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Thaw to bring wave of misery

The deep freeze which has gripped Britain for more than a week will slowly ease over the next few days, the Meteorological Office has forecast. But it will bring a deluge of burst water pipes and mains in its wake.

Twelve of today's 32 FA Cup third round football matches have been cancelled. The fate of five more depends on pitch inspections due before kick-off.

Many rugby games were also cancelled, and horse racing remains at a complete standstill today after a week without any meetings.

The London Weather Centre said temperatures would sink to -10C overnight with the South-east - nearest to the even colder continent - once again the coldest area.

It was warmer yesterday in Greenland than it was in much of Europe. Hundreds have been killed by the cold and in Bonn gravediggers have had to use pneumatic drills to break the frozen earth.

The continents' major rivers have frozen, with the Elbe closed to inland navigation from Hamburg almost to the Czech border. Ice is also building in the channel between the North and Baltic seas and the Danube remained closed to traffic from Germany through Austria to Slovakia.

Barge traffic was halted in much of eastern France after parts of the Loire and key canals were sealed with four inches of ice. While the Rhine is still navigable from Rotterdam to Basle, the freeze has hit tributaries and nearby canals.

In Britain, snow showers and Siberian winds from the north and north- east are forecast through the weekend, with maximum daytime temperatures no higher than 4C.

A spokesman said: ``Some parts of the country are colder than they have been for 15 years. But this is still not in the same class as 1982. Then we were seeing temperatures down as far as -26C in Shropshire.''

Frozen water pipes were blamed for an explosion at Easterton near Devizes, Wiltshire, which lifted the roof, blew out a corner and shattered the windows of a bungalow. A gas boiler overheated and blew up. A farrier, Gary Urch, 32, and his partner Anne Newbery, 42, and their two children suffered cuts and severe shock.

The thin-ice accidents which have killed several people over the past few week have been ignored by some parents. Their children carried on riding mountain bikes and walking on frozen ponds and lakes.

The Department of Social Security said it had paid out pounds 27m in cold weather handouts to more than 1 million vulnerable pensioners and families reliant on state benefits. This is the second highest amount paid since records began in 1986; last year payments had topped pounds 60m.

Labour's social security spokeswoman, Harriet Harman, said Britain suffered the highest number of excess deaths annually in northern Europe associated with the cold.

The freeze has also claimed the annual world pooh-sticks championships, which were postponed until March, the first time this has happened since the event began in 1963. The River Thames is frozen at the venue in Long Wittenham, Oxfordshire.

Europe's big chill, page 10