January is a time of year when parts of the countryside can resemble zebra stripes. As I write, the rain is washing away most of Exmoor’s snow, but deep drifts on the northern side of the hedgerows remain white and bright. The thousand foot escarpment of the Brendon Hill ridge is a riot of zig-zags and stripes, like some vast work of land-art created by Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy. Hedges, gullies, ditches, walls, fences… all have a lining of snow.
Walk up to one of the white stripes and you’ll find it is no longer made of the soft light petals which landed as snow flakes, but has hardened into a crust of ice-crystals.
This explains why some of these stripes have such longevity. Compacted ice has a surprising ability to last in the weak winter sun. It is as though the white stuff has a life of its own. Shrinking and shrugging a cold shoulder at its inevitable fate, the ageing drift hardens and concentrates into a long muscular icy fist in a determined bid to remain until spring. Which means you can walk across surfaces where, forty-eight hours ago, you’d have sunk waist-deep. And on a day when the temperature has soared ten degrees and you are no longer wearing half a dozen thermal layers, you can feel the cold emanating from the heart of these sinews of deep winter.
Nature’s own localised refrigeration system, zig-zagging its way across the Brendon Hills.
The phenomenon puts me in mind of the old Ice Works high on the slopes of Sourton Down, on the north-east corner of Dartmoor. Long before electric refrigeration, someone came up with the idea of “capturing” the ice which formed up on the hills high above the hamlet of Sourton. A series of huge rectangular troughs was cut, running, ladder-fashion, down the flanks of the hill. In autumn, water from a spring would be allowed to fill each of the shallow basins via a series of gates and runnels. The inevitable cold on that lofty, exposed, part of northern Dartmoor (before global warming) – would soon turn the imprisoned water to ice, and this would then be covered over by protective layers of peat and fern for use in spring and summer.
The area is empty and barren; the modern Ordnance Survey map does not show the remains. But one golden and sparkling evening years ago I broke my journey home from Cornwall in order to locate the region’s coolest archaeological site. Once you’ve climbed among them, the remains are remarkable, as are the panoramic views stretching over the whole of mid-Devon to distant Exmoor in the north. Past Sourton Tors, on the slopes leading up from the Okehampton side of the hill, are the Ice Works. Above the stone-walled pit are the rectangular grid of long thin depressions. Each is about four feet deep and about seventy five metres long, but erosion must have both raised the level of the actual beds and decreased the height of their retaining walls. You can imagine how the ice-men would start coming back up the hill at the end of the winter to reap their chilly harvest. The ice was packed in fern and transported by cart all over South and mid-Devon. But most went to Plymouth where trawler captains took to using it as a way of keeping the fish fresh. Apparently, this marked the beginning of the era when English fishermen were able to go off to sea for days rather than being forced home each night with their catch.
The exposed and perpetually windy Ice Works is no place to be in a snowstorm – even if you like the white stuff and are excited by its arrival. But when snow begins to fall in earnest – when the countryside is suddenly cocooned in that curious silence – we feel the unique thrill that our universe is shrinking and that we are about to be alone with our families in a very private isolation. Which might be an odd thing to say doing a pandemic lockdown.
I have been wondering why I love a good snowfall. Snow is beautiful but it’s also transformative, and renders the familiar strange. Yesterday – walking my lurcher to the top of the nine-hundred-foot ridge that looms opposite my cottage in the Brendon Hills – I noticed the famous Incline of old West Somerset Mineral Line threading its way up through thick forest at an angle of forty-five degrees. A stop-and-stare moment, in normal conditions, the near vertical route of the old permanent way would be hidden by the tree cover. But there it was, a gleaming white right hundred foot ramp, looking just like the chute which ski-jumpers hurtle down before launching themselves into the abyss.
Here were the Brendon Hill iron mines, many of them now more visible after snow. There’s a long line of linear evidence heralding the West Somerset Mineral Railway and its long-forgotten stations; the black holes of shafts and adits; the ruins of the miners’ cottages and the non-conformist chapels. There are even names on the dark slate headstones standing so prominently in whitened graveyards like the one at Leighland. Williams, Davis and Hughes…The icy appellations are a reminder that Welsh miners once crossed the Bristol Channel to help extract ore from these hills. Some married into the local community and stayed. They built that white icebound Incline I can see across the valley. The “vertical” railway, with its old winding house perched high on the Brendon Escarpment.
That word ‘escarpment’ can mean volumes in snow. For this one is north-facing, and its steep slopes are perpetually hidden from the sun in winter. Which makes the area a magnet for village children from Roadwater or Monksilver after a snowfall. Clutching their sledges, snowboards and even skis, they trudge up the one-in-three gradients, only to plummet back down at breakneck speed. Farmers set up tractors with winches – and suddenly the Brendons have their own alpine pistes. People of all ages grab a moving rope and are towed up gradients of what must be the most fleeting and ephemeral pistes anywhere on the planet. A few hours nowadays, and the snow will be gone, or turned to slush. But it wasn’t always that way.
The memory of the Big Freeze in 1962/3 remains with me like an old mountain scar cut by an avalanche, although I was only six years old. I still wince as I recall dragging the heavy wooden sledge my dad had made back from the steep fields, crying as the cold drilled into finger bones – the snow-wet trousers clinging to thin blue legs like tubes of frozen steel. Did the cold put us off? Not a bit. We were back on the slopes again after lunch. And it was a weekday, so there was something extra magical about the white powder. It meant we were not at school – and, if I had to analyse why I love snow so much, this could be the reason. I hated every minute of every hour I spent at school.
In so many ways, snow represented the opposite of humdrum normality. Snow was high-day and holiday. Snow was fun. Snow meant: you do what you want, while nothing else moves and nothing else is happening. This is your white world. Your winter-wonderland. Enjoy it while you can.
Years later, I was to learn about the perils of snow. It was my old editor, the late Jack Hurley, who warned me of the dangers of travelling through the hills when there was a threat of a “big dump”. Jack edited the local newspaper and wrote wonderful books with titles such like Murder and Mystery on Exmoor. Forty five years ago, he summoned me into his book-lined office to ask me to I cover some tedious event up in the hills. After detailing the job, Jack inhaled on his cigarette and told me all about Exmoor’s winter ghosts – and I sat there in that dark, smoke-filled office, spellbound by it all.
Jack wrote: “An Exmoor mist is a grey phantom of itself; roll it back, and an old shepherd in a long cloak may be standing at Comer’s Gate; a tall beech hedge waves up and down to bring terror to a horse.”
I had no horse, but knew my venerable Standard 10 motor car was far from reliable and wondered if it would handle the twelve hundred foot climb to the roof of the moor in snow.
“You will be coming home via Cutcombe Hill,” I remember Jack saying. “Best not tally, for it is known to be a fearful place on a bad winter’s night.”
A dozen years after the frozen event, he loved to talk of the Big Freeze.
“The cold weather started on December 23, from which date it lasted 71 days until March 3. The snow started falling on December 26 and lasted for 57 days – though the ground remained covered for a good deal longer. The snowfall was sufficient to pile up into huge drifts, especially on all the roads where the hedge-banks acted as the most perfect drift-traps. The crust formed during fine intervals made a perfect drift surface, with the result that new powder snow produced even by the lighter showers was able to drift great distances and block the roads anew every time that the wind was fresh,” said Jack.
While I was a cub-reporter on Jack’s paper I interviewed Brian Duke from Warren, one of Exmoor’s remotest, highest, farms. He told me: “It was on Boxing Day that the first snowfall came. This blocked our road and we were cut off. Things got worse in the big blizzard of December 29. We had about 70 hogs (last year’s lambs) buried but managed to dig them all out safely that day – but it was impossible to reach our ewes, although we made some attempts. Snow was waist deep.”
Eventually, an RAF helicopter picked up Mr Duke, more shepherds and their dogs, and flew them out to the ewes on the moor so that they could be brought nearer the farm. The return journey took most of the day, though dogs and sheep were able to simply walk over large banks and hedges that were buried deep under frozen snow.
The Duke family’s wintry troubles were far from over: “On the evening of February 5 it began blowing a gale and snow falling very fast. This was a vile night and proved to be the worst of the winter. We had about 900 sheep in the farmyard that night and the snow was drifting so badly that we stayed up most of the night to stop them burying. In the morning father was able to touch the snow out of his bedroom window.”A week later the world was so frozen the farmer was able to ride his pony over “the tops of gates and hedges without seeing them”.
Today Exmoor and England’s south west is warmer and softer; climate change has made snow’s landscape transformation brief. Yet when it comes, it’s a portal to the past and a physical reminder of these lost stories, of humans and the moor.
Martin Hesp is an award winning journalist and broadcaster who lives in the Exmoor National Park, close to the place where he was born and raised. For 20 years he was chief feature-writer and editor-at-large of the Western Morning News.
His collection of short stories entitled Tales From the Lockdown focussing on stories generated by the pandemic and the closing of society. He is also the author of The Last Broomsquire and The Lemon Tree Forest. Follow Martin on twitter or instagram, and find out more on his website.
Photographs by the author.