Frozen out in York: how I never made it all the way

Some of my posts take ages to get published.  This is the first of a series of four of them, about a trip during a massive snowstorm one year ago this week that I took to York, England.

All I wanted to to was get to the Yorkshire Air Museum to muse over a piece of family history.

On the night of March 30-31, 1944, during the Nuremburg bombing raid, the Halifax bomber in which my uncle Vince was flying was shot down 7km north of Frankfurt, Germany.  He managed to bail out, but was captured along with three others of his crew and confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  After he was liberated he made it back to Canada, started a family and lived his life.  Despite the amazing nature of his ordeal, uncle Vince told us all very, very little about what happened during his war years.  There were whispers to us when visiting that asking him wasn’t what he’d want, that he didn’t like to talk about it.

So the family legends out of what might have happened to him only grew.  They were ALL wildly off the mark, but they remained stuck in my mind, and it was precisely this shroud over the facts that instilled a fascination for my uncle Vince.  He was the only one of the three boys on my father’s side to go to war.  My father – the eldest – was excused on medical grounds, while the youngest of the three was in still in air force training in Canada when the war ended.

A few years ago my uncle Vince’s widow was asked to attend a ceremony at a flight museum  in York, England commemorating the Canadian airmen who served in the war.  I’d always wanted to go to see how my uncle is mentioned there, and to marvel at the reconstructed Halifax bomber family legend says holds pieces of the plane he’d been shot down in.

But I never seemed to find the right time to go to York until one week at the beginning of December last year.

You might remember that week one year ago now.  A fistful of winter.  It’s not that it snowed that much, but this is England, remember.  The British bureaucrats in colonial times made sure that railway station roofs in subtropical Malaysia were built to withstand the weight of three feet of wet snow, but as soon as a few flakes start to build up on the railway tracks back home even today, the whole country’s system screeches to a halt.

No, wait.  First they make sure to get you on the train and half-way to your destination, and then they shut it down.

So it was on my way to York after having hopped to London from Hamburg to stay with a friend for a couple of days.   Things didn’t look bad pulling out of the station on time, and once we left the bleak wastelands of London’s sprawl the trip north through the blankets of snow was an endlessly changing panorama of slow-laden trees and hedgerows stitching together the rolling hills.

But after a few delays and false starts, the train came to a full stop about an hour short of York.  Before they finally announced that we couldn’t proceed owing to snow blocking a level-crossing gate, I’d imagined the worst.  On a lot of lines in England, if there’s any build-up of snow on the tracks the contact between the “third rail” – the one with all the juice running the train – and the train itself gets clogged up with ice, and it all just stops, and they have to close the line until it can be cleared.  This can take hours or even days if the weather doesn’t change.

Tomorrow: visiting the Air Museum.  Or not.

7 Responses to “Frozen out in York: how I never made it all the way”

  1. December 1, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    Snow looks so pretty in photos but I grew up with it and know the reality of trudging home from school through the dirty slush with chilblains on my fingers and toes

  2. December 2, 2011 at 4:22 am

    I can’t remember now if it was this storm or the one a year earlier… I had a friend in England who was beside herself when her husband nearly got stuck in the Chunnel during a huge snow. As I recall, his train just made it through before they closed it – I do remember blogging back and forth with her as she waited for word that she should go to the station at Milton Keynes and fetch him. She agreed it was beautiful – but a pain.

    All that being said – what a wonderful “sentimental journey”. I can’t wait to read more about it.

    • December 2, 2011 at 6:34 am

      It could have been in the winter 2009 – 2010 as well, which was much longer and colder than last year’s. We had a cold December – this was right at the start of it – and then it warmed up to around the freezing point or above for the rest.

      I love every season, though. You just dress for it and you’re fine.

  3. 5 simhedges
    August 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Don’t worry – there is no “third rail” when you are heading north from London. Third rail systems are only in the South East. Going north it’s either over-head electricity, or else diesel. The line from London to York is the former.

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