1962: The year of the Big Freeze

Boxing Day marks 50 years since the onset of one of Britain's worst winters

Britain may be beset by floods and near-relentless rain, but anyone feeling glum about the weather this Christmas can be thankful they are not facing the conditions of half a century ago. This Boxing Day marks 50 years since the first snowfall of the 1962 Big Freeze, which left the country so cold that even the river Thames froze solid and whole villages were isolated. For 67 days the nation endured freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall to make one of the worst winters on record. An early-warning defence station on the North York Moors even had to evacuate 283 workers to safety by helicopter.

Eileen Coffin, 85, can still recall the vicious temperatures. "We only had fires in those days and we were completely dependent on the delivery of coal, which was erratic during that winter because the roads were so bad," she said. "I live in Whitstable, and I remember the fishing boats were actually frozen solid in the harbour."

The freeze began on 22 December, with the first snow falling on Boxing Day. Mrs Coffin said: "Luckily, my husband made sure to keep the car running so he could get to work. But it was difficult because my daughter Jen was in hospital." Despite the bitter cold, the family travelled to the hospital every day.

Tessa Fane, from Berkshire, said: "I remember walking on the Lambourn Downs where the snow was so deep and the frozen crust on top was so hard we were walking on top of the fences with the fencing posts just visible. I was seven years old and can still connect with the sense of wonder and excitement I felt then."

But for many, the extreme winter proved fatal, and at least 50 people died as a result of its bitter effects. Children, particularly, were at risk of falling through ice and drowning. Transport chaos was caused by 20ft snow drifts, and frozen ground meant that hundreds of sporting events had to be cancelled.