Arctic winds, snow and frosts have come in such a blast this winter that the bookmakers report record numbers of bets on a white Christmas so early in December. The Met Office has issued a blizzard of severe weather warnings, telling us to wrap up warm, take care on the roads, generally scaring the living daylights out of everyone about the perils of cold.
Suddenly we seem to be facing a Siberian freeze, which may come as shock because, yes, winter can be cold. This is what a British winter is supposed to be like, but for many years autumn has almost slipped seamlessly into springtime with hardly a pause for winter. But we should be more chilled out about the cold because it actually does a power of good.
Cold is Nature’s clock, telling plants and animals that it’s time to pack up and go to sleep, go away or fatten up. Without the cold, living things don’t know when winter has come and gone, or when to get going again in springtime. Recent winters have been so mild that they have left Nature thoroughly confused. Birds didn’t know whether to migrate, hedgehogs and bats wake up too early from hibernation. Plants such as the white deadnettle carry on flowering all year and the grass carries on growing, so the nation has reverberated to the sound of lawnmowers all winter long.
This cold snap is reminiscent of the savage freezes of long ago. The winter of 1962-63 is now a hazy memory, but it was so cold that pneumatic drills were used to dig up turnips in frozen fields, ice floes bobbed around in the Channel and cars were driven over the frozen Thames at Oxford. People were geared up to big freezes in those days. They wore balaclavas and thick coats, made roaring fires and stoked up on bowls of proper porridge. Now we have central heating at the flip of a switch, heated cars, artificial ice rinks and fake frost on windows at Christmas. It’s all too namby-pamby.
Although we moan, the cold could do us the power of good. In Siberia they swim outdoors in minus 40C to stay immune, they claim, from pneumonia and colds. The Finns jump stark naked from steaming sauna to freezing lakes. In Britain we drop like flies at the first sniff of a cold snap. We are so helplessly unprepared, that it’s a wonder we know what snow looks like. The Met Office has even launched a health forecasting service tailored to warn vulnerable patients of expected drops in temperatures. And even if the cold is too much to bear, there could still be some good news. The Met Office is sticking to its forecast of a milder than average winter.