Braving the big chill: Meet the heroes... and the villains

Finding it hard to keep up with the weather-related news? David Randall, Paul Bignell, James Hague and Sarah Clark provide blanket coverage of the good, the bad and the funny as the UK shivers
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The Independent Online

Proof that, if there's a few quid to be made, people will steal anything, came in from many places. From Cumbria on Friday arrived a report that someone had emptied a grit bin and then tried to sell the contents to other residents. Soon this story was being replicated around the country, with Torfaen County Borough Council in South Wales, among others, saying it had reports of people turning up in large vehicles or vans and practically emptying grit bins within minutes of their being filled. And, from Walsall, came news that not only the grit but entire bins were being stolen.

Derwentwater in the Lake District has completely iced over for the first time in decades. The three-mile long lake in Cumbria is about 70ft deep and often the edges become covered in ice in winter but it is very rare for the entire lake to be covered.

The quote of the winter comes from the Yorkshire Dales town of Ripon, where, every night for the past 1,124 years, the town's hornblower has performed a few blasts at 9pm. With temperatures heading towards the minus 10C mark, some feared that the current incumbent, George Pickles, aged 73, would give the ritual a miss. But, bang on the dot, Mr Pickles strode in his ceremonial uniform to the town obelisk and carried out his noisy duty. He said afterwards: "I thought my lips were going to freeze to the horn."

Some people's minds are on warmer times ahead. About 20 people queued in sub-zero temperatures overnight in the hope of securing one of the 17 beach huts available for the summer at Avon Beach in Christchurch, Dorset.

Britain's sheep may have lost their knack of dealing with prolonged snow, says Malcolm Corbett, who farms at Rochester in the Northumberland National Park, and is vice-chairman of the NFU national livestock board. He said milder winters meant flocks lost the practice of finding shelter on hilltops – and shepherds have lost the habit too. In the past, flocks were gathered in "stells" – open, circular shelters – and fodder was left there for them, Mr Corbett said. But the mild winters had led the practice to die out. He said: "The young ewes learn from the older ones to come in to the shelters during the bad weather, but that's not something they have had to do recently." All a bit worrying, given that there is four feet of snow on the fells.

Latest craze for lads set on dying young is "car snowboarding". In Weeley, Essex, a group filmed themselves on a snowboard attached to a moving car. The results were duly posted on YouTube. Police felt obliged to point out the obvious dangers and illegalities.

Among the emergency services performances of the week was that of the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire helicopter unit. They were scanning police calls late in the week when they heard that a young boy, heading to hospital for a kidney transplant, was stuck in traffic jams caused by the freezing weather. There was no chance he would make it in time. But the chopper swooped down in a field by the road, and took eight-year-old Blake Beckett to Nottingham's Queen's Medical Centre for his operation. His father, Daniel Brookes, said: "The officers were absolutely amazing."

Forget Verbier and Val d'Isère, the perfect skiing conditions are in County Durham. This is, admittedly, the verdict of the not entirely unbiased Wearside Ski Club, but they do appear to have a point. Member James Cummings said: "Last year, people in the club were saying it's the best snow in a generation, and this year it's even better than that.... We've had 18 days straight skiing and there's still no sign of it stopping."

Not clearing snow on public paths outside your house because you believe this would lay you open to a lawsuit? You're not alone, but you're wrong. The local authority is responsible for public paths, and if an accident happens, it would be them who would be sued, not you. And, under the 1957 Occupier's Liability Act, you are positively obliged to provide a safe passage to your door on your property, at least for invited visitors, and those regularly calling, such as those delivering milk or post.

Media coverage of the snows has provided a few unintentional ironies. "Meerkat Indigo", emailing from South Wales to the BBC news site, wrote: "Saw a woman interviewed on TV – she was saying that doctors, fire service, police couldn't get through to her village and how terrible it all was. The TV team managed to get through though to carry out the interview. What a hoot."

Two suspected burglars were caught after police followed their footprints in the snow, from KS Convenience at Stockbridge Village, in Merseyside. Officers followed a trail from a cash machine, to a house a few streets away where two men were arrested.

Among those welcoming the snows were a family of Australians stranded in the West Country because their flight from Exeter to Paris was cancelled. Shaun West said: "At home it is currently 38C and this is the first time my wife or I have ever seen snow. We love it. It is absolutely beautiful. Last night we were building snowmen and having a snowball fight. It is fascinating to see."

A few hardy Britons experience the Antarctic temperatures every day of their working lives. Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey establishment in Cambridge, work in a room kept at minus 20C, so they can cut up samples of ice from the South Pole and Greenland before analysing them. Scientist Dr Liz Thomas said: "The weather at the moment actually makes it a little more bearable. When it is warm outside you get a temperature shock going into the lab."

Of all the sports that freezing weather should not spoil, you'd think it would be curling. But plans by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club to stage the first outdoor curling match in 30 years at the Lake of Menteith have been abandoned. The necessary insurance cover was not obtained, and so the event is off. Rebel curlers are now threatening to stage an unofficial national event on a frozen loch in the Trossachs.

Tales abound of staff in hospitals, and other vital services, taking extraordinary measures to not let patients down. A Wiltshire staff nurse walked 11 miles to be on duty at the Royal United Hospital. And nurse Kayleigh Angus, 24, drove 22 miles through the Northumberland snows to get to her job at Wansbeck General Hospital, but could not be sure conditions would allow her to return if she went home at the end of her shift. So she stayed the night at the hospital, and then the next night, and the night after that.

Snows and freezing road conditions meant that, at a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Leeds, there were only two more people in the audience than there were dwarves.

The snows prompted some authorities to make hasty switches of labour from one task to another, some of them having a certain poetic justice to them. In Brighton, for instance, parking attendants were diverted from handing out tickets to frozen motorists, and reassigned to snow shovelling and gritting. And in the Wirral, offenders on community work orders were drafted in to clear snow and ice.

British eccentrics enjoyed a good week. Among them was David Munt, 28, from Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, who had helped children in his street build an igloo, and then rashly promised that he would spend the night in it. He duly did, the only warmth coming from a candle.

Coldest place in Britain this week was Altnaharra in Wester Ross, Scotland, where it was minus 22.3C. The village has 10 homes, a church and hotel, but the nearest shop is 21 miles away. They have about two feet of snow now, but fear winds could bring deep drifting. Other notable performances of plunging mercury were on the A465 at Allensmore, Hereford (minus 17C), in the Brecon Beacons, Wales (minus 16C), at Otterburn, Northumberland (minus 16C), Glasgow (minus 8C), and Cardiff (minus 5C).

Snow chains were being rummaged for in lofts and store cupboards and put to their expected use – around the wheels of vehicles that had to get to grips with snowy roads. But they have found other uses. In some places, Royal Mail issued postmen with chains to wear on their feet.

Two of Britain's tiniest people owe their arrival this week to their mother's fortitude and the skill of staff at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth. Angela Mahon was being driven by partner Terry Smith when their car became stuck in a huge traffic jam. It took the couple two hours to drive five miles from their home in Leigh Park, Havant, Hampshire, to the hospital, and then Ms Mahon had to abandon the car for the final 400 yards, wading through snow wearing only her bedclothes, dressing gown and slippers. On arrival she called out to medics, saying "Help, I'm in labour," and later that day, gave birth to twins: boys, Mykey, 3lb 5oz, and Oakley, 3lb 14oz, born prematurely at 31 weeks. The lads are doing well.

Bad behaviour in the unlikely setting of salubrious Sonning Common in Berkshire this weekend. Shoppers battled to buy bread after a delivery finally made it through to a supermarket after several days of delay.

At last, the owners of 4x4s have performed a function other than annoying other road-users. In Gloucestershire, they lent their vehicles to the local Meals on Wheels service so the housebound could still get a warm dinner, and in Castleford, West Yorkshire, staff from managers to bricklayers from contractor Strategic Team Group did the same. In Ceredigion, council staff have used 4x4 vehicles to make emergency deliveries of medication. The same service is set to be rolled out elsewhere in Wales this weekend.

Happy faces behind the tills at Aviemore in Scotland. This time last year, the various centres there had 7,000 skiers. This weekend, they have 24,000. And they're hoping the snow will stay until Easter, one of the few groups in the country to do so.

Lorry drivers are not normally most people's favourite fellow road users, but they are the unsung heroes of the week, bringing food and other supplies to shops. Chris Sturman, chief executive of the Food Storage and Distribution Federation, said: "It's amazing how resilient people are, how lorry drivers are prepared to stay out and sleep in their cabs. There's a sense of camaraderie." One of the few downsides in this connection was that Somerset-based Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative said it would have to dump more than 100,000 litres of milk because icy conditions had hampered transport.

Among the animal rescues effected in the last few days is the mechanical digger, and its driver, who saved a flock of swans trapped in ice in Wallasey, Merseyside; and the two RSPCA inspectors who abseiled down a Pembrokeshire cliff to save a ewe who had got herself stuck on a ledge 35m above a deep lagoon.

Hospitals in Lancashire have also made a plea for unused walking frames after being inundated with patients injured by slips and falls on the ice. It has resulted in a shortage of the frames which are used for those who have undergone hip, leg, knee or ankle surgery. Since the bad weather began, referrals from emergency departments in Chorley and Preston to fracture clinics have risen by 75 per cent, 515 people receiving treatment since 21 December.