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The Snow Tourist

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Charlie English

Combining on-the-slopes experience with off-trail research, author Charlie English follows in the footsteps of the Romantic poets across the Alps, learns how to build igloos with the Inuit on Baffin Island, examines snow-patches in the Cairngorms to … see full wiki

Author: Charlie English
Genre: Nature
Publisher: Counterpoint
Date Published: November 10, 2009
1 review about The Snow Tourist


  • Jan 23, 2010
Pros: Excellent research, eclectic topics that work together brilliantly, entertaining

Cons: Some maps would be a useful inclusion

The Bottom Line: An enjoyable and enlightening look at snow

In early January we were Slovenia bound once more, flying from Newcastle, our regional airport to Stansted then on to Graz in Austria before picking up a train for the final sixty or so kilometres. Due to the (reasonably heavy by British standards) snowfall our first flight was delayed – not due to snow on the runway but due to frozen engines. The days prior to this had been complete pandemonium in the North East with several of my colleagues whining about leaving work early and some hospital staff not even making it as far as work at all. As we missed our flight to Graz we took an alternative flight to Linz instead and on our arrival there I sent a text message to a Slovenian friend to let her know our change of itinerary. “Be prepared for lots of snow in Slovenia!” she told us in reply.

The following day we travelled by train to Slovenia meeting several inches of thick snow on our arrival. But where it was different from the UK was in the response not just of ordinary people but of the local authorities too. It was five o’clock on Saturday afternoon and a mini-snow plough was clearing not the roads – they had long since been cleared – but the pavements, and not just those beside the main roads but the side streets too. Two days later we were taking a train across the country and we could see that even the roads in the most remote areas had been snow-ploughed. Back home our bin-men had failed to make it through the snow but in Slovenia there were no such problems and everything was functioning without a hitch.

Of course, some places – like Slovenia – do get rather more snow than us and are better organised in dealing with it. In his book “The Snow Tourist”, journalist Charlie English presents a series of separate but related travelogues looking at snow from a number of interesting perspectives. Subtitled “A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall” the book covers a variety of aspects such as how an American enthusiast discovered that no two snowflakes are alike, how Inuits in North America use snow in their everyday lives, and how one Austrian man developed skiing as we know it today.

As well as being a compelling piece of writing in its own right, this book is a touching (but not sentimental) work as English explains how his fascination with snow first began, describing the death of his father, a keen competitive skier, and his subsequent family skiing holidays with his mother and brother.  To assuage his guilt at leaving his own wife and children at home while he researches the severe snowstorms that have affected the eastern seaboard of the United States, English flies this family out to join him in New York, only for that city to grind to a standstill just as they are due to fly home. Charlie’s wife does not share his passion for snow!

This book has everything – culture, history, sport, science – and each aspect that English deals with is given enough depth so make it interesting but accessible by the layman. In one chapter he whisks his long-suffering wife off to Vienna on the pretext of a romantic cultural weekend break away from the snow but his first port of call is the Kunsthistorisches Museum where he makes a beeline for, perhaps the most famous depictions of a snow scene, Pieter Breughel the Elder’s “The hunters in the Snow”.  In another he visits the place reputed to be the snowiest in the world just north of Seattle, quite remarkably he tells us that just on the other side of the mountains is the city of Spokane which is one of the hottest places in the States! Here he uses the ongoing battle between two towns over which gets the most snowfall, to illustrate the difficulties inherent in accurately measuring snowfall.

I am incredibly dim when it comes to things metrological (I once remarked how funny it was that it is always very sunny once one gets above the clouds, something my OH has never let me live down) but the scientific aspects of the book are explained brilliantly not just within the chapters as appropriate but in a quirky little miscellany at the end of the book. There’s just enough science to explain things to some one like me, and a comprehensive bibliography for those who want to read up in more detail. The miscellany also includes a selection of list of things like most avalanches victims by country, ten weird snow falls, a pictorial guide to common snowflake shapes and a pictorial guide to building an igloo (I must admit to not yet having tried this!).

"The Snow Tourist" is exceptionally well researched and includes meetings with experts and excerpts from diaries and newspaper articles from the times of significant periods of heavy snows. Most notable is a section on the American author Jack London which describes how the gold prospectors risked life and limb battling with the elements in order to try to make their fortunes.  I read London’s “The Call of the Wild” almost thirty years ago at school and Charlie English has certainly inspired me to re-read it, which, when I do so, will have a whole new significance for me.

Any criticisms? Only one. It would have been really helpful to get a better idea of the geography of the locations visited so it would have been great if there had been some maps too.

“The Snow Tourist” is a terrific read which will be enjoyed by anyone who gets excited by the first flakes of snow falling. Part travelogue, part history, part science, it’s a well-considered account of one man’s obsession that simultaneously educates, entertains and enlightens. Highly recommended!

272 pages


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