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The British Winter Tyre Conundrum

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Here in Britain we’re obsessed with the weather. Many find this puzzling since Britain has a pretty mild climate: not very hot in the Summer, not very cold in the Winter and not very exciting in between. We don’t get monsoons. No tornadoes (other that the sort that are so small they wouldn’t get a mention on a Texas weather report). No metres of snow in the Winter. No Summers where you can boil an egg on a road. It gets a bit windy, a bit sunny, snows for a few days in he Winter and pretty much rains for all time in between.

However during most Winters there is a period of a week or two when the country comes to a complete standstill. A mere inch of snow is enough to block all the motorway, leave people stranded in their cars in the night and cause countless crashes. Yet, while the average temperature between November and March stays below 7C, it rarely dips into double negative digits. And if there’s a grand total of a foot or snow over the Winter period then that’s considered a “bad” Winter (such as this one). Countries such as Germany never have these problem. So what’s going on?

The difference is Winter tyres. In a lot of European countries if you crash in Winter with Summer tyres fitted your insurance is declared void. So when the temperature dips below 7C people swap their Summer tyres over to Winter ones and swap them back when temperatures rise above 7C the following Spring.

Brits tend not to buy Winter tyres for two main reasons:

  • There isn’t enough snow and ice to justify them
  • Cost – the fact is motoring in the UK is expensive enough

However after doing some research it’s easy to argue that those two above points are invalid and you’d be crazy not to. Firstly the snow issue. Contrary to popular (in the UK) belief, Winter tyres do not have spikes on them. They differ from Summer tyres in two distinct ways: different rubber and different tread. The rubber in Summer tyres stays soft and pliable above 7C and this means they reshape themselves and stick to the road, providing you with grip. However below 7C that rubber hardens to the point where instead of gripping onto the road surface it loses that cohesion and on wet, slushy or snowy conditions the grip, so traction and stopping distances becomes significantly worse.

Winter tyres on the other hand come into their own below 7C. The rubber stays soft at those lower temperatures and so are able to move and grip the road. Next, the tyre tread is different to allow better gripping in snow and slush. If you look at the picture below closely you can see that snow sticks in the tread and this helps provide better traction on snow. The little ridges on each knobble also grip into the road and slush to help things further:

Some Winter Tyres

Next is cost. Since the rubber on Summer tyres hardens below 7C it turns out that they wear much more quickly than Winter tyres that are designed to work in the cold. So if you switch to using Summer tyres in the Summer and Winter tyres in the Winter you’ll find that both pairs will last longer than using Summer tyres all year round. While the cost difference between Summer and Winter tyres isn’t great it means that in the long-term it can work out cheaper to have both sets of tyres – so long as you have a place to store the spare wheels and don’t use the same wheels and swap the tyres over (since that means paying for tyre fitting and balancing twice a year).

I was interested to see how good they were so bought a spare set of wheels with Winter tyres for my wife’s car when it started getting cold late last year and prayed for snow. Fortunately my prayers were answered and we’ve had one of the coldest Winters in recent years in the UK and plenty of snow. And I tell you what, having tried Winter tyres you’d be crazy not to fit them!

As I mentioned an inch of snow in the UK grinds the place to a halt, but an inch of snow when driving with Winter tyres is nothing at all – it’s just like driving on a wet road. Zero fuss. One night my wife was out babysitting and drove home while a couple of feet of snow was falling. Cars were abandoned all over the place and the only things moving were 4×4 vehicles and her little Fiat 500. I, on the other hand, ended up staying at a hotel from where I was coming home – despite having snow socks for my car, in the end I had to quit and call it a night. If I had Winter tyres I’d have had no problem getting home. Grip in the wet was also very good – altogether infinitely safer than my car on its useless Summer tyres. Sure, you still slip on ice, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as on Summers.

The fact that we stopped caring about the weather forecast because we knew we could get through any snow and slush took a lot of potential stress away and made me a Winter tyre convert. Whether it snows or not they’re far safer than Summer tyres and when it does snow it gives you a much higher chance of getting home without crashing into a tree. I’ll definitely be getting a spare set of wheels and Winter tyres for my car for next time. I would strongly urge you to do the same. Unless you live in Bora Bora. In which case, you lucky git!

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A Rest Is As Good As A Rest

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The last couple of years has been an absolute whirlwind – mainly in terms of work. Jumping out of the fire into another fire (still looking for that frying pan) meant I’ve barely had time to relax, put my feet up, work on my own software projects, chill out and forget about the pressures of work. So I took a couple of weeks holiday and, going against tradition, decided not to do anything. No foreign travel. No road trips. No plans. No agenda. Just not working and taking each day as it comes.

A Self Portrait Relaxing In The Garden

I reckon I’m getting the hang of it. I should do this more often. 😉

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Reminiscing About Cold Winters Ain’t What It Used To Be

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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:

Ice Flows In The River Tay

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.

My Autosocks In Action

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.

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The Days When The River Tay Used To Freeze Over

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I’m only in my early thirties but already within my lifetime I’ve seen marked changes in the climate. I grew up in a little village called Wormit (and then latterly in a slightly bigger village next door called Newport) on the river Tay. At this point the river is just under 2 miles wide. It’s a proper, fast flowing river and many people have been swept to their deaths in it over the years.

And yet, when I was a lad I used to get woken up in the Winter by the noise of huge blocks of ice bashing into each other as they creaked their way down the river. My dad took a photo one Winter morning of the ice flows which you can see below (note the chunks of ice in the middle distance and that Dundee is lost in cloud):

Ice Flows In The River Tay

Today a mere 20 years later people would think me crazy if I suggested the river froze in Winter. You’d be lucky to see a flake of snow anywhere near the place. I remember the local schools having to close as a result of heavy snowfall and we’d sit watching the cars spinning off the road at that corner by our house (see above). Nowadays? The Winters are so mild that neither is an option.

Scotland used to have several thriving ski resorts and yet now the season is shorter, some of the resorts don’t open at all and the amount of snow is a fraction of what it was. The Winters just aren’t cold or sustained any longer and it’s happened in only a few years.

When I visited New Zealand in 2003 it was amazing to see pictures of the Franz Josef glacier as it had been just a century earlier and know that the car park a couple of miles from the glacier was covered by the glacier only a few decades earlier. Glaciers the world over are melting and ski resorts across Europe (for example) are seeing shorter seasons year on year. While periods of warm and cold are cyclical over time the years since the 1980s have seen rapid glacial melt well beyond anything predicted by scientists based on historical records.

Whether you believe that global warming is real and exacerbated by humans or whether it’s a government conspiracy used as a stick to beat tax payers with (or are somewhere in between), the fact remains that we’re coming out of an ice age earlier than expected and it’s looking increasingly likely that within my lifetime the polar ice cap may disappear completely in the summer months – consigning polar bears among other animals to history.

We have short lives and therefore a very short-term view of the world in which we live. But in that short time the world’s climate is changing, extinctions are at a level higher than at any time in the past and in geological timescales these changes are happening in an instant instead of a long time.

I often wonder what archaeologists a million years in the future looking at the fossil records would think. I suspect they’d wonder if some global catastrophe occurred in the same way we’ve wondered why the dinosaurs died out. My concern is that they’d be right. And that the catastrophe was us.

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Yorkshire Flooding Hits Top Scottish Blogger!

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Well ok, to be fair I’m not a top Scottish blogger, so that’s not quite true. And ok, the Yorkshire flooding didn’t directly “hit” me, but it definitely affected me as you’ll see.

It’s not often that the little village in which I live – Silsden – makes the national news, but yesterday it did for all the wrong reasons (once again). Firstly a colleague mentioned after lunch that he’d heard on the radio that a factory had been evacuated in Silsden due to flooding. My first thought was: “there’s a factory in Silsden?” and then I tried to work out where it was. A couple of friends and my father (who can text like a pro) texted me to say the news was on the BBC. I found some video taken on a mobile phone of the flooding but couldn’t make out exactly where it was to see if it was near my house or not. Eventually a friend pointed me at some photos of the flooding so I could see for myself what was going on.

To my dismay I realised that the factory was literally a stone’s throw from my garden and the canal that’s along the road and above my house looked particularly full (I thought canals never flooded?). From the pictures I could tell that the tiny stream that runs behind some houses near me was a raging torrent and the only road to my house was blocked by rather a lot of water. Since I could still ping my home server and that I was reassuringly far away from the river I concluded that my house was still there and the chances of it being flooded were very slim. At least that’s what I kept telling myself, I knew I’d find out later.

Since the trains from Leeds (where my good lady works) were cancelled I gallantly offered to drive over and pick her up. This took 2 hours where it normally takes 30 minutes. Since lots of roads were closed all the traffic in Yorkshire seemed to be redirected to where I was going. After over 3 hours we had to conclude that we weren’t getting home any time soon – we stopped at the in-laws to wait for the traffic to die down and try again. This we did an hour or two later only to discover that – gasp – all roads to Silsden were closed! For the first time in my life I couldn’t get home, although staying at the in-laws was no hardship.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that I’d get home in the morning, get my camera out and capture some quality photos of the flooding and devastation to make a really interesting article. But guess what? All the water had receded! Grrrrr. Fortunately though none of the houses around me were affected by the water and aside from some water getting into the basements of some of the shops on the high street and the flooding at the factory, everything ended happily.

Two interesting facts about Silsden:

  1. The first survivor of the infamous Yorkshire Ripper escaped his clutches in…. That’s right, Silsden! Unknown to me at the time one of my previous banner photos for this site was taken in the exact spot where Tracy Browne jumped over the fence to escape.
  2. The largest onion ever grown – weighing in at 10lb 14oz – was grown in… You guessed it, Silsden by local Vincent Throup! (I told you Yorkshire folk like their food).

Oh yes, and I guess the other interesting thing is that I live there. Still!

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Some People Deserve What They Get

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Picture this. Myself and a couple of friends are hiking up a 3000ft mountain in the Lake District. It's raining. I don't mean it's just a shower, I mean it's torrentially raining. It has been all morning. We're all wearing full waterproofs and we're still soaked. Visibility (since we're in the middle of a cloud) is down to around 20m, maybe less. It's windy, which when combined with the rain could make it a cold day indeed. Without the waterproofs we'd have never even set off from the car.

We were several miles from the start, several miles from anywhere in fact. I was leading at this point and out from the mist ahead a bedraggled woman appeared. She was looking at her feet, her long hair was soaking wet and as she got closer I realised that she was wearing a fleece, a pair of jeans, some not-very-solid shoes and a very miserable expression on her face. She was followed by 3 guys in their late teens who were similarly under-dressed in jeans, sweaters and trainers. One of them was actually carrying a bag but I imagine nothing useful was contained within it (probably some cans of Special Brew).

When they passed us my friends and I stopped and exchanged incredulous glances. The kids we had just seen were a complete bunch of idiots. All it would take was one of them going over an ankle and within a short period of time they'd have hypothermia and then be in real trouble. I can't imagine what possessed them to hike up a mountain in such terrible conditions so ill-prepared. It's not as if it was a nice morning where it looked like it was going to clear up – the day started grim and it was always going to stay grim. Not one of them had a waterproof jacket and it was a fine line they were treading.

Whenever I read about people getting stuck on mountains who had no right being there I feel like their miserable situation served them right (of course plenty of experienced people get caught out but that's a different thing altogether). These idiots then put others at risk who have to go and rescue them. It makes my blood boil.

The kids we saw no doubt got back in one piece but it wouldn't have taken much for them to have been in real trouble and I wouldn't have had the slightest bit of sympathy for them. At least the miserable day they had should have put them off for life and that's a good thing. Mountains should be treated with respect and are not the place for the unprepared.

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Worst. Summer. Ever.

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Another cloudy dayI know it’s a British preoccupation to talk about the weather but I generally try to steer clear of the topic. If you get obsessed with the weather you forget about the fact that you shouldn’t let the weather dictate what you do with your time. Just because it’s raining and isn’t sunny doesn’t mean you can’t go hiking or biking. And just because it’s baking sunshine doesn’t mean you should sit indoors all day watching TV or waste the day sunbathing.

However this summer in particular is worth a mention because in Britain it’s been (so far) the worst summer of the past 30 years or so. Since I can only remember the last 30 years of summers I wouldn’t like to say it’s the worst for a longer period – even though I expect it is.

Every day is that same. I get into my car to drive to work, it’s 9-11C, it’s cloudy and it’s raining. Every day. Every time I look out the window it’s cloudy and raining, or cloudy and has just been raining, or it’s cloudy and it’s just about to start raining. When I drive home there are rain clouds overhead. When I play football it’s cloudy and almost inevitably will rain at some point. The point here is that there are no blue skies. Rain is never more than an hour away. And the average temperature is about what it is in autumn. It’s pathetic.

My stringent measure of a nice day, a John Conners Nice Day seems like a relic from a long gone era of four seasons in the UK. The chances of experiencing a full day with not a cloud in the sky where I live is completely zero.

With clouds constantly overhead it’s like living in a monochromatic world (that’s black and white) since with all the light from the sun filtered out by low lying clouds, everything is painted with a grey tinge. It’s terrible for photography, which is why my Flickr site hasn’t had a lot posted to it lately. My grass is a grey shade of green, the trees are grey and even the blue tits nesting in my garden look like grey tits (if such a bird exists).

When I was a kid the summers seemed to go on forever. We had hose pipe bans simply because it didn’t rain for 2 months. There were weeks of John Conners nice days and if I wasn’t careful I’d get sunburned. Nowadays the only risk I get in the UK is if I make a sliding tackle at football and get burned by the AstroTurf!

A friend of mine is convinced that global warming is a government conspiracy and that while its existence is completely unproven it’s being used as a vehicle to shape policy and squeeze more money out of Joe Public for a seemingly worthy cause. Such as “let’s tax cars more because of global warming”. While I laughed him off as being paranoid and a member of the tinfoil hat brigade, I’m starting to think that maybe he’s got a point. Or maybe I’m just bitter and twisted because my considerable collection of shorts and t-shirts are remaining unworn and sitting in my wardrobe. Like the title says – worst summer ever.

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Worth The Effort

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Quite often when I’m going out to take some photographs with my friend Ade I’m almost willing him to phone me and tell me he’s not going to bother. I’ll look outside and it’ll be cold, wet, windy and rainy. Or even hailing. I’ll picture in my head sitting in the car in the middle of nowhere praying for a break in the weather that never comes.

Except Ade doesn’t cancel – he never does – we head out and more often than not we get lucky with some amazing spells of great light and I realise that if we’d cancelled we’d have missed some great shots. Ade really has a gift for getting lucky with photography conditions.

So last Sunday I was in a similar mood, it had been raining and sleeting on and off all morning and as soon as we left my house in his car the weather took a turn for the worse. When we arrived at our destination we had to sit in the car for 20 minutes while it lashed it down! When it stopped we headed to Goredale Scar and were treated to some fantastic light, as you can see below:

Hidden Valley

We then carried on to Malham Tarn and the weather was looking even more grim than before. If I was on my own I’d have just driven home but luckily Ade never gives up, and the sun briefly broke out letting me take the following picture, which in my opinion is the best photo I’ve taken so far (although not a patch on Ade’s work):

Stick Together In Situations Like This

I’m going to print this one out 20″ x 30″ and put it on my wall at home. Like most photos it looks much better printed out than it does on a computer screen and I reckon it’ll look great poster sized. The detail on the full-sized picture is really quite impressive and shows what you can do with a not-exactly-high-end digital camera like mine.

It just goes to show that persistence pays off and a day spent in the cold and wet countryside is well worth it when you get something you can put on your wall like this. And having a friend who’s not only the source of all my knowledge of photography but has the persistence and determination of a fanatic is pretty useful too!

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It’s Raining, But I’m Smiling

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Well, here I sit in a café in Portree on the Isle Of Skye. It's been raining pretty much non-stop since my wedding on Friday but how do I feel? I'm the happiest man alive.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the whole wedding idea, it turned out to be the most amazing day of my life and about a million times better than I ever could have dreamed of. Some friends even told us that they never thought they'd go to a wedding to rival their own (your own is always the best apparently and mine is no exception!) but with ours it did.

A colleague warned me that the wedding vows are "more than just words" and he was absolutely right – as I was repeating the vows to my wife (woo hoo!) the gravity of the situation hit me along with the emotion of it all and I broke down. She looked absolutely beautiful and as I was looking her in the eyes I meant every word and they came from the bottom of my heart. The rest of the day was a blur that flew by in a flash – and when we get home and look at the photos I'm sure it'll all come flooding back. To spend the day as the centre of attention with all my friends and family there to witness us tying the knot was truly wonderful and I only wish it could have lasted longer.

It may sound corny but already I feel like a different person. I left Yorkshire a boyfriend but I'm returning as a husband. Anyway, I'll write more when I get home and put up some photos, but in the meantime my wife is putting on her jacket – it's raining outside and we've got scenery to go and look at! Later.

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Warm Weather, Southern Softies And Me

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I’ve noticed a change in me since I moved down from Scotland 7 years ago. I never used to feel the cold in the Winter and I always used to suffer in the heat come Summer. Now I seem to be the other way round! Visiting my brother in Edinburgh last Winter felt like I was in the Arctic and the scorching weather of this weekend and week has felt just right and I’ve not been overheating at all.

IMG_4166

A scene like this (from Sunday) would have made me search for the shade out of the sun a few years ago but now I didn’t even notice the baking heat beating down on me – and I certainly didn’t feel drained of life as I used to.

Of course that has a lot to do with my car’s air conditioning and being able to get out of the heat. Up until a few years ago the thought of air conditioning in a car in the UK under £50,000 was ridiculous. Now pretty much every new car you can buy has it as standard. I’ve had it in the last 3 cars and while I might have thought it a luxury before, my friend Jon’s Ford Focus proved once and for all that you can’t live without it. Following a biking trip on a hot Summer’s day where he drove I started car hunting not because I wanted a new car but because I needed air conditioning!

It’s great to escape from the hot temperatures outside to the icy coolness of my car and feel refreshed. But since I’ve turned into a southern softie I have to watch it doesn’t get too cold!