Wales

Most of us have an idealised version of our childhood years. In our memories the sun shone all summer long and it was always light until 10 or 11 at night.

Earlswood near Chepstow. Photograph by Gail Jones.

It rarely rained apart from when there were thunderstorms, the intensity of which have never been repeated. In particular, it snowed every year, crisp white snow like balls of cotton wool - and always at Christmas. As Dylan Thomas said "There was always snow at Christmas."

That might be, mainly, how people fantasise about their past. Yet there are elements of truth in those dreams.

Two years, in particular, have impinged themselves onto the imagination of everyone who experienced them. They were, for many, the snowiest months this country has ever seen.

First there was the winter of 1947. It was just two years after the end of World War Two and Britain was certainly not prepared for such an onslaught of harsh weather conditions.

The snow began on 21 January and within hours roads and railway lines across Wales - across the whole of Britain, come to that - were totally blocked.

Coal was already in short supply, the mining industry not having recovered from the privations of the war years, and now trains and lorries struggled to get what limited stocks that were available through to the power stations.

Many of these power stations simply ran out of fuel and were left with no alternative other than to shut down. And that, of course, meant power cuts, at a time when people really needed their electricity.

Reluctantly, the government was forced to cut domestic electricity supplies to just 18 hours a day. It was a hugely unpopular move and the Labour Party was to suffer dearly for the restriction in the elections of 1950.

That was not all, however. Radio broadcasts were severely limited and the new TV service, so recently reinstated after being suspended for the duration of the war, found itself once more being shut down until the crisis had passed.

Evanston photograph taken by Keith Jones

Newspapers were reduced in size and many magazine, being regarded by the government as hardly essential, were totally closed down. Shops and schools were shut - the latter to the great delight of children across the country.

For them the prospect of sledging and snowball fights were far more inviting than boring lessons in cold, draughty classrooms.

For their parents, however, it was a time of deprivation and considerable concern. As the weeks of snow and cold dragged on there were even fears of food shortages as farmers could not tend their crops and livestock. Vegetables were simply frozen into the ground.

On the Denbighshire hills there was 1.5 metres (five foot) of snow with drifts of over 20 feet in some places. Men and women did not walk down lanes, they simply walked over them and their flanking hedges, as the snow lay so deep and thick

.

Public transport simply could not run, particularly in the rural areas of Wales, and with whole villages cut off for days on end the RAF was forced to make vital food drops to the stranded populace.

Manny Shinwell, the government minister in charge of the country's economic situation, became the most despised man in the country. He even received death threats and had to be given a police escort.

It was not until the middle of March that the snow eventually began to thaw. But when it did it happened very quickly - with the result that in many parts, with the ground beneath the snow so frozen, there was nowhere for the water to go and severe flooding began to occur.

The snow of 1962/63 (the Big Freeze as it is sometimes known) was not so severe as that of 1947 but it certainly lasted much longer.

For nearly three months icy, barren wastes of snow lay across the land and the only way of traveling around was on foot as buses and cars found themselves marooned in deep snow drifts. Roads were death traps that only the most desperate or foolish would even try to use. That winter has been recorded as Britain's coldest period since 1740.

Snow began to fall on Boxing Day 1962, followed by a severe blizzard over south west England and Wales on 29 and 30 of December.

Power lines were brought down and, as if the snow wasn't enough, large parts of the country were hit by freezing fog. In February 1963 there was more snow, this time accompanied by gale force winds, and temperatures in parts of rural Denbighshire fell to minus 18 degrees centigrade.

Lakes and rivers froze and huge blocks of ice were seen on many beaches. It was even reported that, at Penarth in Glamorganshire, the sea actually froze solid.

With roads and pavements more like sheets of glass than user-friendly tarmac, miners in the Welsh valleys found it increasingly difficult to reach their pits and many mines actually closed - with the inevitable result that coal supplies ran short. Factories closed and sporting fixtures right across the country were called off.

In the minds and memories of many people it seemed as if the freezing conditions had been here for ever. Finally, however, things began to improve. The morning of 6 March was the first time since the snow began to fall on Boxing Day the year before that people awoke to a day of no frost. After that a quick thaw set in as temperatures rose and the Great Freeze was finally over.

These days we rarely have snow like that of 1947 and 1962/63. Climatic conditions are different now but there is no doubt that for every person who lived through those traumatic times the great snow falls will never be forgotten.

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