A history of winters past

Monday 11 January 2010, 11:28

Derek Brockway Derek Brockway

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It's too early to make comparisons with other winters yet because we've got the rest of January and February to go but it's already the longest cold spell for about 30 years.

Looking back, the three winters of the early war years (1939, 1940, 1942) were notable for their harsh conditions.

In the winters of 1939 and 1940, not only was snow a major problem, but there was also a spell of freezing rain which caused severe disruption to transport, and many injuries from people slipping on the ice.

On 19 January 1942, a great snowstorm affected much of Britain and February 1942 was exceptionally cold.

The really big snow of the 20th century came in the winter of 1947. This really was an exceptional winter with some dramatic snowstorms.

The severe weather didn't start until 22 January and continued until about 15 March. Snow fell frequently and in large amounts.

In the Denbighshire hills, snow reached depths of 5 ft with 20 ft deep drifts in places. It wasn't long after the World War II so there were already food and fuel shortages and the severe weather made life even tougher.

Much of the country came to a complete standstill. Public transport didn't run and in some places people just couldn't get to work.

To keep the ports open, the Government had to use ice breakers, more used to working in the Arctic than in Britain. Large parts of the country suffered daily power cuts.

Factories were forced to shut down and over 4 million men found themselves on the dole. In Mid and West Wales villages were cut off for days. The only way to get food and fuel through to some of them was by air; dropped from RAF planes.

Farmers across Wales say the snow of 1947 was the worst in living memory. They lost more animals that year than in any other. Almost a quarter of the country's sheep perished.

The winter of 1947 was the snowiest since 1814. Just trying to keep warm was an art in itself. There was no central heating back than so people had to wear coats and scarves indoors.

Others burned their garden fences and packing crates, cut down trees and hedges for fuel. And when the snow drifted it really did lie 'feet deep' across the land.

It was also a very dull winter with a lack of sunshine, which made it even more depressing, and to make matters worse, when the thaw finally came in March the combination of melting snow and heavy rain led to widespread severe flooding!

The winter of 1962 and 1963 was not as snowy as 1947 but it was colder and went on for much longer. In fact it was the coldest winter in Wales since 1740!

There were lots of sunny days but the snow lay on the ground for two or three months before it finally began to melt.

Football matches and race meetings were called off but one game that did go ahead was the Wales versus England rugby match at the old Cardiff Arms Park. This was because the ground staff had thought ahead and covered the pitch with straw.

Lakes and rivers froze. Huge blocks of ice formed on beaches and some people say the sea froze in Penarth!

You couldn't get fresh vegetables. The schools were often closed, usually when pipes burst or when there was a fresh fall of snow.

Buses and trains stopped running and all over Britain, schools and factories were forced to close. The side roads and country lanes were impassable for weeks and the diesel in buses and trains froze in their tanks.

One of the first snow storms I can remember as a boy growing up in Barry came on 18 February 1978. The blizzard turned out to be one of the biggest of the century and the worst for 15 years at the time.

In Cardiff there was 34 cm of level snow (13 inches) with drifts 8 metres high (26 feet). Wales had just beaten Scotland at rugby 22 points to 14 at the Arms Park and many people were out celebrating including Radio Wales presenter, Roy Noble:

"After the rugby we all dashed off to the nearest hostelry for a beverage or two. It was when we emerged that the shock set in; it was snowing heavily".

"So heavy, in fact, that many people didn't make it home at all. They had to take refuge in hotels, leisure centres and several convivial houses for days on end".

"Life-long friendships were made. Fortunately, I got home on the last bus that made it to Aberdare. It was ' touch and go ' and such was the camaraderie on the bus, that one fellow from Mountain Ash took his cap off and had a whip-round for the driver."

Villages were cut off for days by huge snow drifts. RAF helicopters air lifted 45 people in South Wales and took food supplies to the more rural areas.

The Western Mail newspaper even produced a 'Blizzard Special', selling at just 5p a copy, telling the story of the sudden snow and its effects on people.

According to the paper 300 refugees, many of them returning from the Wales v Scotland rugby international, were forced to bed down in Cowbridge Town Hall. While in Porthcawl the figure was over 600.

In Pembrokeshire, farmer Pat Russell found himself stuck in a snowdrift on the Castlemartin firing range and had to be rescued by the army in a tank!

The soldiers towed him and his trailer, full of hay, to his isolated herd of cattle and then took him home again - really good Samaritans.

The winter of 1978/9 was the coldest and snowiest since 1963. Hundreds of birds died in the freezing conditions and one of my strongest memories is of my mother coming in from pegging out clothes on the washing line, crying with the cold.

Her hands were purple and frozen. The cold was so intense with a bitter easterly wind direct from Siberia. Pipes froze and we couldn't empty the bath for days.

The next big blizzard to hit Wales came in January 1982. It started to snow on the evening of 7 January and didn't stop for 36 to 48 hours. Watch some footage from 1982.

In Llandrindod drifts were several metres high but out in the country it was much worse. The M4 motorway was brought to a standstill and the roof of Sophia Gardens pavilion in Cardiff collapsed under the sheer weight of snow.

A train on the Cambrian coast line got stuck in the snow and passengers had to be airlifted to safety. Rescue helicopters from RAF Anglesey and Brawdy in Pembrokeshire worked non-stop, taking people to hospital and helping farmers, trying to stop their animals from freezing to death.

Glyn Foulkes, who responded to one of my recent blogs, remembers his dad's greenhouse thermometer reading - 27°C (- 17°F) in Llantysilio (Llanymynech) in Powys.

He says "On my way to work in Shrewsbury at the time I saw many truck drivers stranded. They had fires underneath their engines trying to get them to start!".

"And when I got to Shrewsbury the biggest shock of all, the River Severn was nothing but a mass of huge icebergs grinding against each other."

So although we've some heavy snow and ice recently, I think its fair to say we've had far worse to deal with in the past. Many winters in recent times have been relatively mild so the wintry weather is a shock to the system.

Watch an archive clip showing snow footage from previous winters on BBC News online.

Back to the present and the big freeze of 2010 has loosened its grip slightly with a slow thaw of lying snow but we're not out of the woods yet.

More snow is expected on Tuesday afternoon, overnight and into Wednesday. Some heavy falls are likely too with drifting in strong winds. So do keep an eye on the forecast.

If you have any old photos from winters past then I'd love to see them or perhaps you'd like to share your memories by adding a comment.You can e-mail old photos in to me here at wales.nature@bbc.co.uk.

If you don't have a scanner then simply take a digital photo of the old print.

Derek

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