A few years ago, a friend sent me one of those e-mails that undermines your will to live. This one suggested that, far from globally warmed tropical conditions in Western Europe, we would be plunged into a new ice age as a result of the Gulf Stream being diverted off course. As yet, it hasn’t happened – and I sure hope it never will – but, to paraphrase Stingray, ‘anything can happen in the next half-decade’.
This cold ‘snap’ is providing us all with a sneak preview of what to expect. This morning, I took the dog out for a walk, swaddled in all kinds of winter paraphernalia. Cycling, however, into the teeth of a wind that seems to be blowing direct from Kamchatka or some such other frozen wilderness made a mockery of all my compound tog value. It was like placing your bare chest on a sheet of cold steel. My face was locked into an indelible grimace. !(upload://bb7OkDBsEfgz169QMjWaDDNezkB.jpg)
In 16 years of soldiering through continental winters, this is the coldest I have ever known it. Once, while visiting friends in the Alps, who persuaded us to take our daughter up a mountain for a ski lesson, I experienced cold that made my whole frame shake, cold that brought this grown man to his knees. But that was due to the fact that I was dressed more like Tintin in Tibet than a sensible modern-day parent.
In terms of consistently sub-zero temperatures, this current spell beats the winter of 1963. There was more snow then certainly – I remember being off school for several weeks, seeing the snow half way up our morning-room window and reading all about the cancelled matches in my Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly – but it can’t have been as cold as this, because central heating in those days was a new-fangled mod con and my parents certainly hadn’t invested in a system, so I wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale.
Yet, apparently, and according to the retired guy down the road who likes to chat whenever I bump into him during one of my Alf-time twice-daily dog walks, it was worse than this during the winter of 1956. It was so cold that he remembered the sound of the plane trees cracking and splitting in Martel. There was certainly no chauffage central in dem days and, he told me, families would huddle around their fireplace to keep as warm as they could.
The combination of cold and water, I’ve discovered over the past few days, can be dramatically destructive. A good friend of mine here, who looks after houses while the owners are away as one of his many sidelines, phoned me in a state of some distress. While hugging the wood-burning stove that was struggling to maintain 14 degrees in the house, he noticed water dripping from the floor above. A practical man, he dealt with the leak as best he could before popping next door to check their empty gîte. There he found that six of their old cast-iron radiators had burst with the cold, spilling black gunge all over the floorboards. Did I know of a plumber who could help? I did not. The one reliable plumber in the area has gone back to the UK. And the plumber who fitted all the pipe-work in this house is still wanted, dead or alive. Just to put the old tin lid on everything, the owners’ geriatric cat, poor creature, now seems to be peeing blood. The owners are due back in a few days and so far no plumber has answered his S.O.S. calls.
On Friday, after a week spent marooned at the bottom of our drive, due to a dead car engine and ice on the gradient, a friend took me to the château that I’m supposed to be looking after. A scene of devastation greeted me, with stalactites hanging off fractured radiators, taps frozen up and, in one apartment, a bath full of water that must have dripped from the ceiling above and frozen solid, unable to drain away via a frozen plughole. Boilers had been left on in hors gel position, but the wind from Kamchatka must have got in under the eaves and rendered the heating useless. I had to send e-mails to all the owners and describe the damage to their beloved apartments. So now It’s my turn to try to find a plumber prepared to come out and help. Second homes! Who’d have ‘em?
Cold as it is, though, what on earth must it be like in Siberia, Alaska, Spitzbergen, Greenland and all those other frozen parts of the globe? Imagine the misery of trying to stay warm in conditions that are twice, even three times as cold as it is here at present? No wonder them Russkies drink so much alcohol. What else is there to do in such a climate other than to climb into bed, your head befuddled with vodka – and stay there? You can’t possibly work. Even eating becomes an effort.
Cycling into the teeth of that glacial wind this morning, I also thought back to Scott, Shackleton and all those other intrepid polar explorers. Whatever possessed them? Voluntarily to put yourself through the misery it must have been to drag a sled full of instruments and provisions, trying to fight off frostbite in an era before Gore-Tex, polar fleeces, Damart thermals and other sensible modern weatherproof clothing. What were they thinking of?
I remember watching a dramatised documentary about Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, when he and a colleague endured the most appalling deprivations to bring back a King Penguin’s egg (or something like that). Poor guy developed irritable bowel syndrome and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his born days. OK, he achieved some degree of immortality – though he would probably have gone down in history in any case as the possessor of one of the most ludicrous names ever given to a child. Faced with the choice between a warm bed and a penguin’s egg, I think I’d have known which one to choose. Screw the immortality!
So there you have it. Has anyone seen the long-term weather forecast? I’m hoping that this week will see the back of this Arctic cold. I’ve had enough of genuine winter already. I’m told that this kind of frost is good for the soil and the next harvest. But after the big chill comes the big thaw – and we all know what happens to frozen pipes and frozen baths when temperatures start to rise again.