of the Melting Snow

Dean Martin – Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!

Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal

10 snowy artworks

Richard Long – Throwing Snow into a Circle

JMW Turner – Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps

Peter Doig – White Creep

Helen Chadwick – Piss Flowers

Pieter Bruegel – Hunters in the Snow

Andy Goldsworthy – Snow Drift, Carved into, Waiting for the Wind

Henry Raeburn – The Reverend Robert Walker Skating

Claude Monet – The Magpie

Utagawa Hiroshige – Night Snow at Kambara

Calvin and Hobbes – Snowmen

10 snowy books

CS Lewis – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

David Guterson – Snow Falling on Cedars

Peter Hoeg – Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

Phillip Pullman – Northern Lights

David Benioff – City of Thieves

Jack London – Call of the Wild

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Henry Thoreau – Walden

The Gawain Poet – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

10 snowy films

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Fargo (1996)

Touching the Void (2003)

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The Thing (1982)

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Let the Right One In (2008)

Cool Runnings (1993)

Snowflakes: a field guide

Snowflakes fall in myriad different forms, and it is believed that no two snowflakes, out of the countless trillions that fall to earth, are identical.

But all snowflakes do have something in common. Behind those infinitely varied patterns lies the same geometrical shape: the hexagon. Six sides is the organising principle of the snowflake and the reason is to be found at the molecular level: the water molecules in an ice crystal form a six-sided, or hexagonal, lattice.

Snowflakes are born when water vapour in the clouds – not raindrops – condenses into ice crystals, and the tiny hexagons begin to grow in different versions, but always keeping the same underlying, six-sided pattern.

The most basic snowflake form is a prism – a geometrical shape whose ends are equal and parallel – and this is naturally a hexagonal prism. As they grow, branches sprout from the six corners to form much more complex designs and end up in the feathery stars which are thought of as the snowflake's epitome.

Here are eight typical snowflake forms as catalogued by one of the world's leading experts, Kenneth Libbrecht, Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Michael McCarthy

Simple prisms

Depending on how fast they grow, snow crystals can appear as thin hexagonal plates, slender hexagonal columns (shaped a lot like wooden pencils), or anything in between.

Stellar plates

These common snowflakes are thin, plate-like crystals with six broad arms that form a star-like shape. Their faces are often decorated with amazingly elaborate and symmetrical markings.

Stellar Dendrites

Dendritic means "tree-like", so stellar dendrites are plate-like snowflakes that have branches and side branches. They are the most popular snow crystal type, seen in holiday decorations, and since they are fairly large, typically 2-4 mm in diameter, they can be seen with the naked eye.

Fernlike Stellar Dendrites

Sometimes the branches of stellar crystals have so many side branches that they resemble ferns. These are the largest snow crystals, often with diameters of 5mm, and when they fall in great numbers they make the powder snow loved by skiers.

Capped columns

These crystals grow into stubby columns, then they blow into a region of the clouds where the growth becomes plate-like. The result is two thin crystals growing on the ends of an ice column.

Double plates

A double plate is a capped column with an especially short central column. The plates are so close together that inevitably one grows out faster and shields the other from its source of water vapour. The result is one large plate connected to a much smaller one.

12-sided snowflakes

Sometimes capped columns form with a 30-degree twist: the two end-plates are both six-branched crystals, but one is rotated 30 degrees, and the resultant snowflakes end up as 12-pointed stars.

Rimed crystals

When water droplets in the clouds collide with and stick to snow crystals, they decorate the surface with frost which is known as rime. When the coverage is especially heavy, the result is called graupel.

How to make... an igloo... a sledge... and a snowman


Make one or two block moulds by nailing together four old boards to make a rectangular container. Clear an area of snow on the ground and mark out a circle. Make snow blocks by packing snow into your moulds. Sprinkle a little water on them. Bash the moulds to release the bricks. Layer blocks up around your circle to make your walls, staggering them inwards until they almost meet. Make a cap brick that is too big for the hole and place it on top. Pack in the gaps with snow and drizzle with water to freeze.


Find a big patch of snow. Make one big snowball, then make a smaller one and a third, smaller snowball. Stack the balls on top of each other. Use a carrot to act as a nose. Use buttons or pebbles for the eyes and a row of pebbles or coal for the mouth. Top him off with a scarf and a top hat. If you're lucky, he might come to life overnight.


Bin liners and tea trays are the classic examples. But if you're feeling particularly adventurous, get a wooden palette. Remove the top half of the palette using a hammer and chisel. Separate three boards from the discarded half of the palette to use as rails – hammer them to the top half of the palette. Chocks away! (Although be careful where you sledge.)

Rob Sharp

Four snowy poems

The snow – it sifts from leaden sieves

By Emily Dickinson

It sifts from leaden sieves,

It powders all the wood,

It fills with alabaster wool

The wrinkles of the road.

It makes an even face

Of mountain and of plain, --

Unbroken forehead from the east

Unto the east again.

It reaches to the fence,

It wraps it, rail by rail,

Till it is lost in fleeces;

It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, --

The summer's empty room,

Acres of seams where harvests were,

Recordless, but for them.

It ruffles wrists of posts,

As ankles of a queen, --

Then stills its artisans like ghosts,

Denying they have been.

In Snow

By William Allingham

O English mother, in the ruddy glow

Hugging your baby closer when outside

You see the silent, soft, and cruel snow

Falling again, and think what ills betide

Unshelter'd creatures,--your sad thoughts may go

Where War and Winter now, two spectre-wolves,

Hunt in the freezing vapour that involves

Those Asian peaks of ice and gulfs below.

Does this young Soldier heed the snow that fills

His mouth and open eyes? or mind, in truth,

To-night, his mother's parting syllables?

Ha! is't a red coat?--Merely blood. Keep ruth

For others; this is but an Afghan youth

Shot by the stranger on his native hills.

The Snow-Storm

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,

Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air

Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,

And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.

The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet

Delated, all friends shut out, the housemates sit

Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed

In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry.

Out of an unseen quarry evermore

Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer

Curves his white bastions with projected roof

Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work

So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he

For number or proportion. Mockingly,

On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;

A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;

Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,

Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate

A tapering turret overtops the work.

And when his hours are numbered, and the world

Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,

Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art

To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,

Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,

The frolic architecture of the snow.

Snow Song

By Sara Teasdale

Fairy snow, fairy snow,

Blowing, blowing everywhere,

Would that I

Too, could fly

Lightly, lightly through the air.

Like a wee, crystal star

I should drift, I should blow

Near, more near,

To my dear

Where he comes through the snow.

I should fly to my love

Like a flake in the storm,

I should die,

I should die,

On his lips that are warm.

Look cool, stay warm

Looking good in the snow is no easy feat; it's virtually impossible to wear your usual garb whilst negotiating icy pavements and Arctic temperatures. However, that's no excuse to give up completely, because practicality can be chic.

Starting from the top, it's essential to wear a warm hat. The good news is that deerstalkers and faux fur bonnets are having a fashion moment. Your coat must be waterproof – classic Barbour wax jackets are perfect and thanks to their popularity among indie rockers, they're pretty stylish at the moment. Wear yours close-fitted in deep navy, green or black. Ensure that underneath you layer up, and try adding some character with a novelty jumper – now the height of kitsch-cool.

Peter Jensen and Markus Lupfer offer quirkiness at its best, but on the high street, Topshop and Asos have affordable versions which are perfect for budding ice queens. To protect your legs, waterproof trousers or salopettes might be the sensible trouser choice, but the well-padded fisherman look isn't exactly on trend. As long as you put on some thermal leggings underneath, jeans or cotton cords should suffice; just don't go rolling around in the snow.

Opt for a skinny style, so you can double up on socks and tuck them into your Wellington boots. Yes, Wellingtons. If you go for some classic tall Hunters, you'll still look chic, and insulate them with some fleecy liners. Timberland boots are too masculine, trainers just aren't waterproof and you will look utterly ridiculous trying to slither around in the snow in ballet pumps.

Gemma Hayward

Did you snow?

* A 10-year-old girl had a lucky escape when a car flipped over,missing her by inches. Emilie Pease was playing on her snowy drive in Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, when a Vauxhall Vectra skidded on ice and crashed into a wall, before flipping into the air above her head and coming to land next to her on the driveway.

* Newcastle United player Kevin Nolan came to the aid of Tony Sarna, a vet whose car got stuck in drifts in the Northumberland village of Ponteland. Nolan pulled up in his Bentley to see if he could help, before returning home and fetching his Range Rover to tow Sarna's car out of the snow.

* The weather has brought havoc to Britain's soap operas. Hollyoaks, Coronation Street and Emmerdale have all had to cancel shooting, with their purpose-built sets and outdoor locations too snowy to film, and casts advised not to travel.

* A York woman was buried, unconscious, in the snow after falling off her bike. Colin Dodds mistook the body of Sarah Archdale for a pile of snow when driving past on Tuesday. Luckily, he spotted the glow of her red rear bike light, and went to the rescue.

* Partygoers celebrating New Year at the highest pub in England – Tan Hill Inn in North Yorkshire – ended up enjoying a forced lock-in, thanks to heavy snowfall. Revellers at the pub, which is 1,700ft above sea level, were stranded for three days.

* A councillor turned emergency supply deliverer for those stuck in the snow. Stan Beer, councillor for Pateley Bridge near Harrogate, promised locals who couldn't walk to the village shop because of the ice and snow that he'd pop round with their groceries.

* One area of business has been boosted by the bad weather conditions: Britain's ski slopes. The Glenshee Ski Centre in Perthshire is reporting a surge in visitors, with up to 2,000 people a day since New Year visiting to ski, snowboard or even just sledge down its slopes.

* A grey seal pup had to be rescued after it got stranded on a river island in Musselburgh, Midlothian. Two crew members of the Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue team were called out to help the four-month-old animal, which has since been christened Bodach, a gaelic name meaning "mythical creature".

* A shopper who went out to buy a turkey on 19 December has been snowed out for a fortnight, thanks to drifts blocking the roads. Kay Ure has been unable to get back to her husband, John, who stayed at their home in the Scottish Highlands, after she went shopping in Inverness.

Holly Williams