A blog by an historian, Pagan and fanfiction writer, with left-wing leaning politics. In short, I could be waffling on about anything.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

British Weather: Driving Through Gales in North East Wales

This was originally published on Suite101, but I'd forgotten about the 'no memoir' rule there. As the article reads more like a personal diary than a well-referenced, impassive research story, it doesn't fit Suite's guidelines. My editor pulled it with much regret.

Apologies to those who read it there first and are now seeing it repeated.


There are times in life when you discover that you are a good driver. Successfully navigating the infamous Horseshoe Pass in a gale was one of mine.

I can't say that I wasn't warned. After spending New Year in Cheshire, I was preparing to leave the next day when the weather report came onto the television. High winds extending to gale force in places was the dire warning for Tuesday 3rd January 2011. My friends looked at my partially packed bag, then back at me. We all watched the television.

"Just so it's out there," commented the house owner with a wry smile, "you're perfectly welcome to stay here as long as you like. Come and live here, if you want to." But it didn't seem so bad. I wasn't planning to depart until the afternoon, when it was supposed to die down.

A Beautiful Day for a Drive in North East Wales

There are few places in the world more stunning than the mountains of North Wales. From the Clwydian Range in the east to the mighty Snowdonia in the West, these pinnacles rise in ever-changing colours, as the seasons progress. The views from the top of them are breath-taking, overlooking places with mystic or ancient sounding names like Moel Llys-y-Coed (Hilltop of the Court in the Wood) or Gorsedd Bran (The Throne of Bran). From the top of the right peak, the wide-eyed traveller can look down and see the contours of Britain laid out as they are in an atlas. From another, I've glimpsed distant Ireland, on a clear day in the summer.

With all of that on the doorstep, it is highly likely that my journey home will involve a detour. I cannot drive past North Wales without venturing into it. However, this occasion felt like one of those rare occasions when I should do just that. Except that it didn't seem so windy, as I left that house in Cheshire. It wasn't even raining and the sun was attempting to shine through the clouds.

It was shaping up now to be a beautiful day for a drive in North East Wales.

How to Drive a Car in High Winds

Later on, the news reports were to talk about 100mph winds lashing at Britain's coastline. I could smell the salt air and see the gulls, but until I drove beyond Connah's Quay, none of this was noticeable. Sheltered by the Wirral Peninsula and the Clwydian mountains, it barely felt like there was a breeze.

But Connah's Quay represents the gateway to the Dee Estuary and beyond that the Irish Sea. Suddenly the weather was pulling at my car, but not too badly.

Once, in the distant past, a policeman friend had taught me some techniques for controlling your steering in adverse conditions. You resist the temptation to grip the steering wheel tightly, because that merely adds in more movement from straining muscles. Instead, thumbs are hooked around the central bar, while the rest of your hands hold lightly. The steering wheel cannot shift then, no matter what force of nature attempts to do so.

I did that and cruised along quite merrily, until the coastline veered away from the mountains and that deadly westerly wind had a clear passage onto the road.

Gale Force Wind Causing Dangerous Driving in Flintshire

Soon I had passed Flint and I could see the sea in misty glimpses out towards Bagillt. But I was mostly watching the car in front of me swerve dangerously towards the curb. It must have struck it, before the driver regained control and continued slowly on. Even holding my wheel as I'd been taught, I could still feel the wind buffeting from the right-hand side.

It was worrying, but not enough to frighten me. Yet the next few minutes saw the pressure build until I had to acknowledge that I was now in a gale. Every driver around me was struggling. We were all crawling along, afraid to do anything close to the speed limit. I signalled to leave the main highway at the next junction.

Before I could turn, even the professionally taught grip failed me and my Zafira lurched towards the side of the road. I pulled back quickly, but it was like wrestling with a beast. I was never so glad as when I entered the sheltered heart of the Clwydian Range again.

Nearly Flying in the Wind in Denbigh

Closeted by soaring slopes, it was easy to dismiss the weather as being a problem only on the coastal roads. The tourist signs said that was an area of outstanding natural beauty. As I followed the route, I was inclined to agree. Then I reached Denbigh.

Whistling down the high street, the gale threatened to lift me off my feet, as soon as I stepped out of my car. I survived about half an hour there, just looking in the nearest shops, before admitting defeat. I intended to follow the Vale of Clwyd back home. What I hadn't anticipated was where that road would eventually take me.

Llangollen's Horseshoe Pass in a Gale

Snaking around the side of a mountain, the exposed, 1,368ft high Horseshoe Pass is frequently closed in winter. It was open today and there was no protection at all from the high winds rushing in from the east.

I was too busy fighting the wheel to be scared. I inched along as slowly as I could without stalling, then paused halfway for a rest. The road can be viewed for miles, as it undulates around the valley. It was deserted. The Welsh had more sense than to be on it.

I was shaking as I reached the bottom, though more from exertion than actual fright. It felt like I had accomplished something in the vast scheme of extreme driving. It was probably stupidity.

Still closer to Cheshire than my own home, I finally gave into common sense and stayed an extra night there.

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