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Big freeze shows how big society might work – or not?

So, a few inches of snow and the country grinds to a halt – again. “Chaos” cry the news papers/channels; a inquiry will be held into the performance of the Highways Agency and local authorities to establish just why our motorways ground to a halt, even when we knew the snow was coming.

Chaos as lorries queue up for the night

Lorries queing in South Kirkby

Myself, I was caught up in the chaos having departed Gainsborough in Lincolnshire for my now regular 38 mile drive to my sister in law’s in Yorkshire. What is normally a 45 minute commute became a 5 1/2 hour adventure and having left the office at 16:45 I finally arrived at my destination at 22:15; relived and extremely tired. But why does it happen? How is it that we can’t keep our major routes working on days like this? My mind cast back to 1993 when I lived in Harrogate – the last big snow in November and Harrogate was hosting the RAC Rally. That day the snow fell in the early afternoon and by 3 o’clock colleagues who lived afar were departing for homes in the Dales, Leeds, Bradford, York and the surrounding villages. By 3:30 the town was gridlocked and many people spent up to 6 or 7 hours trying to get home. That year I was lucky as I walked to work and went home on foot via the pub – a good night was had if memory serves me right!

On Tuesday the story was repeated in Gainsborough – the snow had coated Lincolnshire overnight but by early afternoon it was snowing heavily, very heavily. Many people decided to head for home early; the office has people who commute in from Pontefract, Doncaster, Grimsby, Nottingham and Sheffield as well as Lincoln and the rural villages of the County and most of the staff who lived outside of Gainsborough had left by 3 o’clock. Deja vu as within twenty minutes the town was gridlocked.

The problem you see, is that by everyone leaving early at the first sight of snow, the gritters have no chance of  getting out and treating the surfaces. It’s all well and dandy if it snows in the night – we sleep and the great unung heroes – lads and lasses who keep our roads clear – move out under cover of the night and presto, we wake up to decent road surfaces. They simply can’t grit roads covered in stuck cars, lorries, vans and coaches – we are victims of our own panic, merchants of our own doom. By our own actions we are left stranded in the snow.

Despite this I succumbed in the panic and I eventually set off at my normal time wondering if I was making the right decision or whether I should have sought a hotel in town. I had appointments later in the week in the North West and didn’t want to be stuck in a Gainsborough hotel, if as predicted the big freeze followed the snow ensuring it stuck around for days.  When I eventually got out-of-town local radio was telling me Lincoln was gridlocked too as was Sheffield. No mention of the roads in Nottinghamshire being problematic so I carried on. About 8 miles west we ground to a halt as the first incline on the road lay ahead .  After no movement for 15 minutes I decided to get my case out of the boot and change out of my suit into my winter gear  of walking trousers, thermals, fleeces and thick socks and boots along with warm outer wear including hat and gloves ( I was well prepared to walk out if necessary). We waited another 15 minutes before people started to get out of their cars and talk to each other (how often do drivers talk to each other on their commute?). We soon realised there wasn’t much traffic behind us – only four cars on a busy commuter route to the A1 – and nothing coming in the other direction. Some of us walked forwards to see what was causing the hold up. We groaned – three 18 wheelers stuck going up the hill and two skewed across the road coming down. We were discussing options eg turning around or waiting when a local farmer with his tractor arrived. What could one tractor do with all those lorries? Well, it was a revelation and a big testament to John Deere tractors. He made it look simple driving up the slope, hooking up the first lorry facing downhill and towing it down until it could gain its own traction once more. Then the next, then he was joined by a second tractor. Ok so they can pull heavy lorries down a snow-covered road – how were they going to turn around those facing up hill? Oh ye of little faith! Why turn them around when those awesome tractors could simply tow 38 tonnes of HGV uphill on snow! In less than hour all the HGVs had been cleared and we were on our way again. Still no traffic behind us.

A few miles down the road in the village of Everton there was a police road block facing traffic in the opposite direction. It turns out the police had been summoned by locals who had closed the road themselves to prevent further risk of stranded motorists. I asked why there were no vehicles behind us and was told again that the road had initially been closed by conscientious locals near Beckingham and that we were the last vehicles through. It was now officially closed to traffic.

By the time I got to Bawtry I had helped to push three BMWs and two Mercs out of snow drifts – rear wheel drive really is hopeless if you don’t know how to drive in snow. The last couple of miles to the A1 were strewn with rear wheel drive cars that had left the road. Blyth Services was packed with HGVs, – a local advised me not to even think about the Holiday Inn Express – it was full. I struggled onto the A1 north – it was surreal but passable with care. It was like Star Trek Warp Drive. A car in front (what is it about BMW drivers?) ventured into the second lane – I eased off fearing the worse – sure enough he lost the back-end and spun. Luckily he had plenty of room and no traffic around save for me; he recovered and sheepishly crawled back into the inside lane. Leaving the A1 at J38 I thought my journey was nearly over – only 2 or 3 miles to go. I hadn’t bargained for the amount of HGV traffic that heads in and out of South Kirkby. The village was gridlocked at 9:45pm with stranded lorries. The hill outside the local high school was nose to tail lorries; lots of them with no chance of getting up the hill out of the village. Back at Hampole a similar story of stuck lorries. By the time I arrived at my destination the snow was starting to freeze. Lorries could no longer get into the large industrial estate they were bound for; they now queued up down the main road through the village, literally dozens of them. A different community, a different culture. Very much the kids coming out to laugh at the chaos and grown ups blaming the authorities for not “sorting it out”. No one even taking a flask of tea to the poor drivers without whom their favourite goods would not be on their local supermarket shelves, in whose factories or warehouses they were bound for many of them worked. It was the council’s job to sort it, not theirs. Their role appeared to be to bemoan the lack of action by the authorities. Around 1am a council gritter arrived to grit the highways – he wasnt supposed to grit the industrial estate (it was private and therefore the owners responsibility) but he succumbed to common sense and, seeing the carnage of vehicles blocking the highway he spread his grit. Within 20 minutes the wagons were rolling into their depots. Had he refused the lorries would have stayed out all night and possibly longer until the landlord had arranged for the roads on its estate to be cleared.

Over two feet of snow fell in Lincolnshire, Notts and South/West Yorkshire that night – most of it inside 2 or 3 hours. It was treacherous, yet in such a remote rural area it was the local citizens who reacted first and who helped stranded motorists get on their way again. Without those farmers many cars and lorries would have been stranded, possibly all night. On the whole journey I didn’t see a single gritter or snow plough until one turned up at my destination. The contrast between the two communities couldn’t have been more stark – one couldn’t wait to dive into action and help, the other totally dependent upon the state and believing clearing the roads and helping stuck vehicles was the job of the authorities and “nowt to do wi’ us – we pay us rates and taxes”.

Snow the mroning after

The morning after…serene and VERY white

So Big Society can work but even in extreme circumstances it can be derided by society itself. I make no comment on the profile or political persuasion of the two communities other than one is probably very self-sufficient and the other very welfare dependent. I’ll let you decide which is which – but next time it snows during the working day, stay in the office until the gritters have done their thing and maybe we’ll all get home quicker!

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