The idea of the white Christmas is so charming, if only we could arrange for the snow to start late on Christmas eve once everyone’s got home, lie there through the big day while we open our presents before thawing on Christmas evening. Then Boxing Day would be clear for the exodus when it seems like one half of the population visit the other half for lunch or dinner. Which we did this year, driving from London to Cheadle in Staffordshire. If you’re not a child then at any other time of the year snow is just a nuisance, an unpredictable hazard to safe progress on our roads.
We were very nearly caught out by the Boxing Day snow that swept down into the Midlands. We’d driven up from London for dinner with my sister and our dad. As we ate the snow started to fall and we pulled back the curtains to get a better look. “Is it sticking?” “Oh Yes!” “Look at the dog…” The big black Labrador strolled in sporting an icy white saddle and coat, she paused by the dining table to it shake off, a momentary blizzard showering those nearby with snots of slushy snow.
We moved to the lounge for cups of tea and watched meaty flakes falling from the empty black sky through the light shed by the streetlamp to settle in an ever-thickening blanket on the road and the cars.
So we’re staying in a hotel a few miles away. A bit of a drive but not a worry, after all we’d seen the gritting lorries out on the motorway. No doubt once they’d finished the M6 they’d head straight to Tennyson Avenue in Cheadle. Wouldn’t they?
The four of us got into our coats and walked through the virgin white to our little car. I brushed off about 8cms of snow from the windows and got in. I’d driven in snow lots of times and had learned the hard way that once you’re sliding you have little choice about where you go and when you stop. It’s called being ‘out of control’. Caution and anticipation come much easier now I’m a grown up.
We weren’t the first vehicle to drive down Tennyson Avenue. I followed the existing tyre tracks and took the busiest route out of the town in the hope that traffic would have kept it clear. We still had to ascend a long, winding and occasionally steep hill so I picked up as much speed as I dared. Driving is usually such a mindless, automatic activity but now we were on a snow covered road I’d no idea how fast we could safely corner or if we stopped on the uphill whether we’d have enough traction to get moving again. It was all going very well until we rounded a corner and discovered a line of stationary cars. At their head one was doing a 3-point turn so we were forced to stop. Here then was the answer to one of those questions; no we didn’t have enough traction on the snow to get moving. I tried several times to coax the car to get a grip but either the wheels spun or the engine stalled. We weren’t alone; apart from a 4-wheel drive no one else could get moving either. Is it possible to drive in a smug manner? On a snowy hill in a 4-wheel drive it must be hard not too.
“So family, what’s it to be? Back down the hill to your auntie’s and sleep on the floor, or you all get out and push.” They got out and lined up behind the car. Once again I lifted the clutch with the engine barely more than ticking over and yes…. it stalled again. More wellie then, lift the clutch pedal and yes…. the wheels are spinning again. It started to look like we’d have to go back down the hill and spend a night on the floor, but then like the Angel of Mons a man stepped out of the dark and into the road to assist in our moment of need. With the extra shove we were away. Or rather I was away and with a family dilemma. Stop to retrieve my nearest and dearest and probably get stuck again, or carry on up the hill? I decided to carry on until reached a section where the hill almost levelled out and then stopped. To my surprise there were no repercussions when they piled back in to the car, it was all taking on the character of an ‘adventure’.
Beginning with a little rocking to and fro we got the car to creep forward and to the summit. Once more we found a car blocking the road, this time it was the smug 4×4. They’d taken it upon themselves to stop the traffic coming in the other direction from proceeding down the hill and crashing into the cars doing u-turns. Very public spirited, but I looked at the half dozen cars they’d force to stop before getting to the top of the other side of the hill. Would they now need a push or perhaps a tow? On the snowy roads a different hierarchy was applying itself. It put the 4×4 driver on top, their unimpaired mobility apparently imbuing a form of authority in this wintery chaos. We had to look up to them because we’d struggled, but our little front-wheel drive car had made it, so in turn we could look down on the rear-wheel drive executive cars that were having to turn back.
Our spirits were high as we drove along, we’d taken on the elements and so far we’d come through as a family. But we’d not yet reached our hotel so there was no room for complacency. The road dipped into another hill down to the next village. I slipped the car into a lower gear to slow down without using the brakes and risking a skid. And none to soon, we rounded a bend to find a car with wheels spinning madly and moving slowly sideways across the road and into our path. I risked a light touch on brakes. We stopped safely but there was no room to pass so we just sat and looked at the car in our way. They were probably looking us. Another car stopped behind us and we all just looked at each other. Finally the car blocking our lane started to move backwards. It looked good, if they could just reverse to their side of the road to let us get past we’d be out of out their way. So slowly, slowly they went backwards down the road, but still staying on our side. Slowly, slowly we and the other cars followed them do the hill.
So the hierarchy goes; 4×4’s, little front wheel drives then big executive cars and finally, at the bottom, cars going backwards down snow-covered hills.
Trevor Aston works in Richmond, Southwest London and Surrey as a portrait event and editorial photographer.