Another of the articles I wrote for Best of British magazine.
Winter is almost upon us once again. I wonder what the next few months have in store for us weather-wise?
Looking back, I can’t remember many bad winters over the last forty odd years, none that match the winter of 1963 at least. It stands out in memory as the worst (and best) winter I have ever experienced; I was nine at the time.
We kids welcomed the snow and all the extra time off school. We made snowmen, toboggans from bits of old wood or old pram parts and the most lethal pavement slides you ever saw. We had one on our road that would carry you a good twenty five yards. Adults hated us for making them; as I said, they were lethal. Once a fresh covering of snow had landed there was no telling it was there until an unsuspecting adult tried to negotiate the pavement. I can remember my father getting a letter from the milkman saying we would have to pay for any more breakages ourselves. The slide was there for almost three months so you would think he’d have remembered where it was after his second or third fall.
The winter of 1962/3 was the coldest since 1740. The dreadful winter of 1947 had more snow but couldn’t match the record low temperatures. Just as in 1947, anticyclones formed to the North and East of the British Isles, bringing snow to England, Wales and the South of Scotland.
The wintery weather began abruptly on Christmas Eve, giving Glasgow its first white Christmas in years. The snow moved South reaching London by Boxing Day. Then the weather system became stationary. By the following day even the Channel Isles had 5cm of snow. The South of England had 30 cm.
A blizzard on the 29th and 30th of December over South West England and Wales brought drifts 6m deep. Villages were cut off for days, electricity failed as did the phone system. The railways and roads were brought to a standstill. Farmers had the worst of it with livestock starving to death.
Marine life suffered as the sea froze around parts of the coast. Inland lakes and rivers froze over. In between the snow showers there was plenty of sunshine, but it brought with it icy temperatures.
Daytime temperatures seldom got above freezing and at night it plummeted to -16 in places. 1963 was the only time since the 1700s that the average temperature was 0 degrees over a period of two months. In London during mid January another 4 inches of snow fell, the same thing happened in February. Britain remained in the grip of winter until the first week in March.
The navy used an ice breaker to keep Chatham Dockyards open. Airports were closed as were many of the country’s railways lines. Power cuts became the norm. Rubbish remained uncollected and many people had to get fresh water from tanker lorries because the mains had frozen solid.
The met office estimated that a winter like ‘63 only occurred once every 250 years.
On Dartmoor the snow drifted to twenty five feet and pack ice appeared in the Severn estuary. In Wales frozen coal had to be dug out of the coal trucks. Hospitals were overrun with patients suffering broken limbs.
In Derbyshire, where I lived at the time, villages were snowed in. Volunteers had to dig out a train so that much needed food and medical supplies could be moved around.
In the sixties there were few houses with central heating. Just about everyone relied on coal or gas. People put on extra jumpers and coats just to sit in their houses. The usual trip to the shops became quite a dangerous adventure (especially with all the glass-like slides hidden under the snow.) We didn’t have a car but the people who were fortunate enough to own one seldom got it started easily. Many a bonnet was covered in a blanket overnight. Newspaper and cardboard covered the windscreens.
We got weeks off school. Even when we did set out we weren’t sure if the bus would make it through. We were sent back home a few times when a driver couldn’t negotiate the steep rise at Little Hallam Hill.
The school playground was salted after the headmaster slipped on one of the many lethal slides and broke his leg. He ordered a detention for the whole school, but his order was overruled by the deputy head once he had been taken off to hospital. Instead all pupils were set extra homework.
I remember there being six foot drifts along and around our street. One young child got hypothermia pretending to be a snowman. Every time my dad went to work he quoted Captain Oates, ‘I am just going outside, I may be gone some time.’ He was warm at work at least; he used to work at the Iron Works. Snow didn’t get within half a mile of that place, the heat was too severe.
I can remember skating on the ice covered canal and the frozen river. People drove their cars onto the ice; some older teenagers had motorbike races. I also remember that sometime during February a child of my age went through the ice and died. The story made the main news programs on TV. It wasn’t in our area, but we had lecture after lecture on the dangers of frozen rivers and ponds. My mother made us promise we wouldn’t go on them every time we went out to play.
I wouldn’t have anyway. After the young lad died I used to wake up in a cold sweat dreaming I’d fallen through the ice. The relief I felt when I realised that the reason I couldn’t breathe was because I was buried under 2 blankets and 3 overcoats cannot really be described.
1963 was a cruel winter, but for many kids it was an exciting time. I doubt I’ll ever see anything like it again in my lifetime. I’ll relay the stories of that winter to my grandkids if I am ever fortunate enough to have any. When you’ve had snot freeze on your face whilst riding the slide of doom, it becomes a story worth telling and one, if you’re young enough, worth hearing.