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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The Changing Weather & The Coldest Winter in Living Memory.

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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The Changing Weather – and the Coldest Winter in Living Memory:

If Les Dennis were to ask his television audience of one hundred the question:

What is the most common topic of conversation when two people meet?

the top answer would unquestionably be, The Weather.

This is hardly surprising considering the way that the weather affects, and in most cases, dictates our lives and the way that we live.

In fact the highs and lows of our weather seem to match the highs and lows of our lives, and we tend to recall the drowsy heat-soaked dog-days of summers long past - or the winters when the snow lay deep and crisp and even far more readily than the nondescript wet summers and mild winters of recent years.

Many blame global warming for the demise of the classic nostalgia-coated golden summers and snowy deep-midwinters of yesteryear, but according to statistics global warming is a myth and the climate is showing little sign of change apart from the normal cycles of hot and cold periods which have been consistently recorded since records began in the mid seventeenth century.

The weather statistics of the twentieth century in the British Isles make interesting reading, especially with the tag in living memory added!

For example, the hottest summers in living memory are, in order, 1976, 1995, 1983, 1947 and 1933, with the highest temperature in living memory recorded at Cheltenham on August 3rd 1990 at a sizzling 37.1C.

The coldest recorded temperature in living memory was at Braemar in the Scottish Highlands on January 10th 1982 when the thermometer plunged to a record low of –27.2C, and the coldest winters are, in order, 1962/3; 1946/47; 1939/40; 1916/17 and 1978/79.

In fact this month of March 2003 marks the 40th anniversary of the ending of the coldest winter in living memory!

The winter of 1962/3 was the coldest winter since 1740.

There was snow cover across lowland Britain from December 26th 1962 to March 4th 1963 – a total of 67 consecutive days, and overall 1963 was the coldest year of the century. For the first time ever there were two consecutive months when the average CET (Central England Temperature) stayed below zero, in fact the winter CET was an incredible –0.3C.

January 1963 was the coldest month of the century. The sea froze – at Eastbourne it was reported that it was frozen to an extent of one hundred feet offshore for a length of two miles. Lakes, rivers, and even waterfalls froze and harbours on the south and east coasts of England were iced-up, with many craft stuck fast. Huge blocks of ice formed on beaches where waves broke and the spray froze. Coastal marine life suffered severely. There was a snowdrift on Dartmoor recording a depth of 25 feet on January 21st and for the first time since the snowy winter of 1947 there was pack ice in the large estuaries of the Solent, Mersey, Thames and Humber.

As our readers with long memories will recall, the winter of 1962 began abruptly just before Christmas. Many will remember where they were and what they were doing at the time - some will never forget.

The snow came from the north on Christmas Eve, giving Glasgow its first White Christmas since 1938. The snow belt reached lowland England early on Boxing Day – and swept into Derbyshire during the afternoon. By late evening it lay a foot deep in Chesterfield and drifts several feet deep were common in the surrounding countryside. All public transport had ceased.

I remember having to walk home around midnight from Old Whittington to Stonegravels after taking my girlfriend home. Whittington Hill was almost impassable; the large flakes cut visibility to about fifty yards and by the time I had reached Stand Road I looked like the abominable snowman.

I remember taking a short-cut across the park– simply to make fresh tracks in the virgin snow. I remember it so well because it was the day we got engaged!

Even the Channel Islands had snow with two inches falling in St.Helier! What became known as The Big Freeze had begun.

Lives were lost. Several people froze to death after being stranded for up to two weeks in their vehicles in the Scottish Highlands, with snowdrifts up to twenty feet deep and snow-ploughs and rescue teams unable to find them, let alone reach them. Livestock was devastated and wildlife, especially the indigenous wild bird population, was decimated.

A blizzard over southern England and Wales on December 29th & 30th brought snowdrifts over 6 metres deep. Many villages were cut-off for several days. Major road and railway lines were blocked and inoperable and all airports were closed. Telephone lines were brought down, food stocks in rural areas ran low and farmers could not reach their livestock, as a result thousands of sheep, ponies and cattle starved to death.

The Big Freeze continued throughout January which became the coldest month since 1815 and another blizzard on 3rd and 4th brought 5 metre deep drifts to southern England and Wales. In freezing fog at Gatwick on 13th a temperature of -16C was recorded, as at Eskdalemuir.

From 15th to 25th most places stayed below freezing and winds turned easterly again on 17th bringing strong gales and blizzards during the most severe week of the winter, with the lowest temperature recorded at –22.2C at Braemar on 18th January. During this spell the highest hourly mean wind speed records were set at Great Dun Fell in Cumbria at 99 mph, as at Lowther Hill in Scotland on 20th.

On January 23rd the lowest temperature in England was recorded in both Hertfordshire and Herefordshire at -20.6C, and then a maximum of only -8C at Ross-on-Wye the next day!

The Big Freeze continued throughout February, with an average monthly temperature of -0.7C, and a phenomenal snowstorm on 6th and 7th with almost six feet of lying snow at Tredegar in Monmouthshire, a record snow depth for any urban area of the U.K.

At the time I was a driver’s mate at Trebor and vividly recall being marooned at Lauder in Scotland for four days with the lorry half-buried in a snowdrift. Later that same month I recall being stranded in snow near Halifax and a morning so cold that the diesel froze in both the fuel lines and fuel tanks, and at 7am in a lorry park at Drighlington, drivers lit fires beneath their vehicles in an attempt to thaw out the frozen fuel!

The cold continued into March, ending gently, and without widespread flooding, owing to a slow thaw during the first few sunny days of the month. Many places in lowland Britain lost their snow cover on March 4th – for the first time since December 26th the previous year.

However, snow lay in the folds of hills and shadowed valleys of Derbyshire until late April – whilst snow-banks still lined Bowes Moor, North Yorkshire in mid May!

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