As a young boy in Leeds I found fog rather exciting. In the 1950s coal was the main source of heating in houses and in Harehills and local areas the chimneys would pump out the black stuff. For most of the year the wind would blow it away and I can’t say that I ever gave it a moment’s thought. Long after coal or smokeless coal were used, children would continue to draw pictures of houses with chimneys and smoke coming out of them, but I wonder if that is still the case.
The time I was aware of smoke was in late autumn and winter. When the temperature fell, the wind was calm and there was an atmospheric inversion trapping the moist air, fog would form. In the countryside this would be a white mist, but in cities like Leeds, the white fog took on a green colour and a strong smell and taste of smoke. The smoke particles added to the density of the smog and often the smog would be so thick it was barely possible to see more than a yard or two before you.
Some days you would wake up and instantly be aware that something was different. It was the change in sound that heralded either a blanket of snow or a dense pea-souper fog. I well remember wiping the condensation filled bedroom window and staring out into a greeny-white world where the usual view was obscured. I don’t ever remember the world grinding to a halt during the smog in the 1950s and 60s in Leeds. Buses seemed to run as usual and there were cars still travelling the roads, just a little slower, maybe. I used to walk to Harehills County Primary School, most days, and so it made little difference to me, apart from being more exciting. I used to imagine all sorts of scenarios: alien invasion, spies, kidnapping, but alas nothing ever happened. I was rugged up in scarf, knitted balaclava and knitted mittens, with strings that threaded through the sleeves so that you didn’t lose them and the walk down Upland Crescent seemed to pass very quickly. At Harehills the car, street lights and shop lights created an interesting scene. The Belisha Beacons flashed their orange and the lights created cones of light in the green that did little but make the fog appear thicker. I quite liked the smoky taste and I would draw in large gulps of the fetid air. I am sure it didn’t do my lungs any good. During the day we would look out of the classroom windows and just see cones of light pass along Roundhay Road. I remember sometimes they kept us in at break times, but mostly we went out to play. Lunches were as usual at Saint Aiden’s church and so we all had to traipse across the road at the crossing and walk to the hall and back.
After school was where the adventure started. Usually I would catch the bus outside school, the one that went up Easterly Road. It was a double-decker with an open back where there was a bar to hold as you climbed on or off. On clear days it was where you demonstrated your skill, and stupidity, by hanging off nonchalantly and then jumping light-footed to the ground, taking a bit of a run and then gracefully ending up walking. Unfortunately, if you weren’t as good as you thought, you could take off at too high a speed and end up face first on the path, with an audience smirking, and you being deadly embarrassed. I had learnt not to do this on foggy days. The problem on a foggy day, was knowing where you were on the route. If the fog was thick it was impossible to see anything out of the window and you had to estimate when you were near your stop. Mine should have been at Arlington Road, but more than once I got off too early or too late and then had a longer slog home. This resulted in sudden recognition of my error and a longer walk than anticipated on dark eerie streets that were strange, due to the muffled sound.
The change of fuel from coal to smokeless, natural gas and electricity meant that as I got older the air became cleaner, but fog remained a regular feature. It was now just fog and the smoky smell was missing. I remember one morning walking to Roundhay School through Gipton Wood, where I was faced with a majestic and magical sight. The wood was full of a low hanging mist that was patchy, and the sun streamed down through the tree tops in beams and it created a mystical world, the memory of which has stayed with me all these years. It lifted my spirits and put me in a state of ecstasy. It was as if I had walked into a Jurassic world and I was just waiting for dinosaur heads to appear.
As I got older and became a driver I developed a different attitude to fog. It was devilishly dangerous and many car crashes resulted. It was even worse when it was freezing fog and was mixed with ice or snow on the roads. I hated watching the darkness fall towards the end of a teaching day and seeing fog develop. It took longer to get home and at one time I had to drive three motorways to get home to where I lived on Pinders Heath near Pindefields Hospital in Wakefield. I was terrified by the speed that many drivers did during dense fog. Lorry drivers were particularly terrifying as they just went at 70mph whatever the conditions. I realised later that often they were above the fog level and could see better, but of course they couldn’t see the cars below in the fog.
One night in November or December I went with my family to see a pantomime in Braford at the Alhambra. We met my mother in Leeds and we had decided to go on the train, join her and go on to the panto. I remember Helen Shapiro was the principal boy and she had stout leg slapping thighs in the good panto tradition. I think it might have been Jack and the Beanstalk and it was in the early 1980s and we only had one son then. The panto was fine and we saw my mother on her train and we arrived in Wakefield to find that a thick fog had fallen. The car was parked at the station and we set off home. I struggled to see much in the city centre, but it got much worse as we approached Pinderfields. I knew we had a traffic light crossroads to deal with and I was desperately trying to see it. I had my window open and my head out. I was really panicking as I couldn’t see anything. Suddenly the fog cleared a little and I recognised where I was. I was shocked as I had driven blindly through the crossroads and seen nothing. It got even worse when we entered the housing estate and my wife had to get out and walk just in front so we could navigate our way home. I have never felt so relieved to get home as I did that night.
My worst tale of a fog incident in Leeds was much more recent. It was about ten years ago and my wife and I had returned to Leeds to visit my mum. We had flown into Manchester about two weeks before Christmas and picked up a hire car from the airport. At that time, car hire was the top levels of the car park, now moved to a car hire village. Everything had gone well and we had managed to get around, see friends and had a lovely time despite it being winter. We had booked to take the car back to Manchester and fly down to Heathrow and then fly to Singapore for a couple of nights before arriving back in Perth for Christmas Eve. Our sons were fairly grown up so they had been left in charge. Two days before we had to fly back, thick fog settled over the UK. Heathrow was at a standstill. All internal flights were stopped and travellers were put in marquees with foil blankets and it was complete mayhem. We were due to fly and the night before we were panicking as all internal flights were grounded, but some international flights were still going. We had been out for a curry with friends at Oakwood and we hoped that it would clear. The news told flyers to contact the airlines to check what was happening. We were booked on a British Airways flight and so I tried to get through to their helpline. After an hour or so, I succeeded and spoke. They asked our names and then said that we weren’t booked on the flight. They asked who it was booked with. I said it was Qantas, but the carrier was BA. They said, “Oh, you have to contact Qantas directly!” After a short wait on the phone, I think it was about one in the morning at this point, I got through and I explained. The lady on the phone said, “OH, is Heathrow closed?” She had no idea, but then she said that she was in Tasmania. The best she could say was that I needed to get to Heathrow and see if the flight was on.
Apparently fog does not stop international flights, they just need double the time between planes taking off and landing. The next problem was the car hire. I got straight through to them and they said, “No problem, just take the car to the Leeds depot on York Road.” That was fantastic. The next issue was how to get to Heathrow. Trains were running, but we had no idea. When we left the UK in 1992 there was British Rail, now there was a whole string of train companies and one that ran down the Eastern side of the country had just gone bankrupt. I checked the internet and finally got through to someone and booked seats and tickets for the next morning. Thank goodness there weren’t leaves on the rails.
Our problems, I hoped, were over. We got a few hours sleep and then we were off. We said goodbye to my mother and drove to York Road and left the car. All going smoothly! The taxi came to take us to the station, and again, all went well. We arrived in plenty of time and got the luggage out. I paid the taxi driver and asked for a receipt as I thought I could perhaps claim the fare as part of our travel insurance. We were just about to go into the station when my wife asked where my bag was. This was my man-bag which had my passports, tickets, wallet etc. In the fuss I had forgotten it. I turned to get it out of the taxi when he drove off. I ran after him in a panic, but he was too far ahead and rounded the corner and disappeared into Leeds city. I was panic stricken and almost crying. There was a policeman standing there and he just looked at me as if I was mad. At this point I just wanted the world to swallow me up, but I realised I had the driver’s card. I can’t be sure whether I had my mobile or whether I asked to use one at one of the shops. Anyway, I phoned and the person on the line couldn’t have been more reassuring and helpful. She told me that the driver was lined up in the taxi queue and that she would let him know I was coming. I ran around to the road that the taxis lined up on and by this time all the drivers had heard about me and they pointed behind to show he was further back. I saw the taxi and the driver, but he was shaking his head to indicate it wasn’t there. My heart fell! I opened the passenger door and to my delight, I saw my bag. I had been sat behind the driver and it had slipped under the back of his chair. I pulled it out as if I had won the pools! Everything was there. The driver was very pleased, and he became even more so when I gave him a twenty pound tip.
I walked back to my wife, who was with the bags at the station, and I had the biggest smile I had ever had. My stress levels and pulse started to return to normal from the danger zone and before we went to get on the train, my wife went to get us both a cup of tea. Just to make the day more perfect, she discovered when she removed the top off the cup, that she had a cup of water and milk as there was no tea bag in hers. Our train was not the first to leave, there was one before also going to Kings Cross, but finally we go on ours, found our seats and relaxed a little more. The train set off on time and things seemed to be going well. The gods had other plans though. After about twenty minutes the train came to a stop. We waited for about five minutes and then we set off. Half an hour later the train stopped again. Another five minutes or so and we set off again. I think we reached Peterborough when there was an announcement that the train in front of us had a problem. We would be stopping at the station and the passengers from the train in front would join ours. The train was fairly busy anyway, but when the other passengers got on it became something from a travel film with hundreds packed in and everywhere was a mass of bodies, similar to examples seen in North African train journeys.
At least there were no more stops and we finally arrived at Kings Cross. We still had hours of time and we caught the tube to Heathrow. As there were no domestic flights most of Heathrow was deserted, but the same number of staff were working so in International departures we were almost outnumbered. We have never been served so smoothly or efficiently and, despite a short delay, we were soon sitting on the plane awaiting take off. We sat there and we sat there and almost an hour later we finally got the go ahead. We could see almost nothing as the London fog was as thick as it was known for. I almost cheered as the wheels lifted off and we were on our way.
There were no more problems, but ever since we have always flown back to England in either spring or summer. Fog is fine, if you don’t have to go anywhere, but fog and travel do not mix!