Advice is like snow
– the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and
the deeper in sinks into the mind.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Travelling into the UK last week was one of those experiences that makes you wonder the reason you made the decision you made. A friend (E) kindly took me to Funchal airport with a suitcase that was so full that yes it was overweight (thankfully easyJet allows for us sub-tropical travellers selecting to travel into the northern winter hemisphere). As we arrived in the departures lounge we found that the flight to London Stansted was delayed … so when I check-in I enquired as to the length of the delay – ‘approximately 45 minutes’ was the response. OK, so the flight must have taken off from London Stansted and was on its way! E and I sat down at the airport coffee shop and had breakfast, chatted away about a new business opportunity and kept an eye on the departures board. Eventually the statement changed and although they indicated that the flight was still accepting passengers checking-in, they were also asking for the passengers to go through passport control. So off I went to go through security, passport control and to the departure gate.

I always find that my fellow passengers will give me something to think about, and this flight was no different. No plane on the ground, but the passengers were queuing to board – I wondered if this was just a trait with the easyJet flights because of their ‘no seat allocation’ policy. I found a seat and waited for the flight to land. One of the advantages of travelling easyJet from the island is that they do turn the planes around quickly, so once the plane came in, the passengers had disembarked, boarding was quick and simple. Unusually I selected to board through the back door and sat in the last row. I learnt something from this. Generally we all try and sit at the front of the plane so that we can disembark quickly and move through the arrival airport quickly, but why? From the island of Madeira the flight to the UK is a minimum 3 hours and to London Stansted specifically it’s normally 3½ hours. So I sat in the aisle of the back row with the middle seat vacant giving me space to move around. The stewardess welcomed us on board as she checked our boarding passes with ‘it’s still snowing in Stansted’. After stowing my hand-luggage and winter jacket, I sat down and wondered the sense of going to the South East of the UK now. Yes I had specifically selected this day to travel as I was due to attend my best friend’s (L) graduation (more on this in a future article) the next day. The reason for the delay was announced – it had taken 40 minutes to de-ice the plane in London Stansted!

We took off and the young lady (N) sitting in the window seat and I started talking. N was from the island but now living in London – she had been back for a week, visiting her family. We discussed the sense of travelling to the UK as snow arrives in the South East … after all the day before we had both been wearing summer clothes during the day with a light jumper for early mornings and evenings. The passengers around us were also wondering the reason that they had ended their stay on the island at this time.

Arriving in London Stansted made me realise just how cold winter could be. I had been living in the UK during the 2009/2010 winter and truly this was no colder, but having moved to the island of Madeira (lock, stock and barrel as the saying goes) I hadn’t consciously remembered how cold the winter winds could be. L’s husband, S, was due to collect me and I did wonder if, when I switched on my UK mobile, there would be a message saying ‘sorry, get the train to Kent’ … but no, he was there. It had taken him 2 hours to get from the Ashford-area to the airport and we though with the snow it might just take 2½ hours to get back. Based on the M25 traffic we selected to go through London. We eventually joined the M25 for 1 junction (from the A2 to the M20) – or so we though! We then started to see signs that said ‘M25/M20 junction closed’! Now what? As we debated our opinions with S concentrating on driving on snowy/icy roads with snow still falling, we found that not only had cars got stuck in the middle or slow lane, but also juggernauts! This made the drive back a lot more precarious as the juggernauts on the slow lane were having to move out quickly and sometimes with no warning – yes, we saw one very close miss …! In our debating we agreed that we would drive down to the A21 and that would be as far East as we would go. We had no idea what the non-motorway roads were like in Kent as by this time in the evening there are no traffic reports on the radio and L was battling to find out specific information for us on the internet. We agreed that the route we would aim for would be the A21 and then the A25 back to the M20. We began to wonder if the reason that the M20 was closed was Wrotham Hill – maybe it was just too slippery to drive down? We eventually arrived at the A25 and to our delight we found that we were following a small queue of traffic behind a gritting lorry! The first one we had seen in about 6 hours of driving …! This short stretch of road seemed to take forever, the lead car was driving very slowly with a lot of care and occasionally a car in front of us would not be able to climb the hills, so S had to gingerly move out into the opposite lane (thankfully nothing coming when we had to do this) as he didn’t want to stop at all. We arrived at a junction with two options – did we go right (down a small slope) to a local petrol station for a comfort break and coffee and a sandwich, or did we turn left up a short incline to join the M26 and the M20? We quickly agreed that we would still ‘head for home’, so turned left and joined the M26. There was very little traffic on the motorway at this time of night, the road was reasonably clear of snow and ice, which allowed S to increase his speed to around 25mph. The motorway signs were showing ‘40’ and we agreed that driving at 40mph on these roads would have been suicidal. Within a few miles we were seeing signs that indicated ‘60’ was a safe driving speed and while we were still doing about 30mph safely we had a number of pick-ups, vans, 4x4x passing us following the guidance of the motorway signs and not thinking about the actual state of the roads – as it was still snowing, we had snow settling on ice!

Eventually 7¼ hours later we arrived at our destination – S & L’s home in Ashford!

We didn’t talk about it, but it’s still so surprising that the South East of the UK is unable to cope when the weather freezes and the snow arrives! It does make you wonder what the bureaucracy think when they are planning for the next winter. 2009/2010 saw the South East at a stand-still many times due to snow and ice, and here we were in November, at the start of the 2010/2011 winter, back at a stand-still! How many people were stuck in the snow? How many cars have got stuck? As I write this for our publishing deadlines, how many cars are still waiting to get cleared?

‘The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them:
there ought to be as many for love.’
Margaret Atwood

Wednesday morning dawned and yes it was still snowing. The debate was ‘how safe is it to get into London for L’s graduation?’ TV was switched on and this wonderful statement ‘the police advise you not to travel unless you have to’. What does ‘have to’ mean? L phoned to the University of London Metropol and asked for advice. The response was that if she didn’t attend they would add her to the ‘reserve list’ but that the guest tickets that she had bought would need to be re-purchased if her guests could attend on the day that she would then graduate. She questioned this and was told that the only way she could get a refund for the guest tickets that she had bought would be to attend today and sell them back. Our debate continued. S phoned the local train station and the recorded message said that the national railways were not running but the new fast link into London was running. We agreed to try and get there.

We left early and with care got the car out and drove to the station. On our arrival at the station we had it confirmed that the fast speed line was fully operational but that the national line wasn’t running. We bought our tickets and boarded the train. I think that the question ‘what snow?’ when we arrived in London would have been an appropriate question. There were a number of empty seats as the graduation ceremony, but it did highlight how few people were attending from outside London. In one of the speeches, it was stated that the London Met (as it’s affectionately known) has the highest number of non-English students – this was born out by the roll call of names – a very small percentage were British (English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish). Rather than celebrating in London as had been originally planned, we returned to Ashford and celebrated at home.

‘The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event.
You go to bed in one kind of world and wake up in another quite different, and
if this not enchantment then where is it to be found?

J B Priestley.

The next morning I woke to snow still falling – the depth of it now about 12-14cms! Without having to go anywhere and being able to work from anywhere I truly appreciated this comment from J B Priestley; but in meditation I let my mind ask the question ‘what does ‘have to’ mean’? The advice from the police is ‘not to travel unless you have to’, but the pressures from others – work, colleagues, friends, family, in our case the graduation ceremony organisers – means that like our party, thousands of people get into their cars and try and get to a destination. Thankfully most arrive safely at their destination, but I do wonder whether those that put the pressure on the others to travel against the advice of the police, reflect on what happens if something goes wrong.

The snow itself is lonely, or if you prefer, self-sufficient.
There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of one thing and one thing only.
Joseph Wood Krutch

© 2010 Barbara J. Cormack
First published under Cormack’s Capers in Magna Intuitum