As sure as night follows day, January is traditionally barely a week old before we receive the warning from our media overlords that we’re about to experience ‘the worst winter since 1963’. It’s become an annual tradition every New Year, and where would the poor old Daily Express be if it couldn’t stick a photo of vehicles struggling along a snowy motorway somewhere up in Scotland on its front cover? Even the images of Europe that have led the seasonal scaremongering over the last week have emanated from old Iron Curtain countries that do have something of a history where severe weather this time of year is concerned. But, of course, it only needs one piddling little snowfall of the kind that wouldn’t bat an eyelid in Moscow to bring Britain to a halt and herald the return of the word ‘chaos’ to the headlines.
In order to have a clear memory of the benchmark against which all subsequent winters have been judged, i.e. 1962/63, one would have to be at least sixty. I suspect the majority of the media soothsayers have yet to reach that age or else they wouldn’t be so quick to make comparisons. I can’t speak personally of 1962/63 either, but I have at least read enough about that winter to know we haven’t come close since – with the possible exception of 1981/82, which I remember very well indeed.
1962/63 surpassed the previous ‘worst winter’ scenario in the twentieth century, which (as far as the UK goes) had been at the height of post-war rationing and economic austerity in 1946/47, a winter so severe that it almost broke the Labour Government of Clement Attlee. Sixteen years later, the country slipped into the deep freeze in a way it hadn’t since the era of the Little Ice Age (roughly 1300-1850), the period that established traditions such as the frost fairs on the frozen Thames and gave birth to Charles Dickens’ vision of Christmas that continues to cast a mythical spell over advertisers.
The first heavy snow fell on Boxing Day 1962 and further snowfalls occurred as the year careered towards its end; by New Year’s Eve, snowdrifts of between 8 and 15 feet deep had submerged great swathes of the country, bringing genuine chaos to rural areas in particular. The Thames didn’t freeze in Central London, but did freeze outside of the capital, leading to skating and a car being driven over the river in Oxford. Even the sea froze – a mile out from Herne Bay in Kent and as far as four miles out across the Channel from Dunkirk. The sporting calendar was badly disrupted, with some football and rugby clubs not playing a fixture for two whole months in the days before the innovation of under-soil heating; racing was similarly affected.
Whilst some areas had already seen the snow turn to ice, there were more snowfalls in February; along with fog and gale force winds of up to 81 mph, the UK must have felt more like Russia for the first couple of months of 1963. There were gradual fears regarding food, as the frozen soil meant vegetables couldn’t be harvested and the prices of those that had been rocketed.
In London’s Primrose Hill, the 30-year-old American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath penned some evocative prose and verse on the conditions as she struggled to survive the big freeze with two young children and an absent husband, but she succumbed to her demons on February 11 by resting her head in the oven. With a history of depression and past suicide attempts, her death cannot necessarily be attributed to the winter, though it probably didn’t help. When the thaw came, it was quick, although it didn’t come until a month after Plath’s suicide.
As said earlier, the only real personal comparison I can make with 1962/63 is the winter of 1981/82. Although fourteen at the time, sledging still held an appeal – though improvisation reigned in the grounds of the nearby girls school every evening; bin-bags spread out could hold upwards of half-a-dozen brave souls prepared to ride down ‘the hill of death’, a bumpy rollercoaster that usually ended with the riders being jettisoned into the snow at the end of the journey.
One kid had a brand new moulded plastic sledge that provoked much envy; we told his mum he said we could use it when he was out one night; he hadn’t, but she believed us. Out deceit was rewarded as it cracked in half when three of us rode in it down ‘the hill of death’ and we spent the rest of that bloody winter clearing snow from driveways up and down the estate so we had enough cash to pay him back for a replacement.
It only takes one snowfall these days for schools to close their doors; in 1982, my school stayed annoyingly open, and even more annoyingly, my mum sent me there every bloody day. Having recently been caught bunking off, I was punished by having to attend a school that was half-empty for a couple of weeks; day-by-day, the numbers of pupils present diminished to the point where there were as few as five kids in my class at the height of the winter. However, I found the school a much less stressful place when all the head-cases were absent and it gave me a glimpse of what a superior institution it could have been if that were the norm.
Nobody who has lived through a really bad winter should be gripped by panic whenever forecasts of doom ‘n’ gloom fill all those long, empty hours on rolling news channels or generate tabloid front covers during a quiet news week; but some do, even though they should know better. So, brace yourselves for the worst winter…since last year’s.
© The Editor