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Winter weather 1947, snowbound bus, Castle Hill, Huddersfield

Looking Back At Extreme Winter Weather In The UK

As we take a break from the recent cold weather, sleet, snow and ice, we thought we would take a look back at history to remind us that with its unpredictable temperate maritime climate, the UK is no stranger to the extreme of winter weather.

Throughout its history, the country has faced several extreme winter snow years, each leaving an indelible mark on infrastructure and the lives of our citizens. Britain’s worst winters serve as stark reminders of the potential severity of winter weather and the importance of preparedness.

The Big Freeze of 1946-1947

This exceptionally cold and snowy winter, dubbed the “Big Freeze of 1947,” saw snow cover lasting for up to 55 consecutive days in some areas. Temperatures plummeted to record lows, with the Thames River freezing over for the first time in over 200 years. The severe weather conditions caused widespread transport chaos, with roads blocked by snowdrifts and railway lines unable to operate. Many schools and businesses were forced to close, and essential services were severely hampered. The freezing of the River Thames was a major event in London at the time. – people flocked to the river to walk and skate. However, the cold weather also caused significant hardship for many people with relentless powercuts, and many were left without heating or food.

Image of Winter 1947, snowbound bus, Castle Hill, Huddersfield taken 77 years agonear to Farnley Tyas, Kirklees, England

The Big Freeze of 1962-1963

Another exceptionally harsh winter, the “Big Freeze of 1963,” brought similar disruptions to transport and infrastructure. Snow cover persisted for weeks, with depths reaching up to 20 feet in some areas. Temperatures dropped as low as -21°C, causing widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure. Transport networks were crippled, with roads impassable and many railway lines unable to function.

The severe weather conditions also led to powercuts and disruptions to essential services. The winter of 1962-1963 was particularly harsh in Scotland, where some villages remained isolated for weeks due to impassable roads. The cold weather also caused the sea to freeze around parts of the UK, including the Thames Estuary, the Solent, and the Mersey Estuary, a rare and dramatic event causing significant disruption to shipping and other maritime activities.

Winter of Discontent 1978-1979

The so-called “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-1979 was marked not only by severe weather but also by widespread union unrest and economic turmoil. Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures disrupted transport and energy supplies, while industrial strikes further exacerbated the problems. The Winter of Discontent became a pivotal moment in UK history, highlighting the deep social and economic tensions of the time. It marked a turning point in British politics, leading to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979, and stands as a reminder of the interconnectedness of winter weather and societal resilience.

Winter of 2009-2010

The winter of 2009-2010, while not as extreme as some of the UK’s harshest winters, still brought significant snowfall and disruption to transport and infrastructure. The first major snowfalls of the winter hit in late November 2009, causing disruptions to road and rail travel. In the days leading up to Christmas, a series of severe snowstorms blanketed much of the UK, bringing travel to a standstill in many areas. Roads were closed due to impassable snowdrifts, and major motorways were closed. Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, was forced to close for two days after heavy snowfall on December 18th. Infrastructure damage was widespread, with roads, railways, and power lines all suffering damage from the snow and ice.

The snow-covered landscapes during the Winter of 2009-2010 inspired the creation of a hit children’s television show: “The Gruffalo.” The author, Julia Donaldson, was living in Scotland during the severe winter and was struck by the transformation of the countryside under a thick blanket of snow. This image of snow-covered trees and hillsides provided the inspiration for the setting of her story, which features a small creature on a journey through a snowy forest and the imaginary creatures he encounters along the way.

Beast from the East 2018

The so-called “Beast from the East” was a severe cold spell that affected the United Kingdom, Ireland, and other parts of Europe in February and March 2018. It was caused by an easterly flow of cold air from Siberia, resulting in widespread snowfall and record-low temperatures. The Beast from the East had a significant impact on business in the UK, causing widespread disruption and leading to billions of pounds in lost revenue. One of the industries most severely affected by the Beast from the East was transport – roads and railways were closed due to heavy snowfall, and airports experienced delays and cancellations. This caused major disruption for commuters and businesses, with many people unable to get to work or deliver goods. The CBI estimated that the cost of the disruption to businesses was around £1 billion per day. The retail sector was also particularly hard hit, with many shops forced to close due to the lack of customer traffic.

Winters such as 1946, 1962, 1978, 2009 and 2018 all had a significant impact on life in the UK. The widespread disruption caused billions of pounds in lost revenue and highlighted the need for the nation to be better prepared for extreme weather events.



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