Icy blast from the past

Have we seen the back of the heavy snow? WR Mitchell and Mary Metcalfe recall that in epic winters of the past, February was just the beginning of it.

They're plucking geese i' Scotland

And sending t'feathers here...

This Dales chant was heard as flurries of snow settled on the Pennines. I repeated it a couple of weeks ago when looking from my home to the snowbound fells across the Ribble Valley. There was life up there. Two dots were walkers, heading for the horizon. Five more substantial forms were those of Highland cattle, using their hooves as spades to clear snow before reaching something edible underneath.

Among the isolated farms where snow might lie for months on end was Cosh, two and a-half miles beyond Foxup, which itself is remote, being tucked away at the head of Littondale. One December, long years ago, snow lay at Cosh for so long there was a danger that the sheep might starve, though I heard of one sheep that spent three weeks under snow, sucked its own wool – and lived to bleat the tale.

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William Brown gathered the 450 sheep of Cosh, mounted his pony and drove them across an undulating white landscape seeking green fields where he might secure grazing for a copper or two a sheep. The first night was spent with friends at a farm "back o' Penyghent". He then moved on towards the Ribble Valley, where quarters were available at farms around Wigglesworth for a whole month. The stock from Cosh was referred to as "them snowbound sheep".

Nothing within living memory compares with the snowtime of early 1947. The first flakes descended on the upper Dales on Sunday, February 3. Human snow-cutters worked their way through the last big drift eight weeks later. Much of the snow-cutting was negated by the effects of a persistent, chilling east wind. On Malham Moor, a roadman died and his body was taken to a local farm to await collection. Nowadays, snow-clearing is mechanised and roads are sprayed with vast quantities of salt. In an emergency affecting humans, a helicopter might drop in to provide handy transport to hospital.

In Littondale, in that grim 1947 winter, detailed records were kept by GS Sweeting. Snowdrifts reached 15 to 20 feet. At Nether Hesleden, a large updale farm, a tunnel over 20 yards long was cut through snow so that the farmer had access to the nearest barn. A Grassington butcher turned up at Arncliffe riding a Dales cob. He had thrown sacks of meat across the animal's broad back and somehow managed to find space for himself.

Towards the end of March, the drone of RAF Dakota aircraft with supplies of food for people and bales of hay for livestock brought relief to the remote farms. Some of the bales burst on impact, but none of the loose hay was wasted. Half-starved sheep did the tidying up. When the thaw came to low ground it was rapid, but snow lay on Fountains Fell until June 15.

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I missed the 1947 winter but lots of people have told me about it. I was doing my National Service at a naval air station in northern Scotland, where the worst the Weather Clerk could provide was a hard frost. My parents sent me photos of the Dales, with snowdrifts almost at telegraph pole height.

In another grim winter, I had a mixture of agony and elation when slogging through calf-high snow from near Garsdale station to the summit of Wild Boar Fell. The elation came from what was literally a dazzling view – clear and crisp – of the top end of Mallerstang and the fells around the head of Wensleydale.

Eating sandwiches in the lee of the windbreak on the snow-crusted summit plateau of Ingleborough was followed by a traverse to Park Fell and, on its steep side, slipping and using the rump as a sled. Snow-wise, my biggest surprise came when I was plodding along the Coast to Coast walk with three friends. Reaching the trackbed of the old Rosedale Railway we briefly took up a suggestion of Alfred Wainwright, that we might link up and provide sound effects to simulate a train.

So we puffed and chuffed our way on a gloriously warm and sunny day. The weather took a dramatic downturn as we neared the point where we would leave the track for the Lion Inn. The area was dramatically overswept by a blizzard which reduced visibility to a few yards. The effect was almost like the drawing of a curtain at a theatre.

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We spent a night at the Lion. Next morning, the area was silvered with snow and frost. Glancing from a bedroom window I saw a ring ouzel hunting for food under one of the wooden tables on the lawn. The area – road, tracks and moorland – was spattered by the dead forms of bumble bees.

I picked up snow stories as I toured the Dales, an emissary of The Dalesman. Fred Falshaw, who for a dozen years was a postman in Upper Wharfedale, was a favourite character. He remembered when the postbox at Beckermonds was covered with snow for six weeks. Fortunately, it had just been cleared before the blizzard struck the area.

In snowtime, Fred travelled on horseback. Often he had to leave his horse and go ahead on foot. The usual method of tethering was to plunge a stick into the crisp snow and fasten it to the reins of the horse. The snow was usually so firm the stick held – except once, when the horse wandered away and was captured by a farmer in Deepdale.

Horses have given way to hp, shovels to hydraulic lifting and snow-clearing devices. The weather forecasts are reasonably accurate. Some years ago, I stood with a wise-looking dalesman on a winter day and asked him for his forecast. He looked at the sky. He looked at his feet. He was silent for a minute or two. Then he said: "It could do owt."

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Mary Metcalfe, now 82, was district nurse, midwife and health visitor at Hawes and recalls battling through the winter of 1962-63. She writes: That winter started very similarly to this winter. We had snow before Christmas and on Christmas Day we had a power cut. People were taking turkeys to Cockett's cafe to cook them in their fuel ovens.

We had single line traffic until almost Easter. Doris Abraham was the nurse at Askrigg and she delivered a baby at Thoralby in the third of a row of houses. The next morning all the village was frozen except for the three houses next to where the baby was born. We managed to get everywhere with difficulty. My father, who was a tailor, made me warm trousers to wear under my uniform dress and made me a harness to put on my delivery bag in case I had to walk. A baby due on Stagsfell which had a suspected problem was sent to Northallerton 40 miles away. That was fortunate. On the night of its delivery we had a blizzard. Mother and baby were sent home in a hurry two days later. That was because in the 1947 winter a baby had been delivered at Northallerton and that mother and child could not get home to Redmire for a month.

Later, I had to get to the house of the new-born child. It had not snowed for several days by then but my car would still not climb up to the house and I slid backwards into a snowdrift. The farmer said: "That's what my tractor did."

Sheep were wandering about looking for food. They were walking under Gayle bridge and one farmer discovered some had died in the wash house at the top of his garden but he could not reach it.

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The Hawes creamery was short of milk butts because they were used for water instead and the farmers could not get their milk out. One farmer's wife was proud of not having to make cheese because they drank the milk, fed it to animals and made butter. On the evening of Palm Sunday I delivered a baby at Garsdale where where they were still keeping a milk butt full of water, just in case it froze again. In 1947 there was a snow drift at the back of our house and it was higher than my uncle, who was six feet, three inches. In 1963 the Congregational Chapel at Hawes was frozen and we had to use three paraffin heaters to warm the room for the baby clinic. The babies seemed to thrive in the cold.

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