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Arctic weather in UK?

Jacqueline researches the literature and social history of the Victorian era with particular interest in the 1840s-50s.

It’s been a week of Arctic weather in the UK – well, maybe not quite ‘Arctic’, but one could be forgiven for thinking so from the news coverage in the media.

Widespread closures of schools and businesses; extensive disruption to bus and train timetables; road-closures rife around the country. These are just three of the effects of the unusually heavy snowfalls and low temperatures of the last few days. However, not all activity has ceased.

On Tuesday morning I scraped a 4-inch thick blanket of soft snow from my car and set off, headlights blazing and windscreen-wipers waving, across the compacted brown slush of my local roads to join the A28 towards Canterbury. On this slightly more major road, I found myself driving in the tyre tracks of the vehicles in front of me as we all progressed at a steady 30mph until we were about a mile and a half from the city centre. There we joined a crawling queue of city-bound traffic and inched our way along for the next 40 minutes, admiring the few intrepid cyclists and walkers ploughing and slipping their way along the pavements.

The Park & Ride car park was submerged beneath several inches of predominantly undisturbed snow, so no lines were visible to define parking bays. I pulled up alongside two other vehicles at what seemed like a reasonable distance for easy egress and access, left my vehicle and crunched my way to the bus-stop.

The bus drove me and 5 or 6 fellow travellers into the city centre, from where I walked across a mixture of fresh, deep snow, ice and slush to the university campus (only slipping over once, I’m happy to say, and not acquiring any injury by doing so – although the attention of the kind gentleman who stopped to ask after my health was much appreciated all the same!)

Campus paths were mostly clear of snow by the time I arrived (half an hour late!) and there was a beautiful glow from the fresh snow of the gardens and lawns as it reflected the light of the sun - as the photos below fail to show quite as well as they might!


On days like this, one can really appreciate the appeal of the Arctic – until a gust of icy wind catches you unaware and you shrink back into your hat, scarf and padded-mac, grateful of their protection but aware that they would be grossly insufficient against a truly Arctic blast.

There is beauty and joy in the conditions: the white vacuity of the ground; the snow-clad branches of trees glistening in the sun; the diverse colours of life as plants and flowers peep defiantly through the drifted snow; and the extraordinary effect it has on we people!

Snow, it seems, brings out human qualities that are too often suppressed:

“I’ve never spoken to so many people since I came here in October as I have done today” said one fellow student.

There’s a melancholy message there perhaps, but it does bear out my point. Everyone I saw out walking in the snow this morning had a look of satisfied determination about them – and they were smiling! A father and son scraping snow from their car exchanged laughter as well as snowballs. The man who offered to help me when I slipped would probably not so much as notice me on a ‘normal’ day. Motorists were patient: no one tried to overtake, no one hooted their horn, no one revved an engine aggressively, and everyone kept a reasonable distance between their vehicle and the one in front (even in the final crawl into Canterbury).

So, if a comparatively small amount of snow on mainland UK, with temperatures hovering between -5⁰C and 0⁰C, can elicit such favourable characteristics in the population, why should we be surprised at the admirable qualities attributed – especially by the Victorians – to Arctic explorers? Beset by conditions of snow and ice many times worse than those brought by this week’s “Beast from the East”[1] or “Storm Emma”[2] it is only natural that their behaviour should be supposed to exemplify extremes of human fortitude and compassion.

[1]; 12:19, 27/02/18

[2]; 01/03/18

Literary connections ...

The devotion not only to duty but to each other that he read of in Sir John Richardson’s biographical account of Sir John Franklin, (Richardson, 2014) influenced Dickens in his 1857 production of The Frozen Deep. Believing “Richardson’s manly friendship, and love of Franklin, one of the noblest things [he] ever knew” (Dickens (vol 8), 1993, p. 66) Dickens persuaded Wilkie Collins to reflect it in the relationship between the plays two male protagonists, Richard Wardour and Frank Aldersley. To this end,

"Dickens’s extensive cuts and other changes [to Collins’s script were] all concerned with keeping the dramatic interest tightly focused on Wardour and on making him less savage" (Slater, 2011, p. 413).

Whilst playing the character of Wardour – indeed even “as he lay on the stage, ‘very excited by the crying of two thousand people over the grave of Richard Wardour’” (Brannan, 1966, p. 88) – Dickens was further inspired to create the character of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, which he published in 1859.

The Frozen Deep’s theme of Arctic redemption is echoed in Robert Buchanan’s 1881 novel God and the Man, as sworn enemies throughout generations of their families’ history, Richard Orchardson and Christian Christianson, discover in the extremes of Arctic deprivation their innermost capacity to forgive and be forgiven, and thus are their long-estranged “two houses happily united … [and] the heart of Christian Christianson made whole” (Buchanan, 1881, p. 251)

So, as the UK weather continues, for a few more days at least, to emulate the Arctic, let’s take the opportunity to dwell on its merits and not its faults.

works cited

Brannan, R. L., 1966. Introduction. In: R. L. Brannan, ed. Under the Management of Mr Charles Dickens: His production of The Frozen Deep. New York: Cornell University Press, pp. 1-90.

Buchanan, R., 1881. God and the Man. Kindle ed. London: e-book.

Dickens (vol 8), C., 1993. The Letters of Charles Dickens; Volume 8. 1856-1858. Pilgrim ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Franklin, S. J., 1828. Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Polar Shores of The Polar Sea in the years 1825, 1826 and 1827, Including an account of the progress of a detachment to the eastward by John Richardson. London: John Murray.

Richardson, J., 2014. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 01 March 2018].

Slater, M., 2011. Charles Dickens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

© 2018 Jacqueline Stamp