After two months in Northumberland, I prepared to set off on the 300-mile trip to Blaenavon, in South Wales, where I was scheduled to spend the month of March researching my Waters, Furlong, and Ball families.
I’d originally planned to drive straight through to Wales on the first of March, but my rental car had to be exchanged at Newcastle Airport on the last day of February, so I decided to begin my drive south directly from there, and make it a two day trip instead of one. That decision turned out to be serendipitous.
The day before the trip, it began to snow, accumulating several inches by the morning of my departure. I don’t drive in the snow. I especially don’t drive in the snow on the left side of the road in a brand new rental car in a foreign country.
I did have another option. I could have traveled the three miles to my friend Kay’s house, and waited out the storm. But I was eager to get on my way, and I had pre-paid my lodging both at the half-way point in Nottingham, and at my destination in Wales. So I left Northumberland as planned, hoping that the A-1 dual carriageway, the main north-south artery in England, would be sufficiently plowed that the trip to the hotel would be safe. After all, it was just a few inches of snow and it was supposed to stop in the afternoon.
Well, it turns out that the British aren’t very prepared for big snowfalls because it just doesn’t happen that often here. It was a dicey drive to the airport on side roads, one of which was closed off completely, and then the drive south on the A-1 was extremely stressful.
The main issue I had was that the windshield washer fluid was frozen, making it almost impossible to see when there wasn’t enough moisture to use the wipers. I had to pull over a few times to wash the windshield at the side of the road, and I also stopped to buy some washer fluid suitable for the low temperature. I put it in a spray bottle which I used while driving, by sticking my arm out the driver’s side window when necessary.
In addition to the problem with the windshield, the roads were slippery and the traffic moved very slowly. Sometimes, only one lane had been plowed. It was a 150 mile, five-hour ordeal to get to Nottingham.
That night at the hotel, I received a text from the owner of my lodging in Wales, letting me know that they were expecting a major storm the next day, which they were calling the Beast from the East. Since it wasn’t expected until the afternoon, I decided to press on in the morning.
Once I uncovered the car from the few inches of snow that had fallen overnight, and made my way out of the unplowed hotel parking lot, the drive that morning wasn’t too bad. I stopped for groceries in Pontypool, and arrived at the cottage in Blaenavon around noon on March first, literally sliding with relief into a parking spot on the icy hill.
And then the Beast arrived. The pipes froze the first night, so I began using melted snow for washing the dishes, and conserved the drinks I’d brought with me. My landlady lived in a rural area twenty miles away, so there was nothing she could do. I saw images on the television of hundreds of people stuck on major highways for 12+ hours, and felt grateful to be warm and dry, and protected from the fierce wind I could hear outside.
After the first two days, I was able to get outside – the snow was up to my knees – and walk over to the main street of the little town. There was one shop open, where I bought some bottled water, and then trudged back to the cottage. On the third day, the temperature went up, and my landlady was able to take care of the pipes.
She warned me that conditions were still too dangerous for me to drive – she said they had encountered roads where only one lane was plowed, so if you met a car going the other way, there was nowhere to pull over. People were still getting stuck everywhere. It wasn’t until the sixth day that I felt it was safe enough for me to drive to the archives and the supermarket.
So that was my first week in Wales. They told me that they hadn’t had a storm like this in many years. I thought about my ancestors, and what the winters must have been like for them. I took advantage of the down time to plan my research, and I did some walking around the town as conditions improved. And, I was very ready to get in the car and go when the right time finally came!