Getting there

Getting there

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Snow above the Thames

When Noel Coward wrote the song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in 1932 he explained that "Mad dogs and englishmen go out in the noonday sun". I can't comment on that, but I know when Englishmen don't particularly like to go out, at least those who reside in London. That time, my friends, is when it snows.

We arrived at Heathrow on December 17th, 2010. For those who followed the weather news from Europe this past Christmas that was just before Heathrow closed the runways due to snow. Now, on the plane over we had read the London papers predicting a snowy blast for Britain. We chuckled a bit at headlines of "Big Freeze Hits London" as the temperatures of -3C seemed downright balmy compared to the -30C we were leaving behind. It was just gentle chucking, though - obviously they weren't ready for this.

We arrived at Heathrow and it was cool, but not cold. As we were driven to our hotel in the car we had hired it began to snow, soft and fluffy and beautiful. It was the kind of snow that seems magical no matter where it falls, and the kind children in Canada love. Our driver, who had formerly driven race cars, was unafraid but expressed that this snow did not bode well for traffic in London.

Much of our first day in London was lost to jet lag and general travel weariness. We did go for a small explore on The Strand, but soon tumbled into bed. The next morning we awoke and watched while London became a winter wonderland. Our window had a spectacular view of the Thames, but the view was soon obscured by the snow. The snow fell thick and heavy, the kind of damp snow that instills fear in those who rely on shovels to clear their driveways. It was delightful for us, and astonishing  for the locals who just shook their heads. We of course put on our coats and boots and headed outside - being Canadians who have spent most of their lives on the prairies snow was hardly a deterrent. At the concierge desk at the hotel they tried to hand us umbrellas, and we laughed. We explained how useless an umbrella is in thick heavy snow, and that besides if we used umbrellas in the snow we could never show our faces in Canada again. So, out we headed into a city that is most decidedly not prepared for such snow.

Now, I must say that for the most part they coped quite well. The icy, snowy streets obviously struck terror into the drivers, except for the black cabs that zoomed around as normal. Pedestrians still ignored walk lights and crossed wherever they pleased. The snow did, however, throw their travel system into chaos, with flights cancelled and trains not operating. This ruined the holidays for so many people from Britain, and many people spent their holiday time sleeping in airport terminals. As Canadians this surprised us. Inclement weather can affect air travel here, too, but an inch of snow isn't usually cause for such chaos. Heathrow just seemed shockingly unprepared.

Every time we told someone in London that we were from Canada the response was always the same : "You must be laughing at how we are dealing with this weather". What a silly thing to say to Canadians - we are far too polite to say "yes, we are, in fact, laughing at you" even if we are. So we would assure them that we were not laughing and commiserated with their state of shock over the snow, while behind closed doors we read articles about the "Big Freeze" and continued to chuckle. We laughed quietly at those who struggled with umbrellas collapsing under the weight of the snow. We giggled at those who were out shovelling sidewalks in front of the stores but who seemed perplexed by how to use the shovel and where to put the snow. We were bemused by those who spread salt so thickly that the sidewalk was not treacherous with ice but rather with an inch-thick layer of salt crystals.

It was amusing to be in Covent Gardens in the snow, where snowball fights began to break out - not between children, but rather between 40-year old men in business suits and slippery soled shoes. Snowmen began to appear everywhere - again not from the hands of children but from adults who seemed to be enjoying a second shot at childhood delights.

That evening we went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. The Wonderland is truly a wonder of carnival rides, marketplace vendors, and food and drink outlets. We enjoyed mulled wine and hot egg nog (learning quickly that egg nog should never be hot). We tried roasted chestnuts and discovered they must be an acquired taste, and one that we were unlikely to acquire. We wandered in the snow and watched the Londoners delight in the snow. The snow that earlier in the day had made the locals all a bit nervous was now being avidly embraced and enjoyed.

The snow didn't last long, I'm afraid. Very quickly the snow in London disappeared, although it remained cold and they continued to lament "The Big Freeze". For these Canadian visitors, though, that initial snow made us feel so welcome in London. It was like a bit of home for those who were from so far away. For the residents of  London I think the snow was a bit of a shock, but as the English always seem to do they simply "kept calm and carried on". They overcame their initial dismay and persisted in their routine until the snow disappeared and normalcy was regained.  Perhaps those in charge of Heathrow could use a refresher in that philosophy. I rather think the English expect it from them.

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