Before the days of central heating and double glazing, houses really knew when Winter had arrived. Temperatures in the bedroom would plummet and the windows would be covered in the silvery ferns of ice. Children nowadays would not know the magic of the iced windows or the joy of scraping a bit clear to gaze out on the white hoar frosted garden, before the image disappeared as the window misted and refroze. At times like these the covers were heavy on the beds and I used to cover my head to maintain any warmth. I am surprised that we didn’t suffocate, but somehow we managed and eventually emerged and dressed as rapidly as possible. Breakfast was often porridge at such times and the warmth, top of the milk and a spoonful of sugar set my brothers and me up for the day.
If it was a school day then a couple of pairs of socks forced into wellies helped. Coat, scarf and knitted gloves and I was prepared for the outside. Early on such mornings the world looked magical. My breath of vapour would hang on the still air and each breath in would chill all the way to the lungs with air that would often taste of smoke. The garden was bare and the black sticks were covered in a coating of ice. As the watery sun caught the light the crystals would sparkle and there was a clarity that was breathtaking. The first steps onto the white grass left tracks that traced our passage and joined those of the early birds, who were struggling to find food. The milk bottles by the back door would have their foil tops pushed off by the frozen milk and would offer no nourishment for the birds. Each step was risky as the paths and pavements were icy, offering a quick fall to any unwary or careless pedestrian. One of the great joys was standing on the frozen puddles and cracking the thin unbroken ice. Another was the ability to slide along the pavements, adding to the danger for others following, and wearing holes through the soles of our shoes.
By midday the ice would just start to melt and then shortly afterwards would refreeze and icicles would form hanging off the gutters like rows of dagger teeth. If this came after a period of snow then icicles could grow long and heavy and were a real danger if they snapped and fell. Passing under them was a trial to rival the sword of Damocles. The more wary would hunt out the clothes prop and knock them off before they could create harm. Of course the re-frozen melt was even slippier and I remember sliding and falling on many occasions. I suppose my bones must have been solid or at least flexible as I never broke any, but I am sure there would have been many less fortunate who would have had a trip to the hospitals. There was a real pleasure in sucking icicles, but I do remember they did have a sooty flavour, the result of the coal burning fires. On really icy days Gipton Wood would become a contrast of stark beauty as the bare black tree trunks contrasted with the white covering of frost. The light would barely get above twilight in mid-winter and few people ventured into the wood. Dogs were often just let out of the front door and returned of their own free will. Like wolves, they tended to form small packs and sometimes bounded between the trees, enjoying the freedom to roam. Later in the afternoon, on still days, the mist would start to collect and the one light in the wood created a spectral world as it illuminated the vapour like a skirt around its base.
The world changed again when it did snow. Deep snow was not a common event and I can still remember the times when it happened. As a young child I would open the back door and the snow would be above the step and partially blocking the exit. I would step over into a world like no other. The world of snow is a place where sound is altered, muffled and the usual sounds become unfamiliar and intriguing. Steps on dry snow produce a crumping sound and if snow is still falling there is the magic of flakes settling on you nose and face and if you opened your mouth wide, onto your tongue. Early in the morning, you were aware of the snow as the sounds that entered your bedroom were muffled and the light changed to a reflected white without the yellow of sunlight. As you pulled back the curtain and looked out the window everything had changed. The garden was unrecognizable with lumps and bumps where familiar landmarks had been. The tree branches bowed under the weight of the gathered snow and were more like white weeping willows. Snow meant a rush to get dressed and be out. There was nothing better than being the first out in it. My brothers and I would get the wooden sledge that our father had made for us, out of the garage and we would set off. Like Scott of the Antarctic, we would set out through the virgin snow, one the trail blazer and the others following in the footsteps. The streets were similarly changed. Kerbs had disappeared and the pavements led onto the road with no boundaries. Early in the 1960s there was little traffic and on deep snow days, none at all. We would try making snow balls, but with woollen gloves it was more difficult and if it was very cold the snow would be too dry to make good ones.
My older brother was four years my senior and we often headed off to Gipton Wood. There was a reasonable slope that led past the light down to the steps onto Roundhay Road. It was not the best sledging area, but it was local and the best on offer. Some times it became quite popular and by the evening the snow would begin to freeze and form more of an ice sheet that produced an excellent run at high speed. The wooden sledge did not have metal runners and we had to wax them with a big candle. Once waxed it gave a reasonable run, but the best we had was the old frame off the rocking donkey. The frame was red metal and the stuffed donkey had wheels so that a toddler could be pushed on it. It also had the ability for the handle to fold under and produced a rocking donkey. It wasn’t very safe and wouldn’t be allowed nowadays as anything more that a very gentle rock would cause it to overbalance. The donkey had been well loved by us boys and was getting quite threadbare at this time. I suppose it must have been my older brother, Andrew’s idea, but by removing the donkey, the frame turned into a small, but serviceable sledge. Now, Andrew was quite good at coming up with such ideas and this accompanied by no sense of self preservation, led him into quite a few scrapes. He was, in fact, quite accident prone as a child, something I took over from as a teenager and beyond. Anyway, I dragged the sledge and he took the donkey frame to Gipton Wood at about six thirty in the evening. I was a startlingly cold night and the snow that had thawed during the day was now frozen solid. It was one of the days that the run down the woods had been well used, but as it was quite dark when we arrived only one or two keen stragglers were still there and soon they also left. I started to sledge down the slope using the wooden sledge and enjoyed it getting a fairly modest speed and a reasonably long run. Andrew used the donkey frame and was staggered by the initial speed he got and he just managed to stop before the wall that fell down onto the old tram track verge below the wall opposite The Gipton pub. As we trudged back up the hill there was wild chatter as we were getting the best runs we had ever had in the wood. We took turn after turn and every time Andrew was faster and sledged further, needing to use his heels to stop shooting off over the wall like some young Eddie the Eagle. The temperature at this point was extremely cold and the snow had gone on the run and been replaced by solid ice. This made the climb back up the hill very difficult. There were ridges down the slope and if you got enough speed the sledge could just leave the ground a little and often produced a spill. When the snow was soft this just was cause for much laughter and all part of the joy of sledging. We both had a great time and decided that we would have one last go. Andrew was going first and he sat on the small metal donkey frame, pushed off and shot like a bullet down the slope. He must have used extra force as it was his final go and there was the sound like an ice-skate cutting through the ice as he hit the first ridge. This time he was airborne and I do mean slightly. He took to the air like some kind of miniature Santa Claus on his sleigh. Unfortunately he didn’t have the magic power and the sledge was overtaken by gravity and landed with a bang onto solid ice. His balance gone, he slewed sideways, but continued at a great pace. He hit the next ridge sideways on, shot into the air, separated from the donkey frame, there was a swirl of arms and legs and then a sickening crack as his head hit the ice. Luckily, he was wearing the obligatory woollen hat with a pompom, and this must have helped a bit. He lay on the ground stunned and not moving a great deal. I rushed down to find him slowly getting to his feet holding his head in considerable pain. He headed home and I followed, dragging the sledge with the donkey frame sitting on it. I am sure that he was concussed, but at that time and at my age I had no idea what it was. Fortunately, the Camerons are nothing if not thick skulled, and no long term damage resulted, or at least none that was diagnosed.
When a little older and there was a good snow fall we sometimes would head to Roundhay Park. Now Roundhay Park has a wonderful tiered slope that leads down to the arena, called Hill Sixty, named after a site in the First World War, I believe. On the other side nearer the mansion there is a smother, less steep slope that is perfect for sledging. When the conditions were suitable, hundreds would turn up to enjoy a minute or two of thrill hurtling down the slope, to be followed by the long trudge back up. By the time you got back up to the top you were sweating profusely despite the icy air. I remember the occasional show-off would turn up on skis and demonstrate their skills weaving down the slope. This area was much safer than Gipton Wood, but there was the additional danger of crashes and I do remember quite a few children and adults getting injured.
The other joy of Winter at Roundhay Park, was when the lakes froze. This didn’t happen often, but one year the ice on the little lake was so thick that hundreds of people ventured onto it. Nowadays I am sure it would not be allowed and it would be policed to make sure no one stepped onto the ice. I do remember throwing stones onto the ice and it made a strange skittering noise as it careened across. In some parts the ice was white, but in other thinner parts it was transparent and you could see the world of fish and plants trapped below. The big lake was only once frozen enough to venture on, that I can remember, but often when it was partially frozen the ducks and swans would pad across looking for a unfrozen section. I always wondered how the poor things coped with the cold conditions.
Of course this is what Winter was like with fresh snow and ice. The situation changed after a day or two, but that will have to wait for another time.