By Lesley-Anne, 67. Christie Downs, SA
It was the winter of 1963. The snow and the fog were like nothing I had ever seen. When I say fog, I mean the dense, impenetrable type where you can’t see more than a few inches in front of you. There was nothing wispy or ethereal about this particular fog; coupled with a thick overnight blanket of pure white snow, we awoke to a world of white outside our window.
My brother and I usually walked to school unaccompanied, at the ages of six and eight this was not unusual back then. However, due to the extreme weather conditions, our Mum decided she would come with us to make sure we got there safely. So, duly bundled up against the elements — duffle coats, scarves, mittens, thick knitted socks and wellington boots, holding our indoor shoes in a cloth drawstring bag, satchels on our backs — the three of us set off.
I can still remember the sense of adventure as we stepped out into the eerily silent white outdoors. The snow underfoot was deep and still pure white. Ours were the first footsteps in it. The fog was so dense and the snow so thick, it was impossible to see where the pavement ended, and the road began. Our route took us to the top of our street, which ended at the perimeter of the local park. There was a fence of tall iron railings; a couple of them had been bent far enough apart that it was easy for a kid to get through. Mum was small, so she, too, squeezed through the gap, and we were inside the park. Usually, a quick walk across a large open grassed area took us to the park gates on the other side. With instructions to each hold Mum’s hand, we headed across the park.
The snow was deep, up to the tops of our wellington boots, and our cold vaporous breath merged with the thick opaque mantle of fog just a few inches from our faces. Our shortcut across the park was anything but this morning. We were still walking after ten minutes with no sign of the park gates. Mum told us to stand still to see if she could get her bearings. The three of us were utterly disorientated, standing there in a thick carpet of white snow, entirely cocooned by the heavy damp fog. It was a strange feeling, not knowing if we were facing north, south, east or west. A bit like when you’re blindfolded and spun around in the game of blind man’s bluff.
Mum took a firmer grip on our hands, and we walked some more. After a few minutes, Mum stopped and admitted she was lost. Looking down, she realized we were standing in our own previously made footsteps, instead of heading in a straight line, we had walked in a complete circle. The snow creeping over the tops of our boots was becoming uncomfortable, and our eyes and noses were running due to the cold air. The decision was made to retrace our footsteps back the way we had come. After a while, we found ourselves back at the bent iron palings. From here, it was a straight line following the lamp posts down the street back to our house.
There was no school that day. We arrived home to find we had been walking out in the thickest, pea-souper of a fog for almost an hour. Our outside clothes were hung up on the clothes airer in front of the kitchen fire and we settled in with mugs of cocoa to spend a cozy day at home with Mum.
That winter of 1962/1963 would go down as one of the worst in British history, with an average temperature of -2.1°C. January 1963 remains the coldest month since 1814. Freezing fog was a hazard for most of the country, even the sea froze, in some places for as much as four miles (six kilometers) from the shore. The conditions continued until the 6th March when the temperature rose to 17 °C and the remaining snow disappeared.
Years later, after we had moved to Australia and I had my own children, I would laugh at them when they complained it was cold on a crisp Adelaide winter’s morning. “You don’t know the meaning of cold,” I would tell them. Sometimes, when I’m driving down the hill and the sea mist has rolled in creating a morning foggy enough to put on the headlights it takes me back to 1963 and the day we got lost in the fog, the thickest most impenetrable fog that I can remember.
Photo credit: Winter Tranquility, A Calm Winter Day With Snow and Fog by Johan Peijnenburg, 2015.