Fifty years ago we were sick of the Big Freeze – I was sick then too ... kept home from school for ten days or more ... then my parents had to drive me the 30 miles to Oxford.
|Frost Fair 1883 - 84: |
painted by Thomas Wyke
It had started snowing on Boxing Day – a magical time for kids ... and we’d been out making a snowman that lasted in its dirty lump until June. I remember the Christmas lights ... so pretty ... in our outside playroom with its own Christmas Tree – and where we’d opened our presents on a brooding heavy snow-cloudy Christmas Day.
The room was big enough for a ping-pong table, a piano, bookcases – full of the Andrew Lang’s “Coloured” Fairy Books (12 in all) – which I remember sitting and devouring – a train set laid out on the verandah ... a wonderful playroom for three children to lose themselves in with various hobbies, card games etc and at that stage hula hoops (I was hopeless and still am ....!!)
|Piles of snow 1963|
The snow when it came enveloped everything – a complete white-out ... which did not improve for three months til the thaw started. Over Christmas the sparkly snow, the icicles that hung as great skirts of daggers ... it was a magical time ... till the dreaded illness struck.
My brothers must have gone back to school and once I was well enough my parents set out in two cars ... in case one had to be abandoned I guess. I don’t remember much of the journey – except that the white-out was everywhere ...
|Satellite photo of Britain|
showing extent of snow -
2009 - 2010
.... the ferocious cold, the bitter winds pushing fifteen foot drifts of snow across the fields were real enough. We had snow ploughs keeping the main roads as clear as possible – but that didn’t stop the treacherous ice taking its toll.
The freeze never stopped and the new year of 1963 ushered in what would prove to be the coldest month of the 20th century. We had quite a long garden ... and considering it was after the war the country had been through worse .. the winter of 1947/48 was not as severe, but was even snowier ... yet my parents seemed to be hardier and coped with just spades to clear the drive. Once cleared – it was immediately snowed over yet again?!
|Looks like our igloo!|
Things didn’t stop in those days ... there was no working from home, coal had to be collected (there was no North Sea oil or gas), drinking water in the towns had to be distributed – the reservoirs froze feet thick ... I seem to remember the milk being delivered - but perhaps that’s fanciful!
Life went on as best it could ... the trains chugged through the snowy landscape, as I found out the roads were passable - I got back to school, the weather was extreme to put it mildly ... one of the cars conked out on the way back ... my father managed to fix it and my parents got home safely ....
|Christmas lights on tree|
The sea froze off Kent, an ice-breaker was needed to keep Chatham Dockyard open. Ice floes appeared in the upper reaches of the Thames, and by the end of January it was possible to walk across the river at Windsor.
The blanket of snow just stayed ... the weather has always been changeable and extreme at times ... but not always reported as it was in 1963.
|Song thrush in the snow|
In early 1940 the weather was kept secret! All references to the weather were censored by the authorities for fear that the information could prove useful to the enemy.
In fact it was an irrelevant precaution as the whole of Europe, including Spain and Portugal were held in an icy grip. The temperature in Sussex went down to – 21 degree C ...
At the end of January in 1940 there was a spectacular ice storm ... birds were frozen by their feet to branches of trees, or fixed to rooves of houses ... sheep were frozen by their wool to gorse bushes on the Downs ...
... the sea was frozen off the coast, milk rounds-men took up skis, abandoning their wheeled vans to carry their deliveries on sledges, as did errand boys delivering the necessities of life ...
That year at the start of World War Two the thaw arrived early in February, but it had been the coldest winter since 1895.
The weather has always varied ... the Thames froze over in Pepys’ time (1667) when frost fairs were held on the Thames during the period known as the Little Ice Age.
Apparently the Thames froze over in AD250 when it was frozen solid for nine weeks; again in AD923 the river was open to wheeled traffic for trade and the transport of goods for 13 weeks, while in the Middle Ages of AD1410 it lasted for 14 weeks.
|Christmas 1950s lights|
The last frost fair was in 1814 ... an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge ... the climate was growing milder; old London Bridge was demolished in 1831 and replaced with a new bridge with wider arches, allowing the tide to flow more freely; additionally the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, making the river less likely to freeze.
Since 2003 a revival ‘frost’ festival, the Bankside Winter Festival, takes place over 12 days along the south side of the Thames, having been modelled on the European Christmas markets.
As boarders we were allowed to have one day out either side of half-term that last from Friday afternoon, until Monday early evening ... when we were back in our boarding houses. I have no idea whether that ‘spring’ term of 1963 I had a day out ... our house was about an hour from school, so days out were relatively easy ... but not when the country was covered in snow.
|Jerusalem 10 January 2013|
Surprisingly 2012 has not been the wettest year on record that occurred at the start of the Millennium, which had 7mm more rain than we’ve just experienced ...
... as we await the arrival of a cold snap, and the threat of snow – we will see what the middle of January 2013 will bring ...
Part 2 will tell of the flooding ... and other important tales to tell on Sunday the 13th ...
At least we’re not struggling with fire as the Australians are ... my thoughts go out to them ...
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