It doesn’t often happen but when it does it’s dramatic. And fun.
In winter, cold weather comes to the UK from the continental land mass. It’s a cliché but nonetheless has an element of truth, that the Welsh Mountains are the first high ground west of Siberia. Dry, cold air builds over Europe and as it crosses the North Sea picks up moisture which falls as snow over Eastern England. By the time it reaches South East Wales most of the snow has already dropped out and we get a few flakes, rarely amounting to much. The xenophobia embeded in Brexit this year led to this airmass being dubbed by the mindless media ‘The Beast from the East’.
By contrast, weather coming from the West and South West over the Atlantic is wetter, warmer and often more vigorous. With the increased influence of climate change and the more frequent and more extreme ‘weather events’ consequent upon it, the Met Office decided to name the increasingly frequently storms in the same way that hurricanes are named in the USA. The reasoning is that giving names somehow makes it more personal, encouraging us to take storms more seriously. Like hurricanes they are named alphabetically, hence ‘Storm Emma’.
It’s all certainly the stuff of headlines. This was flagged to be the Clash of the Titans, the Beast and Emma.
When occasionally the cold continental airmass pushes west and meets the relatively warm, moist air coming in from the Atlantic the consequence is heavy snowfall where the two collide.
The most notable that I remember in Wales was in 1982 when two days of blizzards brought up to 20 feet of snow and everywhere to a standstill. Cars were buried in our street. At the top of the valley, houses were buried and people had to tunnel out of upstairs windows. Unusually the continental high pressure stood its ground, became a ‘blocking high’. There was no more snowfall as Atlantic air retreated but temperatures over Wales dropped to minus 20 and below for a week afterwards.
This time, after a brief skirmish The Beast retreated, leaving warm, moist Atlantic air in charge. Before it did, a couple of feet of snow had fallen, drifting deeper in the strong winds. Panic-stricken shoppers cleared the supermarket shelves of bread. Householders desperately shovelled snow off their drives and onto pavements, blocking footways and even main roads. Sadly, water mains froze and then burst leaving many homes without water.
It happens so rarely at home that I became excited and went out to play. Not quite the Rockies but it had to be done.
Having washed but not yet put away winter thermal clothing after the trip to the Canadian Rockies, on three days I togged up and went up the mountain. Living at the southern tip of the Brecon Beacons National Park means the ridge-top is normally only half an hour away on foot, another hour back home via the supermarket. This time, in strong wind and drifting snow, it took over four hours each day. But it was spectacular.
The path along the ridge from The Folly Tower to the Shell Grotto (two eighteenth Century follies) is flanked on both sides by fences and hedges. It was blocked by drifted snow, in places over 8 feet deep. At times I had no choice but to leave the path and go into fields on the downwind side. On two days it snowed heavily the whole time I was out, the drifts continually sculpted into ever larger and stranger shapes.
Before I could get anywhere near the mountain, I had to negotiate the drifts outside the house.
At the top of the drive, a small cornice had formed.
Having negotiated a Range Rover (a toy Land Rover for rich people) stuck in a snow drift and blocking the farm track, I had to negotiate a small drift burying a plank bridge over a ditch and small stream.
Part way up the flank of the hill and looking back at the blizzard.
A little further on and disoriented sheep follow each other from nowhere to nowhere.
Reaching the ridge top and the path between hedges connecting the two follies is blocked by drifts, swirled and rippled by the wind. The shallowest part of the drift was half way up my thighs.
Every step now became a struggle but a short distance and venturing into the deep part of the drifts, the Folly Tower comes into view, the gate to the top field almost out of sight under snow.
Struggling up the drift for a better shot
Passing the gate and I sink down into the drift to frame the next shot.
Looking North from the Folly Tower and the field is stripped nearly bare by the strong wind, snow collecting in deep drifts behind the stone wall until it is buried.
Heading back along the ridge path and the problem of negotiating the gate becomes obvious.
Then relief, the drifts become shallower at one side of the path.
…. but not for long. These hedges are over 6 feet high and the path between them is blocked completely.
I force a way through a drift into a field on the west side of the hedge-lined path, the drifts still being sculpted by the horizontal snow in the blizzard.
On the down-wind side, the snow in the field is shallow, the drifts on the left 8 feet high, in places completely burying the hedge.
… topped by weird sculptured shapes.
Back on the path, drifts form canopies
…. and cave-like structures.
Then the path is completely blocked again. This time there is no choice, it’s the beginning of a ‘sunken-way’, a 5-foot earth bank with 5-foot hedge on top – all buried.
I take to the field again by climbing up the snow-filled hedge and dropping down the other side., When I eventually slide down the bank and look back up the path, the footprints are in 4 feet of snow.
Wonderful! Shame that this time the thaw set in on day four as the Beast from the East retreated back into the continent.