Snow falls - and much of Britain comes to a predictable standstill

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A flurry of snow slowed down southern Britain yesterday and brought much of it grinding to a halt.

It was hardly a Russian winter. There were no white-outs, blizzards or five-foot drifts. Three to four inches was a typical fall, the amount you can sweep off the top of your car with your gloved hand.

Yet so unused to snow of any kind are we becoming during the warmer winters that climate change is now bringing, it was enough to cause chaos. Airports closed. Roads were blocked. Trains were cancelled. Schools didn't open - thousands of them - so a vast army of pupils had an unscheduled day off, on a day when the snow covering in many places was only deep enough to build snowmen knee-high. What would they think of us in Chicago?

There was plenty of warning, too. The Met Office sent out a precise forecast but it made no difference on the day. It was still a snow KO.

Starting in the early hours, the snow formed a blanket over the south-east of England, stretched to Wales and the Midlands, and reached up to Lancashire and across to the Humber, with depths ranging from two to six inches. It was the most widespread snow of what has so far been an exceptionally warm winter, in what according to the Met Office may turn out to be the warmest year on record.

Transport went down in its wake. Commuter services, starting in the early hours when railway points were sometimes frozen, were worst hit. Hundreds of thousands of people were delayed on their journeys into central London, with major interruptions to trains across the South and South-east, while London Underground reported delays right across the Tube network. Many chose to stay in bed.

Virgin Trains restricted its services between London Euston and the North, and one in four mainline trains in the South-east was delayed or cancelled.

It was a similar story on the roads. In spite of the fact that an army of 400 gritters and salt-spreading machines had been out, three major routes across the South-east were blocked by lorries jacknifing: the M25, the A22 and the A3. According to Essex Police, there were 23 crashes on the county's roads in just two hours, while 19 accidents in five hours were reported to police in Wiltshire.

Wales was more seriously hit. A spokesman for Ceredigion County Council saidnumerous untreated roads were impassable. Four main roads in the area were closed: the A487 Aberystwyth to Aberaeron, the A44 from Lovesgrove to Llangurig, and the A4120 Dyffryn Castell to Devil's Bridge and Cwmystwyth.

Airports were worst affected of all. Five airports - at Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Stansted and Luton - closed their runways for part of the morning, while Heathrow and Gatwick cancelled dozens of flights and delayed others. Tens of thousands of passengers were held up.

A surprisingly large number of schools also closed their doors for the day. In London more than 400 state schools - one in five - were shut. In addition, 600 schools in Wales, all 400 in Birmingham, 300 in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, 175 in Gloucestershire, 200 in Essex, 100 in Cambridgeshire and 100 in Norfolk and Suffolk were closed by local authorities and headteachers. The childcare services website emergencychildcare.co.uk reported record demand for childminders and nursery places.

Fresh snow is unlikely today, but after a cold night the travel dangers are more likely to be ice on the roads and freezing fog. Cold enough to shut down the country once more? After yesterday, it seems entirely possible.

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