Britain has seen some harsh weather in February, with the River Thames freezing over several times since records began in 1659. However, in the 21st century, temperatures haven’t dipped as low.
The Met Office is predicting a warmer than average month – so no snow again, folks!
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Back in the 16th century, before any records were kept of the temperature, people were used to freezing weather conditions. Long before today’s sophisticated equipment, the public understood one thing: when an icy-cold north wind blew, it usually heralded snow.
Someone even wrote a poem about it, with the famous opening line, “The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow – and what will poor robin do then, poor thing?”, going on to suggest that the clever robin would sit in the barn with his head under his wing to keep warm until the snow cleared.
The Big Freeze
Some will recall the UK grinding to a halt due to snowdrifts and ice during the winter of 1962-63. The period beginning in December 1962 and ending in the first week of March 1963 has become known as the Big Freeze. The snow first fell across the UK on December 12th. It worsened on 22nd December, due to cold winds from Russia and Scandinavia.
During Christmas 1962, the Scandinavian weather front cleared but was replaced by an equally cold one from Iceland. The north wind did indeed blow, bringing with it significant snowfall on 26th and 27th December. The cold snap had begun in earnest and a blizzard struck on 29th December, affecting many parts of the UK.
South-west England and Wales were the worst affected, with snowdrifts 20ft deep recorded in places. Driven by gale-force winds, the snow meant roads were blocked and railways were brought to a grinding halt. The snow brought down power-lines in places and left people living in villages stranded, with no power or transport.
These conditions lasted for more than two months in some areas. By January, the snow was 15ft deep in the west, 8ft deep in Kent and 1.5ft deep in Staffordshire. Temperatures of -19°C were recorded in several locations and the average temperature didn’t rise above freezing for nearly three months. Rivers had lumps of ice in them and even the sea was frozen in places!
Snow continued falling in February 1963, when there were freezing storms and Gale Force 8 winds blowing. Most parts of the country were hit by a 36-hour blizzard, causing heavy snowdrifts that again reached 20ft deep. The wind speed reached around 81 mph, with freak gusts in the Isle of Man hitting a shocking 119 mph.
The dreadful weather brought people together, according to news reports. People who remembered the Big Freeze sent their memories in to ITV – and perhaps surprisingly, there were no bad recollections. Everyone spoke of the wonderful community spirit that prevailed, as everyone came together to survive the worst that nature threw at them.
An 8 year old Jake Patterson attended Burgh Primary School in Galashiels, Scotland. His school wasn’t closed, despite the weather. He said he couldn’t see cars from the pavement, as the snow was shovelled high on the verges. Thanks to the chains on the vehicles’ wheels to stop them from skidding, he could hear them coming.
His school had outside toilets and when the pupils were given their milk at break, it was frozen, with the ice rising an inch above the bottle top. The school never closed during the Big Freeze and the pupils loved playing out at break-time, up to their knees in snow.
Alan Bland was 12 during the Big Freeze. He grew up on a farm in Redesdale, West Woodburn, Northumberland. Life was very tough when the snow came and he had to stay off school for six weeks, as the roads were blocked, so they were cut off. Their farm bordered Redesdale Forest and it was very bleak. He remembered the “relentless” storm, but they had to struggle on regardless, as they needed to get food to their sheep stranded up in the hills.
Wild animals were also suffering, and he would see packs of around a dozen foxes out hunting, abandoning their usual solitary hunting practices because they were starving.
When the thaw finally came, the River Rede burst its banks and huge chunks of ice spilled over into the fields. The ice-filled water took the bark off the trees on the banks of the river, right up to where it joined The Tyne.
The thaw finally came at the end of the first week in March 1963. People awoke on 6th March to a sudden rise in temperature. After living in below-freezing conditions since December, this was the first day of the year when they weren’t getting up to frost.
As March progressed, the temperature soon rose to 17°C, and it wasn’t long before the snow finally cleared.
The football league struggled to catch up, as a total of 261 postponements had to be played before the end of the season! Flame throwers were brought in at Blackpool FC’s pitch to thaw the ground out more quickly. Halifax FC had made the best of a bad situation by turning their pitch into an ice-skating rink during the winter, charging fans to use it, so they wouldn’t lose money!
All over the UK, life began getting back to normal and it was to be another 47 years before people experienced the next unusually harsh winter.
In December 2010, an icy snap struck again and temperatures in the UK were five degrees lower than the normal seasonal average. Widespread snowfall and the abnormally cold weather continued throughout January, bringing widespread travel disruption across Britain – including roads, rail and airports. Many schools had to close.
However, by February, the temperature had increased, despite some blustery, wet and windy weather. The thaw, combined with heavy rainfall, caused flooding in some parts of the country, with six flood alerts put in place. In stark comparison to the snow of December and January, February experienced some of the highest temperatures since records began!
Prior to modern-day records, the coldest recorded winters in history occurred in 1683–1684 and 1739–1740. There are few records of the disruption this must have caused, although reports survive from 1683-84 describing how the River Thames was frozen to a depth of 1ft.
We’re unlikely to see any snow this month, according to the Met Office. The weather in December 2019 was unusually warm. In fact, the hottest December temperature on record was recorded at 18.7°C. Temperatures for February are expected to be close to or above the usual average in the north of England.
There may be some cooler spells in the south, but snow is extremely unlikely. However, no-one should get too excited at the prospect of a mild February, as what we lose in snow and ice, I’m sure we’ll make up for in wind and rain!
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