London in the snow is beautiful. A black and white landscape, children playing in the parks, snowmen on the lawn, icicles hanging off the traffic lights and a horizon made magical by the blur of silently falling snow. No getting round it – it’s absolutely stunning.
London is a big, moving city, and unless the snow is kind enough to fall over Christmas, or during some other time when no one particular is doing anything much, snow cripples the city.
On day one, the trains stop. In North London this isn’t so bad, as most of the lines are underground, but south of the river and every mainline service collapses with a cry of ‘oh god! Ice on the tracks, ice on the wires, passengers on the platforms… too much!’ Last week, when six inches of snow fell in ten hours, my favourite producer spent five and a half hours trying to get into work. The grand distance he had to cover – fifteen miles. Of that journey, the first three hours was spent going to Hither Green station, waiting for the promised train, only for the promised train to be cancelled twenty minutes after it was supposed to arrive. Half an hour later he’d return… be informed the train was imminent… wait half an hour… be informed the train was cancelled… as weather continually trumped optimism. Every year the city is caught off-guard by the weather, and every year the train companies boldly declare it’ll be okay, right up to the moment where a hundred angry people waiting on the ice-covered platform are told it was never going to work out really.
On day two, the transport tends to be working. Major roads are gritted, the lines are cleared, trains run and commuters waddle carefully through the streets. But, unless fresh snow fell in the night, day two is the day that every A&E department in the city dreads. Thick inches of snow on every road and path which wasn’t gritted in advance – and there’s only so much grit – have been compressed down and compressed down and finally at last, turned to solid ice. Now no one walks, but everyone sidles very carefully through the city on a surface of black ice, and ambulances scream on their way to the next broken ankle and fractured wrist. On the edges of the pavement, where the snow is least disturbed, the commuters in more of a rush leave great big footprints as they waddle through the only pathways left where their shoes might have any grip. Radiators steam in offices as trousers, soaked to the knee with seeping ice, are whipped off and left to crinkle in their own way. Schools open their gates fearfully, lest the children, rushing screaming into the park, rush screaming straight to the nearest hospital after. By now snow men have been built, and the first-day joy of snowball fights and sliding down crispy slopes, is beginning to diminish in all save the youngest children.
This ice can last days, depending on the weather, but when the thaw comes, it often comes bittily. The frozen pavements turn instead to black smush, a necromancer’s milkshake gone horribly wrong. In the morning, when you wake, the inside of every window is dripping with condensation that breeds inner-city black mould, and rooms smell of sweat and radiators. You might open a window, but even the thaw chill makes you regret this decision, and for a while the city hovers in a slightly drab greyland – all the beauty of the thick snow gone, but with enough limp patches here and there to still regret the passing of the beauty that was. The snow melts according to the urban layout. In long rows of housing, you can tell who runs their central heating high and who does not, as great squares of snow will clear first around the hottest segments of roof, creating a picture of the relative gas bills for street. On the street, the snow almost never manages to settle on the drain covers, whose natural warmth create squares of metal; and where hot pipes run near the surface, clear lines of meltwater quickly form. Grass is warmer than cobblestone, so clears to brilliant green quickly; while those corners which are perpetually in shade can stay icy for days longer than their surroundings.
Then, almost in a blink, the ice is gone, and while you might be a little sad to see it pass, there comes a moment when you draw back your curtains at 7.30 a.m. and for the first time in as long as you feel like you can remember, the sky is blue, and the sun is almost up over the top of the houses.