“I’m going for a run with the dog,” I hollered to everyone in general, “anyone want to come along?”
Muted refusals from various corners of the three-story house drifted down to the front door where the dog awaited with ears akimbo.
The family’s reluctance was understandable: they had traipsed through the snow-capped forest before breakfast, and dug snow-free paths for Granny; indeed, they had cleared the road outside. They had enough of the snow and outdoors.
My son pottered past us with a sense of purpose. “Actually, Mum,” he confided on his way, “I was going to have a go at making a snowman outside.”
And with that, he put his wellies and mittens on, and disappeared. Shortly afterwards he could be observed rolling large snowballs around with a solemnity normally more suited to ecclesiastical settings. There were other boys outside doing the same with equal gravity.
I hitched the dog up to a lead, donned my running shoes, and headed out. The light was becoming muted and the last of the walkers of the day were heading home as we made our way deep into the forest. We ran happily for half an hour and then walked across the tabletop which was once an iron age settlement.
I love this moment: the silhouettes of all the trees in stark contrast to the grey sky. But as we came to the carriage-track which bears one down to civilisation once more, the dog went potty.
He was very unhappy indeed about a tall imposing figure with a wild head of hair standing at the side of the path. True, the interloper was not showing signs of movement: yet he maintained a deeply proprietorial air over the tabletop hill, standing as he was with his arms wide open, welcoming visitors with a cheery grin.
Mac was deeply suspicious. He did not run close, but sermonised from a distance with short sharp rat-tat-tat machine gun exclamations. Think you’re so tall, don’t you, he barked: well, we’ll soon see who has the most legs round here.
The gentleman had wild hair, like some distracted academic. Macaulay, I said, be quiet. You need spectacles and possibly lessons at scent school: it’s a snowman, dog.
Macaulay remained unimpressed, and showed his displeasure by christening the snowman’s feet. Now he smells right, the terrier rejoined without saying a word. He was slightly happier now: but only slightly.
I, however, was smitten. This lord of the tabletop was my kind of snowman: theatrical, with aplomb. Someone had not only accumulated a very large volume of snow to make a lifesize figure; they had equipped him with all the attributes of a snowman-about-town.
His hair was positively stylish, his face engaging; and he gestured to his land with an almost offhand sweep of his arm, a master of British landowning understatement.
How long, I wondered, had that land been claimed by snowmen? Did folks build them in Georgian times when royal carriages used to clatter across the top in their hunting larks across Windsor Forest? Did Roman children, their villages now long-buried, roll them as solemnly as my son had, just a short distance away? And did the children in those iron age circular dwellings, kept warm by fires, venture out to make an effigy in ice crystals?
You’d have to ask Bob Eckstein that.
Bob was a jobbing writer and illustrator when he stumbled on an area of academic research no-one else seemed to have considered: when were the first snowmen built?
The search proved an absorbing one which would involve hobnobbing with some of the great academics of our time, and an odyssey which took him round Europe to some of the most illustrious libraries and universities which have manuscripts hailing from the mists of time. It took six years, trawling through 15,000 engravings and costs of around $40,000.
Finding the first snowman is a tall order, But he did track down the first representation in print: a tiny fragment of illuminated manuscript from a Book of Hours in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, dated around 1380. Take a look, and read Bob’s story- and source his book- here.
No iron age evidence of snowmen exists, as far as we know. Of course not: it melted millennia ago.
I peeled the dog away from sentry duty and we returned to find Felix’s snowman finished. “Shall I take a picture?” I asked, eyeing the twilight speculatively.
Felix nodded. But he was not coming out again to show me: he was all snowed out. I eyes the solemn parade of stationary figures outside on the green. “How will I know which is yours?” I asked.
“It’s the one with carrots for eyes,” Felix replied gravely.
I went out, and there it was, staring with crazed orange in my direction.
Plus ça change; plus c’est la même chose.