A couple of years ago I wrote an article talking about how when I was a kid the river Tay in Scotland (alongside which I grew up) used to freeze over. I would get woken up to hear the ice flows banging against each other despite the river being 2 miles wide where I lived. Winters used to be long, cold and sustained. And more importantly we used to get up to a few feet of snow which meant the schools would often be closed and sledging would ensue. It also gave me an excuse to show a cool photo my father took back then:
My point was that just 20 years later this sort of thing no longer happened. Our Winters consisted of the odd few days with a centimetre or two of the flaky stuff that quickly melted then more rain. The Scottish ski industry looked like it would go under from a lack of snow and my assertion was that people living alongside the river Tay now wouldn’t believe that it used to pretty much freeze over. So what happened next? I’ll tell you what happened next. We got 3 proper, old school Winters in a row, each colder than the last! This year was particularly cold (and probably isn’t over yet).
The coldest I’ve ever been in the UK was hiking about 15 years ago in Scotland during a freak cold snap that encased the whole of the UK in ice. I was up a 3000 foot mountain when I took off my glove to throw a snowball at my then girlfriend (a bad idea as it turned out). It took seconds before the cold resulted in a searing pain in my hand, like the life was being quickly sucked out of it. It was around -20C and I can tell you it was bloody cold (my hand immediately found itself in my other armpit to ward off frostnip). I think the next coldest would have to be about -10C since (ignoring wind chill). However just a few short weeks ago I started up my car to go to work and it registered -18C! And this is Yorkshire in about the most inland point of the country. So cold Winters have returned but they’re not quite like I remember them.
Back when I was a teenager and the Winters were cold a bit of snow never stopped us. We didn’t think twice about going into the highlands snowboarding or climbing. A foot of snow was ok, you just drove slowly, kept in a high gear and the revs low. No need for Winter tyres – in fact I didn’t realise there was such a thing – I just used the cheapest tyres I could afford.
Cut to nowadays and a centimetre of snow seems to stop the entire country in its tracks. I sold my previous rear-wheel drive car because it had large, wide tyres that gripped very well in the Summer but would lose traction with even the lightest of feather touches to the accelerator. Now I have a front wheel drive car again and while that’s a million times easier to drive in the snow and ice, it’s still pretty awful in terms of traction and braking. Since the local council doesn’t appear to understand that you should grit the roads I had some entertaining drives on what appeared to be an ice rink. Admittedly gritting doesn’t work below about -8C so I’ll let the council off at least some of the time. But modern high performance Summer tyres really don’t work at all in the Winter.
After some web-based research following the Winter of 2009/2010 I bought myself a pair of Autosocks. The idea is you get stuck in the snow, you can’t get any traction and your day is about to suck. But then you remember that you’ve got a pair of Autosocks in the boot! They’re some flexible material wheel covers that take a couple of minutes to fit over your driving wheels. Put them over the top half of the wheels, drive forward a metre or two and a pull them over the other half. Then simply drive off.
Sounded too good to be true. Except in fact they’re amazing. I tried them out as soon as there was some snow and instead of having to drive at 5pmh I could pretty much drive normally – accelerating hard and braking hard (not that I would generally employ such tactics in snow). Only problem with them is if you keep them on when you return to tarmac they’ll be shredded in no time – so they’re strictly for the ‘stuck in a car park or snowy lane’ scenario. Ironically I got stuck in a car park a couple of days later and they got me out a treat!
However if you’re driving along a regular road and suddenly hit snow or slush you’re not expecting then it’s already too late. So I’ve been looking into Winter tyres and it turns out I didn’t really understand them at all. I assumed Winter tyres were the sort of things rally drivers used for Snow stages – they had metal spikes and would shred a road. Turns out they’re snow tyres and Winter tyres are somewhat less exciting. Instead they’re made of a rubber that works better at low temperatures (Summer tyres suck below 7C and Winter tyres are designed for life below 7C) and have a tread pattern that doesn’t get clogged up with snow. Interestingly Summer tyres wear out more quickly below 7C whereas Winter tyres wear out more quickly above.
So the obvious solution, given that Winter tyres will perform better in the cold wet of Winter (with or without snow) than Summer tyres, is to get a second set of tyres and swap them over at November and March. After some of the death-trap drives to and from work I’ve had and reports from people who bought Winters (and loved them) it’s a no brainer. Only problem is there’s no point trying to buy them in the Winter as they’re sold out or hugely overpriced, so I’ll wait until Summer. I’ll also keep a look out for a cheap pair of spare wheels on eBay to put them on (saves getting my wheels rebalanced twice a year). Of course you can bet if I do shell out the cash on wheels and Winter tyres we’ll end up with a barbecue Winter for 2011/2012. But you know what? I won’t mind that at all. Snow when you’re a kid is all about sledging. Snow as an adult is great for snowboarding holidays but a pain in the arse aside from that. In other words, roll on Summer!
And as for why driving on snow and ice 15 years ago seemed a lot easier, am I imagining it or are modern tyres too specific to their operating temperatures? Or was I remembering through rose tinted spectacles? Could be a bit of both.