You may have heard that it’s been snowing a lot in the United Kingdom. It was snowing throughout December, but last week’s storm was particularly intense, especially in the way it hit Southern England (where London is) and causing havoc at the major airports and garnering a lot of news. I flew from California back to Oxford last Tuesday, just in time for a dry landing — the storm started that Tuesday night and didn’t let up until the weekend. People were first saying it was the worst storm trend in 20 years, then some said 25, and last I heard was 30, but I haven’t been listening to the news this weekend, so who knows. What’s clear is that the snow has taken quite a few by surprise.
This not only includes my little water fowl neighbors, but the local humans as well. The streets and sidewalks (a.k.a. pavements) have been slow to be cleared, at least in comparison with the speed of snow removal elsewhere in the world (e.g., the snowier parts of the U.S.). Saturday morning on the BBC, some guy summed up a sentiment I’ve heard a lot lately: “The problem is that England doesn’t take cold weather seriously. We’re not used to it.” Another Brit I met recently said (jokingly?), “shoveling snow is the Council’s job!” And if that’s the case, then the councils have been clearly overwhelmed.
I’ve also heard a rumor that no one wants to shovel their own driveway, because if someone slips, falls, and hurts themselves on a shoveled driveway, the person who shoveled is liable for this injuries (which really makes no sense to me, but who am I to say?).
Diligent snow removal was only really evident after the snow had already become a major problem. It’s as if the city governments all forgot where they put the snow plows in the late ’70s and have been riffling around town for the last few couple days trying to remember what they did with the things. I can’t generalize too much for the all of England, but the story was the same in both Oxford and in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (which is much further north and, one might think, a bit more used to snow, though I hear this isn’t necessarily the case). The news is even reporting national salt shortages. As someone who grew up with cinder ash (not salt) spread out on the snowy Flagstaff, Arizona streets, I find this all pretty amusing (if not also a little annoying).
Luckily, the snow is absolutely gorgeous when paired with old English architecture. The bitter cold is much easier to take when accompanied by a soft, fluffy duvet of white as well as the ubiquitous whimsy of snowmen.
Oxford provides some particularly scenic shots, many at a grand scale — but I also liked subtly pretty moments like this one, taken just outside my new office:
But the major downside is what it’s done to the country’s transportation system. This past weekend I attended a great new conference on the interdisciplinary topic of “Borders and Identities.” The conference (which definitely deserves its own separate discussion outside of or beyond this one) was organized by sociolinguists at the Uniersity of York who are working on dialect variation along the Scottish-English border. It was a huge success (imho), despite some major transportation problems, which most notably kept two of the three keynote speakers from actually being able to attend the conference. Coming from Oxford, my transportation experience made me appreciate the fact that when the transportation shut down for one mode of transport (car, rail, plane), it shut down across all the other ones, too. So when my taxi to the train station canceled, and when the replacement taxi was 30 minutes late, it was all okay, because my train was also 30 minutes late! As long as the whole country was inefficient, inefficiency was fine by me.
My direct train from Oxford to Newcastle-upon-Tyne was about 4.75 hours long and had some beautiful views of the snow-sprinkled countryside. It was also great to see a British city that I’d never been to before, especially a place with such a distinctive regional dialect. Although most of the conference attendees were also linguists, a good number of other scholars attended who were from other disciplines (architecture, film studies, cultural theory) and who were looking at identity in various border regions from across the world. After two days of talks, we spent the third day on an excursion around the Eastern Scottish/English borderlands, going to Berwick-upon-Tweed, very very very briefly to Eyemouth , (to officially claim crossing all the way over the official border to Scotland), and lastly, briefly, to Alnwick (bragging rights for Harry Potter fans — the Alnwick Castle was the movie version of Hogwarts).
We stopped just when the sun was going down to take some shots of the current official border. England’s on the left, Scotland on the right, and you can kind of see three Scottish flags are struggling in the wind to the rightmost side of the shot.
Someone on our excursion group noted how the Scottish side looks like it has more snow. Because, you know, it just snows more in Scotland. 😉 So, presumably, councils in Scotland are better at finding their shovels and plows when the need arises. But the conference is over, and I’ll have to wait for another day to find out…. Now it’s back down south and quickly on to the next chapter in my post-doc: learning to teach an Oxford tutorial!
P.S. Click here for more photos of snow, etc.: my continuously-updated album of Oxford (scroll right after clicking this link), as well as a few more from Newcastle & Berwick (my camera battery was, sadly, dying, so there aren’t too many.)