Be prepared for a winter chill

Villagers discover strange footprints in the snow.
Villagers discover strange footprints in the snow.
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by Heather Elvidge

When the sun shines in a clear sky, the day can feel like spring; then leaden clouds roll in and it’s winter once again. Welcome to February.

The good news is that from now on the sun – clouds permitting – will start to feel warmer. Yet cold snaps are still possible. Be prepared for a chill from February 7 to 14, one of five cold spells identified by Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan.

Known as the father of meteorology, Buchan was Secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society from 1860 until his death in 1907. He collected data from around the world, which led to some key discoveries about the global circulation of winds and pressure systems.

Among his many achievements Buchan produced the first weather maps, and he realised that conditions over Iceland affect Britain’s weather. But fame is fickle, so he’s best known today for the Buchan Spells. He believed that these periods of colder-than-normal or warmer-than normal weather can occur at approximately the same time in most years.

The mention of Buchan’s spells makes today’s meteorologists grimace. Weather patterns are more random, they say. And yet, Buchan’s spells often prove a good guide in northern England and Scotland.

False trail

So far we’ve avoided any significant snowfall, unlike in January 2013. A good thing, too, most people would say. But isn’t it fascinating to see footprints in the snow? The treads of boots, small and large, or even better, the tracks of wild animals. The urge to follow them is irresistible.

But what if the tracks were left by cloven hooves? Not a deer, but a cloven-footed beast with two legs.

There was quite a fuss in March 2009, when a trail like that was found in a garden in Woolsery, North Devon. The story recalled a famous incident in 1855, which came to be called The Devil’s Footprints.

On the morning of February 9, after a heavy snowfall during the night, residents of several south Devon villages were alarmed to find strange tracks meandering across the countryside. Long trails of prints, in a single line, crossed fields, roofs, walls and haystacks, causing uproar in 30 different places. Most worrying were the prints that approached front doors - superstitious folk were soon blaming Old Nick.

That explanation was hardly more fanciful than some others that were suggested when the story appeared in The Times. It was a monkey, escaped from a travelling menagerie; or a badger, various birds, even a kangaroo. Someone blamed gypsies, walking on stilts. Whatever it was, the mystery was never solved.

Troublesome or puzzling landscape features were often blamed on the Devil. All good things came from God, so huge boulders, ravines, and stony fields had to be Satan’s work.

But although the Devil was an evil tempter, in folk tales his plans often failed because of his stupidity. Even when he made a wager for a human soul, he was usually outwitted. Satan could never win because Christ had already defeated him.

However doomed his efforts, “Old Nick” still seems a bit too familiar. Its origin is unknown, though it could lie in Scandinavian words beginning with “nik”, used for dangerous supernatural beings.