Spring blows in with a cold snap

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AN UNUSUALLY mild winter officially ends today with freezing gales, a nasty cold snap and a real threat of snow in the north as Spring, and March, arrive, writes Nicholas Schoon.

Gales blasted cold air into Scotland and northern England yesterday, blowing over lorries and killing one driver on the A1 near Morpeth, Northumberland. Two dozen pupils in West Leeds High School suffered minor injuries after the roof blew off their classrooms.

At Leeds Bradford airport a 35-seat passenger aircraft was blown off the runway by a crosswind during its take-off run. No one was injured.

The Meteorological Office counts winter as December, January and February. The average temperature for the past three months was 6C, nearly 2C above the long-term winter average. It looked set to be one of the ten warmest winters in more than 300 years. February has been balmier still; fully 3.5C above average.

The past month has also been unusually dry in England and Wales, with only a quarter of average rainfall. Water companies had been hoping the drought was over following a wet November, December and January; now they are pinning their hopes on a return to average rainfall.

Anglian Water has announced that it is setting up the first desalination plant on mainland Britain next week at Felixstowe, creating 40 cubic metres of freshwater a day. The company says it will consider a ''more permanent'' plant if the pilot project proves successful.