Bread of Heaven

In which The Author resists the urge to panic buy

Here in South Wales, we’re in the middle of a Yellow Snow Alert.
That’s nothing to do with Frank Zappa and his famous warning to ‘Watch out where the huskies go’, by the way. It means that the UK Meteorological Office have warned us to prepare for the white stuff. In this part of the world, that’s tantamount to the outbreak of war.
We get a decent fall of snow about every five years or so. When I say ‘decent’, I mean that it’s enough to bring the area to a virtual standstill: schools across the Valleys close; public transport is disrupted; people abandon their cars and walk home; if we’re lucky, we get an unexpected day (or three) off work, as there’s no way of getting there.
I’m not a huge fan of snow. I haven’t been keen on it since I fell in January 2011, injured my back, and set in train the course of events which led to Everything Changes.
That was just a sprinkling compared to the previous winter, mind you. I was in my local pub on the afternoon of ‘Black Friday’ (when all the local factories finish for Xmas). By the time it got dark we’d had over a foot of level snow.
I remember that day well, because I was chatting to Jamila on Facebook at the time. She’d been caught out by the change in the weather, and was trapped in Treforest by the shutdown on the trains and buses. It must have come as a bit of a shock to a young girl from Nigeria to see half the country at a standstill in a total white-out.
I uploaded a few photos I’d taken in Aberdare Park earlier that day, and told her that it was the perfect chance to appreciate the fine scenery around here. The only trouble was that I’d have needed a helicopter to take her on tour.
The snow persisted into the new year, and we had further falls throughout January and February, albeit on a smaller scale. Some lectures were cancelled, and parts of the University of Glamorgan stayed closed because it wasn’t safe to walk around the rather hilly campus. I remember a Criminalistics practical at the Crime Scene House, where we had to pretend to use duckboards to preserve the snowy footprints all around the exterior. That would have been about the same time.
We had a really decent snowfall early in 2009, too. When the roads were clear, Mother and I drove across the southern stretch of the Brecon Beacons, and I took a few photos. It was surprisingly quiet on the roads, and we found a pair of great snow figures in the conifer plantation, just south of the Storey Arms. This was what I had in mind when I told Jamila she was missing out on a real treat. It’s difficult to believe that these were taken on the main trunk route between North and South Wales – just look how little traffic there is.

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That was a fun Snow Day, as was Black Friday the following year (unless you were a Nigerian student living in Treforest, of course!)
I remember another superb Snow Day in the early 1990s. I was working in Dillons in Cardiff. At about 2.30 Mother phoned the shop and warned me to head home before the public transport stopped running. Jeff’s parents phoned, too (he lives at the other side of Caerphilly); Nick’s wife rang shortly afterwards (they live in Blaenavon) – it seemed that the Valleys were being hit hard.
Needless to say, there was nothing in Cardiff. Not a single flake. Keith and Laurie thought we were making a fuss over nothing, but then the BBC warned people to start making their way home. It was time to abandon shop.
I caught the 3.30 bus to Aberdare, as did Stuart J. and Jimi F. Stu had left work early (ironically, he was an observer at Cardiff Weather Centre at the time); Jimi had decided to spend the day in town. A few of the other regulars had quit early as well, so the bus was fairly full.
On our way through the city suburbs, we started to wonder where the snow was. We soon found out. If you’ve ever listened to the weather forecast, you’ll know that sometimes they talk of weather ‘south of the M4’ and so forth. We never realized the dividing line was so exact and clear-cut until that afternoon.
As we emerged from the Coryton Interchange (that’s Junction 32, for the benefit of you non-locals), the snow started. And I mean, it really started. By the time we reached Hawthorn, we were wondering whether we’d get as far as Pontypridd. We figured that, even if the bus terminated there, we could get a train the rest of the way.
Luckily for us, the driver decided to risk the rest of the journey. Until we got to Penrhiwceiber, that is. At this point, we came up against a car which was determined to force its way southwards. It’s hard enough to squeeze two small cars along that stretch on a good day, considering that the main road is permanently double-parked. When one of the contending vehicles is a 20-odd seater bus, it just ain’t gonna happen!
We were stuck there for ages, until the car driver finally backed down and let us nose gently past. All the while, a very agitated bloke in his forties kept standing up and pacing the (short) length of the bus, muttering and swearing under his breath. The boys and I thought he was exhibiting all the signs of cabin fever, and wondered how long it would take before he finally cracked up. We eventually arrived in Aberdare at about seven, and headed straight to the Cambrian for a couple of pints and to thaw out by the gas fire.
I’ve already told you about the adventure which I had with Shanara the Dippy Bint and her sister Naj, when we got caught out by the weather on the way home from Cardiff (see Autumn Woes.) Occasions like that make a Snow Day fun for all concerned (with the benefit of hindsight, anyway!)
On the whole, though, I tend to view snow with suspicion bordering on dread. Apart from my back injury, I’ve got another reason for disliking it: funerals.
It snowed at Uncle Tony’s funeral in Cardiff. In fact, we were wondering whether we’d be able to get home at one point. I rang the local bus company, and was advised that services were still running normally. That was a good sign, as the buses usually come off the road before the first snowflakes have even hit the tarmac. We still nearly didn’t make it home, mind you – Uncle Stan had left the car headlights on when we parked up outside the Cross Inn in Gabalfa, and it took four of us to bump-start it again.
It snowed the day of Dad’s funeral. All the family who’d come up from Cardiff had to disappear at short notice while the roads were still passable. My cousin Katie and my friend Ian L. also disappeared during the evening. They turned up again the following lunchtime in rather bizarre circumstances. (I’ll spare their blushes by not relating them here.)
It snowed the day of Peter’s funeral; it snowed just after Denis’s funeral. It looked as though it was going to snow at Jon W.’s funeral. I found out yesterday that it’s my friend Graham Bevan’s funeral tomorrow. I won’t be able to make it, as it’s at Llwydcoed Crematorium, which is impossible to get to by public transport. It looks as though it’ll be another snow day. Ho hum.
The biggest and most disruptive fall I can remember, though, was over Xmas and New Year of 1981-82. That one affected the whole country, and not just the famous ‘high ground’ which the Met Office always speaks of. Aberdare is approximately 150m (about 500 ft) above sea level; the surrounding villages are higher up again. It’s nothing compared to the mountains of North Wales, or the Scottish Highlands, or even the Pennines, but as you can see from the photos, once you’re out of the Valleys all bets are off. (As I’m typing this, I notice that the snow has started again. I think that means another pint might be called for.)
1981-82 was the landmark by which recent snowfalls are measured, at least amongst people my age and a bit younger. Older people still talk in hushed tones of 1963, when Arctic conditions hit the UK for several weeks. Dad always recalled the legendary winter of 1947, when he and some friends were snowed in The Picketty Witch near Yeovil for a few days.
(I mentioned that occasion in the Jokecentre last week, when I was signing on. My advisor said. ‘I bet they were upset.’
I replied, ‘Yeah – heartbroken!’)
I somehow can’t see this current fall matching 1947, when the country literally ground to a standstill. The historian David Kynaston paints a vivid picture of that winter in his book Austerity Britain. I really can’t imagine what it must have been like. It won’t come up to 1963 standards either; it’ll probably be way short of 1981. I can’t even see it matching 2009-10. If we’re lucky, I’ll be able to take some decent photos to show Jamila what she’s missing (again!)
In 1981-82, I remember the presenters of Blue Peter demonstrating how to make soda bread. That’s a particular Irish speciality which doesn’t need yeast, and it’s rather tasty, as I remember. We made several batches, because there was no way to get the car out from its usual spot. Luckily, after a few days the main roads had been cleared, so the local shops in Trecynon had essentials like milk. We were lucky, because the Co-op Creamery was literally at the bottom of Llwydcoed hill. Even if the supermarkets were running short of essentials, we could always get fresh milk.
Bread, however, was another matter. Even though we had the Jubilee Bakery in Trecynon, they weren’t able to get their raw materials. No matter: Les Loyns’ shop, only a couple of doors down from the bakery, had plenty of flour and baking soda. We had milk in the fridge. I had my first taste of a recipe my grandparents would have known by heart, and it was pretty great. It was hopeless for making toast with, but at least we didn’t go hungry.
Speaking of toast: my cunning plan to keep a spare loaf in the freezer failed this morning. I was disappointed upon not finding my emergency supply, so I’ve come out without breakfast today. I called into Lidl on the way to town and picked up a loaf from their surprisingly well-stocked shelves. At the checkout I teased my mate Steve, telling him that I was wondering whether to buy six loaves, just in case.
I mentioned the anticipated panic buying of bread and milk on Facebook earlier. My pal Jason B. in Scotland commented that only the Welsh seem to stockpile bread in the event of snow. I resisted the urge to reply that the Scots subsist on oats anyway (pace Dr Johnson), but he set me wondering: is it really just a Welsh characteristic? Or do people in other, less temperate zones, also stuff their freezers with bread within thirty seconds of an Amber weather warning? I’m sure you’ll let me know…
Meanwhile, I’m sure my friends Nancy F. in Coburg, Ontario, and Stella Z. in New York City, will piss themselves laughing at all this talk of snow in the UK. As they constantly remind us, they can have several metres of snow and carry on as normal. The mayor of New York came in for some harsh criticism this week, after he shut down the Metro system in the teeth of a ‘blizzard’ which failed to materialize. What must they they think of us here in the Old Country, where three flakes of snow are all it takes to denude the supermarket shelves and drive the buses off the road?
My old friend Ian W. commented on my status too. He reminded us that it’s fine to load up with bread and milk, but true panic only sets in when you’ve used the last of the toilet paper. Maybe he’s solved the mystery for us: after all, if you eat enough bread and drink enough water, the last thing you’ll need is toilet paper…
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