Sunday, January 20, 2013

Snowed Out of the Archives

I walked up to the University Library in Cambridge on Monday morning, it was snowing, and had been since sometime in the night.  There were a couple of inches on the ground, and unlike in the early hours of the morning, when the snow was only visible in the yellowish light of the streetlamps, the town looked pristine in the wintry light of day.  The colleges are at their best when set off by sparkling snow, and it gives the small town, with its narrow streets and broad courtyards, an otherworldly look.

Cambridge looked lovely in the snow...
That afternoon when I boarded the train to London it was still snowing, but I fell asleep on the journey, and when I awoke, just before we pulled into King’s Cross, it was to a drizzly, dark looking city.  It was as though London had thrown up some kind of circle around itself to keep the snow out, or perhaps as though the heat generated from the hurried and harried movements of its millions of inhabitants kept the snow at bay, falling only at the fringes of the city, and melting as quickly as the flakes touched the ground.

But that changed on Friday, when it began snowing around the time that I left for the National Archives, down in Kew.  It was coming down swiftly, whipping around the tube platforms and into the cars.  It continued snowing throughout the morning, and although the view from my table near the window in the reading room isn’t particularly inspiring, it was at least brightened up by the steady snowfall. 

...but this fearsome onslaught of foul weather nearly brought London to a halt, and drove reluctant researchers from the national archives.
Mind you, by noon when the archive intercom crackled to life, there was still less than an inch on the ground.  In a less than regretful voice, the announcer claimed to regret telling us that the building would be shutting down at two o’clock due to the dreadful weather.  A few minutes later, we were updated with the news that, in a pre-emptive move, they were also shutting down on Saturday.  The normally dour staff lit up at this point, and the collected researchers muttered mutinously, but began packing up at the appointed hour.

All of London appeared to be in demob mode as people, faced with this veritable blizzard (we were nearing the three-quarter inch mark), flocked away from work and onto the tube system which, predictably, began breaking down.  TFL employees were out scraping off the platforms and sprinkling grit.  Commuters engaged in gleeful snowball fights through the closing doors at one station.

I could just see the next day’s headlines: “Britain buried by blizzard”; “England engulfed by snow”; “Wales walloped by killer storm”; “Scotland snowed-under”; “Snow of the century hits Islands”.  For a country supposedly given to understatement, Britain resorts to hysterical overreaction when faced with levels of snow that would barely register in many parts of the U.S. or northern Europe. 
In Oxford, on the other hand, life went on as usual for these stoic gentlemen.

Today I went out to Oxford—a little worried that I’d wind up stuck out there if the rail system continued to disintegrate in the face of this morning’s renewed snowfall.  There, too, the colleges looked lovely, the snow representing a great improvement over the normally dark and drizzly British winter.

It was with some trepidation that, earlier this evening, I checked-in online for tomorrow morning’s flight, but so far all is well, and by tomorrow afternoon I should be on BART heading home to the familiar howl of a transport system untroubled by inclement weather. 

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