Snow

The coldest winter I can remember was in Bradford in 1951-52. It was nothing exceptional for the locals but I was too young to have time-stamped memories of the really big one of 1946-47 and since then we had been living in London where it rarely snowed. It snowed in Yorkshire in that year, though. It kept us home from school for a couple of days. Everything went white. There was a big drift, way above my knees, piled up along the front fence. When the weather cleared, I tunnelled into it, lengthwise, and made a tube I could crawl through, a magic space of white light.

The walk to school, when we did get to go, was a riot of snowball fights, which carried over into playtime. I don’t know how it started but suddenly there was a fight between pupils and some of the staff, including the headmaster. They were vastly outnumbered, of course, but they stood their ground for quite a while and took it bravely, a dozen or so teachers and a couple of hundred kids, screaming in happy anarchy.

After the snow came the freeze, which left a crust of ice crystals over the battered drifts. By now the snow was too compacted for snowballs so we turned instead to making slides. I am not quite sure how a slide ever got started. I suppose some kids had the skill or the experience to pick a likely spot. What happened was that you took a run up, planted your feet and slid along on the soles of your shoes until the ground beneath you bit and stopped you dead. Pretty soon there would be a queue of people waiting their turn. All the soles on the ice created a friction that covered it with a slick of water. This would freeze overnight, hardening and thickening the surface. Over the course of a few days the slides got longer and longer and also more and more treacherous to anyone unwary enough to step on one. The adult neighbours complained about the one in our street when one of them slipped on it. We took no notice so they resorted to sabotage. We woke one morning to find that someone had dumped a bucketful of hot ashes in the middle of the slide. Neither end was long enough.

The biggest slide, though, was on our school playing field. It must have been the length of a cricket pitch and was in constant use. It was not for the faint-hearted. You had to go for it full tilt in order to get from one end to other and if you tried to trim your speed there was always someone faster than you coming up behind and yelling at you to get out of the way. For the most part, it was dominated by the bigger and more daring kids. My physical courage was never up to it. I confined myself to shorter slides round the periphery with the other scaredy-cats. The sheer speed of the kids on the big slide filled me with awe and envy.

I am not sure how long the cold weather lasted but, eventually the snow began to thaw. The playing field became a morass of slush under which you could hear the soft sound of water trickling. This led us to a third game.  We began to dig channels, packing down the slush into banks and guiding the melt into little streams that joined to become bigger streams and, eventually, into a river, several centimetres deep and nearly a metre wide. This had to go somewhere. Somewhere downhill. The most obvious spot was one of the backyards next to the grounds. I can remember standing at the top of the slope and looking down into the yard, which was a foot or more deep in water. Water swirled around the corners of the house and down the side paths. I knew there was a risk the house itself might be flooded but there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it. The stream seemed somehow inevitable, like the river of life.

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