21st December 2009 may not be a significant day to remember as 9/11 is for NY, 7/7 is for London and 26/11 is for Mumbai. But for those who were out on the roads in Southern England on that day, 21/12 will be an unforgettable day at least for a while.
Snowfall is not a regular phenomenon for London and the Home Counties. It will snow once in few years and every Tom, Dick and Harry who has a profile in Orkut or Facebook will post their pictures standing in front of their car/home covered with snow. But 2009 was very different. One fine day in February, we had lots of snow on our roads that brought the entire country to a grinding halt, as there weren’t that many snow ploughs to clear the roads. However, as the snowfall lasted only for a day and half, the damage that was noticed was not severely felt.
Come December, things were a lot different. With temperatures of more than 10 deg C in the first week of December, winter was up for a late start. Like Rajinikanth, weather gods were seem to be saying – ‘late aa vandhaalum, latest aa varuven’. Winter did start with a bang. When it snows for the first time after years, or perhaps months, people do greet it with glee coz it does presents an aesthetic appeal. Only when it starts messing up with your daily routine, does everyone realise that snow is nothing but white sh*t. Sorry about my french, flashback and the philosophy. Lets get back to the story of 21/12.
On the said day, I was busy working (really!) from home when my wife called up from work saying that she need to be picked up as the bus services are very erratic. She was in a town called Hemel Hempstead, about 8 miles away from our place and could be reached in about 15-20 minutes during a normal day. When I started around 3:30 pm, there were flakes of snow that started falling slowly. As motorists were cautious about the black ice on the roads, traffic moved along at a gentle pace of 25 mph and I managed to reach Hemel around 5:10 pm. Temperature was already -4 deg C and the snow fall was increasing every minute. However, I did think that I can manage my return journey with in the next 1.5 hours or so. Boy, how wrong I was.
The distance from the magic roundabout in Hemel to A41 should be less than a mile. On that day, the traffic was so very heavy that every 10 minutes, we inched forward by 50 metres. Even emergency vehicles could not find their way, as there was no space to move around. As the air was getting thicker and roads were becoming slippery, many a cars were finding it difficult to stay on track. Like snakes, they were going zig-zag all the way and quite a few of them hit the barriers. Snow as such is not all that bad. When the snow turns into ice, car tyres do not get the grip and start misbehaving and that was what was happening that day. Upon contacting our friends over the phone, we realised that the A41 road (we will have to travel 5 miles on this road to reach home) was heavily clogged and other roads were equally worse. We had an opportunity to make a U-turn and get back to our friend’s place in Hemel. However, it took another hour to make that U-turn. Time at that point was around 7 pm. Little did we know that we had a bigger challenge to fend of.
At the pace at which the traffic moved, we could have easily got down from the car to count all the pebbles on the way and still manage to find lot of time. Inching was too fast a word to describe the pace. There was a guy who stopped his vehicle right in the middle of the road and walked down to the footpath to relieve himself. All through the way (which was about 1.5 miles), there were so many cars that were abandoned on the sides. People were finding it very difficult to drive and they had no option but to abandon their vehicles and walk down. With dark roads, scared and sad faces, it gave a feeling that we were in a war zone of some sort. The most challenging aspect of the journey was the last half-mile, which was a reasonably steep hill. By the time, we reached that point, I had mentally prepared to park my car somewhere on the road, but there weren’t any space left to park. I asked my wife and son to get off the car and walk, so that I can find a place to park.
I was in fact, looking for a space to safely abandon my vehicle for the night when by sheer instinct I started driving on the hill. It really set butterflies in my tummy, as the road was steep, dark, icy and unsafe. My intention was to drive straight ahead in the second gear without losing the momentum, but all plans doesn’t get executed that well, right? With the way the car was going, the only question I had was if I am going to hit another car or the tree. To add to my misery, there were two idiots following me very close. If I had to stop for any reason, they would be the ones to suffer. Much like the stock markets that go on a self-correction mode, my loyal Nissan Primera decided that trees are not meant to be hit and took me to the destination safely. Time was 9:50 pm. That was an incredible and interesting six hours of our lives in the recent times. It was a night I will remember for a long, long time unless something of bigger magnitude happens.
The morning after we got to know that everyone on the road had a similar story to tell. Most of my colleagues were on the road for hours. Some were hesitant to park their cars on the road and hence chose to spend the freezing night on the road inside their cars. Though the weather has eased a bit, the traffic woes in the country still continues.