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Dreaming of a white Christmas

21 December 2018

Retirement enabled Roger Clifton to fulfil a long-held Christmas ambition

Stewart Smith/Alamy

Snow-covered Bidean nam Bian from Buachaille Etive Beag, Glencoe

Snow-covered Bidean nam Bian from Buachaille Etive Beag, Glencoe

ALMOST without thinking, the churchwarden asked: “What are you doing for Christmas, Rector?” The answer, of course, was that I would be doing the same as usual: working.

I quite enjoy Christmas, with all the events that you would expect to find in a big church, and all the traditional things at home. But, for some years, my growing wish had been to simplify it completely, and to spend Christmas alone, camping in the snow in the Scottish mountains. So when I retired, after working every Christmas for more than 40 years, that is what I did.

Conditions gradually got worse on the long drive north. Once beyond Loch Lomond, the whole world was white, and, by the time I got to Kingshouse, it was snowing steadily. I was having to change my plan — not only was the snow seriously deep, but the previous night the temperature had dropped to -13ºC, and was expected to fall even lower. I had made winter camping trips in the area before, and had all the right gear, but conditions were becoming too extreme for being out on my own. So I headed for the youth hostel in Glencoe village, getting there just as the road was closed behind me.

Thankfully, the hostel was open: about 20 people were staying there. We knew that none of us could leave for the next few days; so it was all quite jolly. I cooked my anti-Christmas camping rations — strictly no turkey, but mince pies allowed.

Later that night, the snow stopped, and Christmas Day dawned bitterly cold, with brilliant sunshine, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. A handful of us walked to the village church for the morning service, and then I tramped up the deserted road through the Pass.

The scenery was magical. Glencoe so often looks black and forbidding, or is hidden in cloud and rain. But now the long ridge of Aonach Eagach was glittering white against the sky, and facing it, across the valley, were Bidean and its group of peaks. The road through the Pass, and all other signs of human activity, had vanished beneath the snow. There was no one to be seen or heard.

I had walked up many of these hills in summer, but today it would have felt like trespassing. I could imagine the contrast with what would be happening in my old parish, where someone else was now responsible for the 15 annual carol services and the packed family worship on this very morning. Those things were fun, and long may they flourish. But here, for a while, was another world. The familiar mountains stood on either side — totally silent, pure, and beautiful.

On the day after Boxing Day, mince pies finished, I followed the snow plough out, and headed back towards England. The white road became grey slush, and, as I travelled south, the drab winter landscape gradually emerged from the snow. But what had begun long ago as a lighthearted idea had now become a reality, and my heart sang.

Canon Roger Clifton is a retired priest from the diocese of Bristol.

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