How did the big freeze of 1962 compare with today?

By Tom de Castella
BBC News Magazine


Half a century ago the UK was in the grip of a brutal winter. How did they cope then and how does it compare with now?

The Big Freeze took hold as Lawrence of Arabia played in the nation's cinemas.

Cold weather reached the UK on 22 December 1962. Snow fell across Scotland on Christmas Eve before sweeping south. The Arctic weather didn't relent until March 1963.

Central England experienced its coldest winter since 1740. Rivers, lakes, and even in places the sea, froze over.

The conditions made for surreal scenes - people skating in front of Buckingham Palace, a man cycling on the Thames near Windsor Bridge, a milkman doing his deliveries on skis. For 62 consecutive days, snow lay on the ground in the south of England. The next highest number of snow lying days since then is a mere 10 in 1987.

The country was heavily disrupted during the Big Freeze.

On 31 December 1962 the Times reported: "Roads were impassable at hundreds of points, many towns and villages were cut off, railways were out of action at many places or struggling against long delays on other sections, and the airports were unable till late in the day to offer landing or take-off."

But the country was not crippled. Snow ploughs were deployed and the trains - mostly steam engines - got through.

Vegetable prices shot up by as much as 30% as crops froze in the ground. But society continued to function despite the fact that average temperatures remained below freezing for two months.

So how would the UK fare today faced by similar icy conditions?

Recent winters don't bode well. In 2009/10 heavy snowfalls saw motorists trapped overnight in their cars, trains were cancelled and in early January, 10,000 schools shut.

There's a view today that some headteachers opt for closure at the first sign of a snowflake.

It wasn't the case back in the 1960s. During the Big Freeze it was common for children to walk or sledge to school. Today, there is more of a reliance on the car. And historian Peter Hennessy has spoken of the UK becoming a "health and safety nation" when it comes to closing schools as a precaution.

The whole transport network is less resilient today than 50 years ago, argues David Learmount, operations editor at Flight Global.

"It would be a complete disaster now because our infrastructure is so much more overloaded compared to then."

There's no guarantee trains would do better today, says Andrew Martin, author of The Necropolis Railway. The technology was basic back then - steam trains were the norm. But steam trains were heavier and hotter so could often get through the snow, he argues.

Rail expert Barry Doe says the railways had a huge army of manpower to call on in times of need. Signal boxes were manned every few miles down the line in 1962. Problems could be sorted out manually if something went wrong either by shovelling snow or replacing signals.

"If a lever broke in the signal box, the signal man would lean out of the box with a green flag. Nowadays if the green signal fails in the wilds somewhere, everything is linked electrically so a succession of things down the line can go wrong."

image captionDid steam trains cope better with snow than their electric counterparts?

Christian Wolmar, author of Fire and Steam, disagrees. Steam trains coped badly with slight inclines and slippery rails. Modern trains have intelligent fault reporting systems that spot problems. The points, which used to freeze up all the time, are today heated.

Problems remain, Wolmar concedes. The commuter trains in southern England still rely on the "third rail" system. Instead of being powered by overhead electric lines, the power supply comes from a rail on the track. When it snows there is a tendency for the power to fail.

And even modern trains go wrong. Eurostar was heavily criticised after five trains became stuck in December 2010. It is believed they failed to adjust from the cold air of northern France to the warm tunnel.

When it comes to airports, things are worse than in 1962/63, Learmount says. Heathrow operates at 99% capacity, which means there's no slack if flights are cancelled.

When snow fell in December 2010 Heathrow had to virtually shut down. MPs reacted by recommending more snow ploughs, advice the airports followed.

"A snow plough doesn't clear up the ice," Learmount says. "You can't put down grit or salt because grit is sucked up by the aero engines and salt corrodes aluminium, which is what planes are made of."

In order to clear the snow you have to clear not just the runway but the taxiing and parking areas. It was the latter that caused the problems at Heathrow in 2010, he says. The extra snowploughs might allow the airport to stay open now, but only 10% of flights would be able to leave.

Transport experts assert that Britain really does suffer from the wrong type of snow. In Scandinavia and Siberia it's so cold that snow is like sand and can be blown out of the way. In Britain it tends to melt and refreeze.

Paradoxically, a really cold snap where daytime temperatures remain under freezing might make the snow more manageable at airports where there is equipment to deal with it.

One area where 2012 wins hands down over 1962 is weather forecasting. Michael Fish, who began working at the Met Office six weeks before the Big Freeze struck, says forecasts were of limited use back then.

"A four or five day forecast now is as accurate as a 24 hour forecast was back then. A 10-day forecast was absolutely impossible in those days."

It gives councils and transport agencies a huge advantage when it comes to planning for bad weather.

Sport was one of the big casualties of the Big Freeze. The FA Cup third round took 66 days to complete. The most affected day was 9 February when all but one league game in England and Scotland was called off.

image captionNew year's day 1963 on the touchline at White Hart Lane

The Premier League now has a regulation, K28, demanding undersoil heating "or some other adequate system of pitch protection".

Even now the weather can still ravage football fixtures. There were 10 fixtures postponed due to adverse weather conditions in 2009/10. Often it is the safety of fans travelling to the game that is the problem today.

Veteran Guardian football writer David Lacey says the situation now is immeasurably better. He worked for the Brighton Argus during the Big Freeze. The local team Brighton & Hove Albion did not play for so long that he ended up going on a tour of central Europe with the Brighton ice hockey team.

Writer Ian Jack was a teenager in Dunfermline when the Big Freeze struck. He remembers society coping fairly well with snow and ice. "Objects were more simple and more robust."

But domestic life was very different. "There was no central heating in the house. You had a coal fire in the living room. So only one room in the house was ever warm." In that respect, today's homes are far better prepared.

Many look back with fondness on a winter wonderland. Fish recalls going to a New Year's Eve party and getting stuck in a blizzard on the way home. "We abandoned the car. When we went back the next morning we couldn't find it because it was covered in snow. It was great fun."

And yet mostly the roads were good. As far as Fish can remember, his 40-mile drive to work in a Mini was never stopped by impassable roads.

Not everyone has such happy memories. Learmount, who was at boarding school at the time, caught pneumonia. "It was a bloody miserable time. I would never wish that on anybody."

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