A b o u t   t h e   b o o k

R e a d   a n
e x t r a c t

R e a d
a n o t h e r
e x t r a c t

P h o t o
g a l l e r y

B u y   t h e
b o o k

A b o u t   t h e
a u t h o r

 

 


 


An extract from Chapter 7:

 

"The blizzards that came that February were terrible -- for weeks snow whipped horizontally across the landscape. The drifts quickly built up to fifteen feet or more, cutting off the road completely and making going outside both tiring and potentially dangerous. Looking after the ponies became extremely difficult. Apart from the ponies in the yard we had some more in the enclosed field shelter a quarter of a mile away at the end of the field -- carrying hay, oats and water to them through the blizzard and drifts was a lengthy and arduous business. At the time I wrote this about it:

Very well wrapped up with balaclava, hat, scarf, thick coat, waterproof coat over the top and wellington boots, I stepped out of the cottage into the blizzard. On one side the cottage was coated with a thick layer of snow that completely covered the windows there, while on the other side it was encrusted with a uniform layer of clear ice like two-inch-thick glass coating the stonework.

Everywhere was blindingly white and screaming. The wind, unremittingly laden with powdered snow as sharp as glass, tore horizontally along. Visibility was down to a few feet in the raging snowstorm, but when I tried to look down the lane for more than a second the blast of powdered snow stinging and burning my squinting eyes became unbearable. So, head down I butted my way into the pounding storm. This made navigation hazardous to say the least. The blizzard continuously buffetted and dragged me down so that I was constantly struggling to maintain my balance. Walking against the huge drag of the wind was instantly exhausting and I was panting for breath, trying to inhale the bitter air that flew past my face with frantic speed, sucking my breath away with it. But there was no way I could pause to try to catch my breath; if I had paused I would have gone down...

The snowstorm was more like a storm of sand than snow, so hard and biting were the grains that formed its racing fog in the high wind. Soon, during that time of snow, we came to refer to the high snowdrifts as dunes because their formation and changing contours more closely resembled sand than snow. And in truth, for some five weeks the area was a desert -- a white desert where everything was as dry as bone and bitterly cold. For most days during that time the blizzard raged out of control -- always from right to left as we looked down the lane, though we only ever dared look for a second as to resist the sting-in-the-eye of the snow-sand for longer was impossible.

There were many days when Jeff, from the farm in the valley, tried to get his snowplough laboriously up and down the road, getting stuck in his tractor now and again, to return half-an-hour to an hour later in the opposite direction. Sometimes he would fulfil this thankless task from seven in the morning till after dark. He was paid by the local council to keep the road open as it was a milk-tanker route to various farms, though the milk-tankers couldn't get through in any case. Within twenty minutes of his passing our cottage with a big snow-plough blade on the front of the tractor, the lane would be cut across by high banks of sand-snow that had built up -- banks that were gradually changing shape and linking together the high snow walls on each side of the road, like rungs on a giant ladder. Later Jeff told me he had never known the blizzard to be so continuous and prolonged since his father began the snow ploughing in 1948. In those days his father had an open tractor with no cab. He would return home with his hair bedecked with icicles where it had stuck out from under his hat. He would take his coat off and it would stand upright unaided on the floor, so frozen was it.

During our worst winter on the Moss the daily routine for me began with collecting a bucket of food for the ponies and as much hay as I could carry to creep through the raging blizzard down to the ponies in the building at the bottom of the field. Of course I regretted having put them in there just before the snows came, but now they were there, there was no way they could be moved through the drifts. As it was they were reasonably comfortable in their stalls inside the building. Taking them food and hay however was an exhausting and difficult process. Not only had I to cope with avoiding being blown flat by the sandstorm-wind, but I also had to avoid the smaller areas of drifting along my high path -- wandering into which I would suddenly sink up to my thighs or waist. To deviate much from the hidden path would have meant disappearing into the drifts all together. When I did happen into the smaller drifts my legs would be suddenly arrested, but the rest of my body would be thrown forward by my momentum and the bucket of food and hay-bale would fly yards ahead into the smoky blizzard and I would be imprisoned momentarily, face-down in the snow.

Even when I did not fall, progress was painfully slow, virtually each step having to be planned in order to stay upright in the gale. The fine-grained, cream-coloured snow was already compacted like plaster of paris before water is added to it (it wasn't white and loose like the fluffy flakes you get in southern England). With each step I took, this firm snow had to be further and painstakingly beaten down underfoot to make a firm foothold if I was not to lose my balance. And all this while the screaming blizzard tried to drag me over, the air thick with powder-snow so that I couldn't see where I was going and had to navigate from memory, all the while fearful of going too far to my left where I might slip down the twenty foot deep bank into the drift that completely covered the brook.

Getting down to the three ponies in the enclosed field shelter became a little easier once the drifts compacted down further and froze solid on top, after a week to ten days. Then I would walk over the top of them, conscious that I must be traversing fences buried deep beneath my feet. Even then there were many days when I had to carry water some distance to the ponies in the field shelter because I couldn't find the place where I'd last dug down to the brook for water. Even if I did find the right place I had to first remove the snow that had accumulated since my last visit by sweeping it aside with repeated kicking. Although I always chose sheltered spots to collect water, where not too much snow would accumulate from one day to the next, such as under an old elder bush, usually two feet of snow had collected since the last visit. Once I had kicked this fresh snow away and got down to the ice the only way to break through was to jump up and down on it until I suddenly plunged through in my wellington boots into a foot of water. If the usual 'water-hole' couldn't be found and I had to start another then the ice was that much thicker than had reformed over the old one. Daily I would find a few grouse feathers scattered around my water hole under the elder bush, attesting to the difficulty these creatures were having in finding water in this cold desert.

Having made a hole in the ice big enough to get the bucket through to fill with water, I would have to carry it back to fill the big plastic water containers of the ponies in the field shelter. The water spilt during this process would be whipped away by the wind to form ice virtually instantaneously where it landed. Once I had climbed through the opening in the side of the building, before I could fill the water containers I had to remove the frozen water they already contained. This water had always turned to a solid container-shaped block of ice. Removing these blocks of ice from the containers wasn't easy -- it entailed picking up the containers and dropping them upside down on a hard bit of floor. On more than one occasion I broke the container before I got the ice-block out!

I used the container-shaped blocks of ice, sand-castle fashion, to build a low wall at one end of the field shelter where the snow blowing in had formed a ramp up which the ponies might escape the building -- though they clearly had no desire to do so.

Once I tipped out a container of water and the block of ice inside broke in two leaving half inside the container. This half was hollowed out in the middle and in the bubble of water it held a little stickleback swam round and round, only its movement preventing its prison freezing completely."

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