An excellent article on the BBC web site http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20785406 refers to the fact that its fifty years this month to the start of the coldest winter, the most snow, and the winter that old people always talk about as if nothing has ever happened since, the winter of 1962, December 62 into March 63.
“Oooh” all those old people will say when it snows these days and schools get instantly closed, “this isn’t snow, this is a mere flurry” they state as they try and find their car on the driveway under a big pile of snow before realising that they left their car in their garage last night and the big pile of snow is what has been thrown over the fence from next door, “Oooh” they’ll say, “in 63 it snowed so hard that 120 species of mammal in this country became extinct, and dinosaurs”.
When I first ventured up to the north east the winter of 77/78 was quite cold and snow lay on the ground until March on the A1 at Bowburn, but we had a gang of electricians who lived in a village in Weardale, a remote land of high moors up on the Pennines and they had all been schoolkids in 62/63, Les Tennick told me this story in all seriousness …
“In 1963 it snowed, and it snowed and it kept on snowing until you couldn’t recognise anything at all in the village, it was so deep that we dug tunnels from our front doors to the shops, you could run to the co-op inside a snow tunnel all the way, all the kids had snow tunnels leading from their house to the co-op so they could run errands and we joined them all up down the road, and, the church had a snow drift so deep that we kids would run up it and ring the bell in the steeple”
Yes thats right, the village they lived in once had a snow drift so high that it went right to the top of the church bell tower. I didn’t believe a word he said but all the other electricians sat around inside the site cabin nodding in agreement, “Aye” they all said, “rang the choorch bell we did man, aye, gor us arses tanned for it an all, aye”
Living in the city rather than the suburbs in those days I can’t say that I have memories as a six year old of digging snow tunnels or ringing church bells from snow drifts but 62/63 was the time that this here suburb that I live in now was being developed, particularly the council estate known as Ireland Wood, which as you may surmise, was a wood, a wood of silver birch as was all of this area.
The work to build the estates in the suburbs entailed chopping down most of those trees, well all except those trees necessary for the pilots to navigate into Leeds/Bradford Airport with anyway…
I shall digress to tell you that bit…
Our mother was barmy, it wasn’t her fault for she was born that way, in fact her mother was barmy too in a quaint Irish way, she wasn’t really Irish but she thought she was because somewhere further down the line someone was Irish, but she was barmy and she passed it on to our mother. Part of being barmy is gullibility and boy was our mother gullible, a fact that me and our Ned noticed from a very early age, in fact one of the very first things that I can recall from my childhood is the two year old me leaning over our newborn Neds cot and whispering to him, “Hey Ned, our mother is barmy you know”, so he knew from birth.
Lots of houses around here have some remnants of the birch wood in their gardens and in the 196os when we moved here the folklore was that there was a tree preservation order on all of the birch trees in the district as they were what was left of an ancient woodland owned by the monks of Kirkstall Abbey, not that it stopped the council knocking 90% of them down to sell the land to developers and then slapping preservation notices on what was left, but still.
So our suburb sits on top of one hill and on top of the hill opposite sits Leeds Bradford Airport, highest altitude airport in England (nearly), prone to bad weather and high winds, and sitting in the valley between is a couple of miles width of fields and what remains of the monks birch wood.
Our mother swore until the day of her demise that the birch trees in that valley had preservation orders slapped on them because the pilots landing at the airport used them to line up their aircraft onto the runway when landing.
Someone told her that once, “They say…” is how she started most of her barmy statements, she never explained who “they” were but apparently “they” had an answer to every question in the universe, ever, and the answer to the question “Why are so many trees around here protected in law” was “Because pilots need them to line up with the runway when landing”, they said that, so it must have been true.
“But mum” we’d say, me and Ned even when very small, even pre-school me and Ned would say, “What about when they land in the dark and can’t see the trees ?” and our mother would slap the backs of our heads and tell us to run along and play and not ask such stupid questions, mainly because “they” had not told her the answer to that one yet.
And we’d sit in the garden and laugh and laugh about what would happen if you went down into one of the gardens at the bottom of the hill that were directly under the approach path and took an axe to some of their trees, would the next Boeing 737 to arrive back from Palma end up in Yeadon Tarn by mistake, or would it just circle around and around all day until it ran out of fuel with the two pilots hanging out of the windows on either side of the cockpit yelling to each other, “Its a big silver birch, theres a clump of three of them, and then one on its own, and then some gorse bushes” with the other yelling back “those gorse bushes ?”, “No, no, no, the clump of silver birches, we’ve not passed the clump of silver birches yet you bloody idiot”.
That not true by the way, the bit about landing planes at Leeds Bradford Airport, don’t be put off using the airport if you think the silver birch trees are part of the landing routine, they’ve got pet monkeys out on the runway swinging paraffin lanterns to guide them down now, and everything.
So where were we, ah yes, the winter of 62/63,
What I remember of the winter of 62/63 was the sledges that our dad brought home for me and our Ned that winter, all our other mates got their dads to build one for them in the garage, yes folks this was back in the day when you couldn’t pop up to Asda every time a thin flurry of snow falls to find a big pile of red plastic trays like sledges on the forecourt, we had to make our own bloody sledges in those days, out of real wood, us dads not having access to a plastic extrusion machine thing.
So most kids dads made one of wood and nails in their garages but our dad scrounged two sledges from somewhere, I haven’t a clue where from, but our dad could get you anything and so it came as no surprise when the answer to our request Dad can we have a sledge each” came back as “I’ll get you one when I go to the club tonight” for inside his working mens club he could get you anything, I was dressed entirely from clothes that he procured for me in the club for the whole of my childhood.
So he came home with two sledges for us one night, sledges that he’d got “from the club”, a black market in kids sledges, who would have thought it, and mine was a low slung affair, built for speed with rusty metal runners on the wooden base, painted black with a silver stripe down the slide with the hastily hand painted name “Silver Arrow” daubed down the edge, so impressed was I with dear Silver Arrow that I took to the garage for half an hour and came out wearing my wellingtons, each of which also had a silver stripe around them, our dad hadn’t hidden that tin of Hammerite paint very well, he wasn’t impressed with my sartorial elegance.
Our sledges came at a cost though for at the weekend we were promised by him that we were going to go somewhere where the sledging was the best sledging in Leeds, somewhere in the woods where there was a big hill and lots of snow and we’d spend all day there sledging our young lives away, and we were young enough to believe that our dad was doing all of this out of the goodness of his heart and didn’t have an ulterior motive at all, that naiveness didn’t last for long I have to add, by seven years of age I knew my father to always require a monetary reason for doing anything.
And so he took us to Ireland Wood, that area of the city that was not yet built upon but would be ever so shortly when the snows of 1962/63 were gone, but for now were half demolished woodland with lots of silver birch trees lay dead on ground, and there is us living in a freezing cold house in the depths of the coldest winter since ever with only an open coal fire and no money to buy coal, you’ve already guessed whats coming next haven’t you ?
He dove his Austin A40 through snow drifts higher than the car and when it finally got stuck for good we all jumped out and dragged our two sledges to the top of the nearest hill upon which were lots of dead trees laying around, doing nothing at all, such a shame to waste them…
“Such a shame to waste these dead trees isn’t it lads ?” our dad asked of the six year old me and the four year old Ned, each clutching the string to our own sledge and eager to get off sledging back down that big hill we’d just spent ten minutes trudging up, “Now” he said to me, “Take a hold of this here bow saw” and he produced a big lumberjacks two-handed bow saw from under his coat, another possession garnered from the club, “and when I push it towards you, then push it back to me” and in ding so I learned how to work a saw because I was six and our Ned was only four and not big enough to push a saw through a tree – and guess which one of us grew up to become a qualified apprentice trained joiner – yes, Ned, I still can’t saw along a line for more than two inches without it going wonky.
All day long we stayed up on that hill sawing wood and then every hour or so when we had a big pile of logs our dad would stack them on the sledges and tell me and Ned to drag them back down the hill and pile up the logs next to the car and then run back up here while he sat down and had a cigarette – it was quite what we’d had in mind when he said he was taking us sledging.
Not to mention the fact that they weren’t our trees and we didn’t have permission to saw them up, take them home and burn them but then again our dad never really bothered with things like wondering who owned these trees, he once took me to a demolition site in Kirkstall because he needed some bricks as hardcore for our driveway that he was concreting over and while the seven year old me was handing him broken bricks off the demolition site a police car stopped, the police officer walked over to us and asked our dad what the hell he thought he was doing stealing bricks, our dad told him not to be so bloody stupid, these were broken bricks and no-one wanted them and anyway didn’t he have any burglars to go and catch, and the policeman stood for a minute not knowing what to say next, turned and got back in his car and drove off.
The 1960s, seriously folks, if you weren’t there you missed out on a great childhood.