Snow Britain – how bad is it really?

This winter’s snow has caused chaos in many areas, prompting farmer Guy Smith to compare it with previous bad winters. Maybe this year hasn’t been quite so bad, after all

We are usually spared the worst of the British weather on the east-Essex coast.

In the main, our weather comes from the Atlantic and, by the time it gets to my patch, it has spent most of its force over the mountains and hills to the west. But, just occasionally, the weather comes from the east. At that point there is nothing much between me and the Russian Urals. I’ve never been to the Urals and, judging by the weather it sends, I doubt I’ll ever bother.

Reading the recent headlines “Worst winter for a generation” my mind was taken back to some of the notable winters past. The present snow and ice might well be the worst for a generation but that would only be the case if you asked the generation that is at primary school (if they ever open the primary schools again). For us hardened old boys that remember the winters of 1962/63 or 1981/82, the recent weather is, in comparison, a walk in the park.

It might have something to do with the fact I was just three (feet and years) at the time, but in ’63 the farm lane looked like the cresta run with great walls of snow either side of a half-mile ice corridor. Dad would literally bounce his Ford shooting-brake off the sides as we slid our way to and from the farm. That year, the cold and snow seemed to last for ever. It started at Christmas and didn’t thaw until March. The pond ice needed breaking for the ducks for 80 days in succession. I also remember my uncles having go-kart races on the ice.

Winters past

The 1962/63 winter was the coldest since 1740 and there was snow cover across lowland Britain for 67 consecutive days. There was a 25ft snowdrift on Dartmoor.

A blizzard over southern England and Wales at the end of December left villages cut-off for several days, telephone lines down and food stocks running low in rural areas.

Farmers could not reach their livestock so thousands of sheep, ponies and cattle starved to death. Wildlife, including the indigenous wild bird population, was decimated. Snow lay in the folds of hills and shadowed valleys of Derbyshire until late April – whilst snow-banks were still evident in North Yorkshire in mid May.s

Then there was 1982 when, more than once, keeping the farm accessible to the wider world meant digging the lane out through the night. The appearance of the milk tanker in the yard the following morning was viewed as a matter for great celebration. We even got a grain lorry in, but regretted it later when aforesaid lorry, once burdened with its load, duly sat for six hours stuck half way up the lane. We had to unload it a tonne at a time, scuttling back and forth with the loader to the grain-store half a mile away.

But the best of it was we became local heroes, clearing drives and pulling out forlorn motorists. I particularly remember digging out a Ford Cortina from a deep drift only to realise there was an old boy sitting in the driving seat. I wrenched the frozen passenger door open to see if he was OK. There he sat, drunk as a boiled owl, with a bottle of scotch between his legs. “You alright mate?” I enquired. “Why don’t you piss off” was his rather ungrateful reply.

Frozen hot water bottles

But despite the snow drifts and the white outs of ’63 and ’82, father assured me these were as nothing compared to ’47, ominously remembered as “the black winter’.

In that winter, the snow fell by the foot and the hot water bottles froze in the beds. The shovels were kept inside the house so they could dig themselves out in the morning. January-February 1947 saw temperatures down to -20 (it was followed by one of the hottest summers on record). The sea around the Thames estuary froze.

Father reminded me that, in that winter, they went without mains electricity and main water for months on end. I did point out that mains water and main electricity didn’t actually arrive at our farm until the 1950s, but just told me not to be cheeky about those who knew the true meaning of hardship.

But as we endure the privations of this current cold snap, rest assured it will soon be over and spring will be heralded by a change in the direction of the wind. The frozen Urals to the east will no longer brew my weather, but rather the tropics will send me their sultry blessings. Soon I will sniff the southerly breeze and I will imagine life in the climes from which it came. The beaches, the palm trees, the frolicking lovelies clad in nothing but sun tan oil. I’ve never been to Kent but I’ve heard that’s just how it is.

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