Gordon Manley

August 12, 2013, by Lucy

Gordon Manley and Snow

Much of the ‘Weather Walks’ project was focused around the archives of the climatologist Gordon Manley. His work on snow will inform form part of ‘Snow Scenes’ and was certainly a source of inspiration for the project at the application stage, so I thought it would be a good idea to write a short post on Manley and snow.

Gordon Valentine Manley (1902-1980) was born in 1902 on the Isle of Man, but grew up in Blackburn, Lancashire. He began taking meteorological readings in the countryside around his home from the age of 12. Later, during his studies at Cambridge University, he had a particular liking for geography. There he also met Frank Debenham, who had been the geologist on the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. In 1927 Manley became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a year later he was appointed to establish geography as a degree subject at the University of Durham, where he remained until 1939. Manley later acknowledged his debt to Debenham for “putting him on the polar track”. His subsequent research clearly demonstrates a love for hills, mountains and snow, both in Britain and in the Polar Regions. He was a founder member of the Association for the Study of Snow and Ice which established the National Snow Survey – the subject of the last post.

The ‘Weather Walks’ project looked at Manley’s work at Great Dun Fell in the North Pennines where he established his own meteorological station to monitor the ‘Helm Wind’ of Crossfell in 1937. Snow often hampered Manley’s journey to and from his ‘hut’ and also interfered with his meteorological instruments. In this post I thought I would share some snowy quotes from the Manley archive to get you thinking about your own ‘snow memories’:

On the historical snow record:

“Snow has long made its mark on the English mind, counting, as it does, in our normally mild climate, as a threat of widespread discomfort and difficulty. It is therefore not surprising that the number of days on which snow or sleet was recorded by the observer can be counted with profit from many old journals” (Manuscript notes for ‘The frequency of snowfall in the London area, 1668-1957’, Box 16/13, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

“So far as Britain is concerned the notable feature is that while in the lowlands the frequency of “snowdays” can be quite large the frequency of a lasting cover is small. In British practice a day with snow means any day on which snowflakes, which may be melting or mixed with rain are seen to fall. This places a considerable premium on alertness of observation. Since 1935 or so the number of airfields maintaining a good watch has increased, and allowance can now be made for some weaknesses of the older ‘climatological’ records so that more reliable statistics can be compiled” (Draft for ‘Fluctuations of snowfall and persistence of snow cover in marginal-oceanic climates’ (proposal for August meeting), Box 16/3, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

“For the London area, we have journals kept by numerous observers which enable us to provide a nearly complete record of the frequency of snowfall back to 1669. Observations of the number of days with snow are however not by any means of equal value. English observers vary with regard to their readiness to note a few flakes of melting snow falling in cold rain. They also vary with regard to the keenness with which […] take very little sleep; others pay scant attention to anything after dark…” (Notes for a paper, Box 16/10, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

On skiing:

Manley was a keen skier and whenever the weather conditions allowed, he  would incorporate skiing with his regular long walks: “A v snowy month: went out on 14th to try and ski without success – wet snow to 1100’ and road blocked mostly above. 22nd went up to Teesdale to Hawood and we both tried to ski a bit. Got a short run in too by the Nether Bra hotel… 23rd got to Garrigill via Alston, then to Tynehead & skied 9 miles to Moor House and back. Beautiful sunny quiet day” (Walking notebook entry for March 1937, Box 24/13, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

“To us in Britain snow has numerous romantic associations and a good deal of misunderstanding prevails about the length of time it really lies […] I think you need about a hundred days of snow-cover in order to make it reasonably worth while to go skiing; this in a normal winter you will not find below about 2,000 feet in the Eastern Highlands or 2,500 feet on the Pennines and the Lake District” (Manuscript notes for ‘Snowfall in Britain’, Box 16/11, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

“Yet from all I have told you, you can see that even at quite high levels, say 2000 feet, our snowcover is still too variable and irregular for reliable ski-ing. You can have lots of fun however if you live nearby and can get our quickly with a car. Nothing is more enjoyable than to take quick advantage of a cheerful windy and bright February Sunday up Teesdale. It may be added that formerly in Teesdale and Weardale up to the end of last century the lead miners made use of what they called ‘skees’ – I have spoken with one of the last local men to use them, above Stanhope; they made them out of barrel-staves and it seems fitting that the most snowy district in England should be the only one I know of in which a ‘native’ development of ‘skees’ was found” (Copy of unbroadcast script ‘Snowfalls and Snowcover in Britain’, Box 16/19, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

On weather memories

“Over the greater part of southern Britain snow falls now and then; and even a child of five living at Penzance has probably seen it and knows what it feels like. But a prolonged spell of snowcover is sufficiently unusual to be a subject of much grumbling, a great deal of inefficiency, and far more disturbance to public life than should be necessary. I find it interesting to catch the phrases used in casual conversation in a place like London such as ‘the winter we had all that snow’. People are beginning to forget just which year it was; but the February of 1947 is sufficiently fresh in memory to have given rise to much thought in this recent rather snowy December whether we were again to have trouble….” (Copy of unbroadcast script ‘Snowfalls and Snowcover in Britain’, p.7, Box 16/19, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

“…Further, you may be so fascinated by the waves (that is weather) that you might overlook the slow swing of the tide (which is climate). That is what happens to many of us whose ideas are influenced by occasional outstanding events such as the rather snow February of 1947. The human memory is very fallible. We do tend to notice extremes and we particularly relish fine warm summers… For everyone who remembers the severe frost of 1895, how many recall the phenomenally mild winter of 1898? And how many of that older generation who talk of the Victorian winters allow for the fast that they lived in the country, or in small towns not provided with public transport. Even if our Victorian grandfathers worked in offices they walked to work in boots – how many of their grandsons wear boots to-day?” (Manuscript notes for a BBC radio broadcast on ‘The Changing Climate’, dated 1950, Box 18/3, Gordon Manley Papers, University of Cambridge).

I hope these thoughts from Manley get you thinking about snow! Which snowy winters do you remember? Have you ever tried skiing in the UK? Do you know anyone who keeps a record of snowfall? Please get in touch or leave a comment to contribute to the project.


Posted in Archive sources