Heaven if you're six. For the rest of us, just more travel hell

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The Independent Online

Heaven-and-hell weather came to Britain yesterday in the form of a nationwide blanket of snow - heaven if you were a small child, and hell if you were an adult travelling anywhere.

Heaven-and-hell weather came to Britain yesterday in the form of a nationwide blanket of snow - heaven if you were a small child, and hell if you were an adult travelling anywhere.

In the first significant countrywide snowfall for nearly seven years, road, rail and air services all suffered major disruption, with airports closed, trains running late and hundreds of accidents on every sort of road from motorways to country lanes.

Several helicopter rescues were necessary for people trapped in remote areas, including a couple and their 12-month-old child whose car had got stuck on Dartmoor, a pensioner who suffered a heart attack on an isolated farm in Lancashire, and three holiday climbers who had to be winched to safety from the mountains of Snowdonia.

There was nearly a national humiliation as the Millennium Wheel - the British Airways London Eye - had to stop rides at its Thames-side site for three hours mid-morning because of the icy conditions. But there was also a lot to be said for yesterday's weather. Thousands of toddlers who had never seen the white stuff before woke up delightedly to snow and were able to throw snowballs and build snowmen for the first time, and go sledging - if they could find a sledge.

A cold front sweeping down from Scandinavia, which had already brought Arctic conditions to Scotland and Northern Ireland on Wednesday, covered nearly all of England and Wales with snow in the early hours of the morning. Some parts of the West Country only had a light covering but everywhere else was affected by anything from an inch in the south-east of England to six inches in Wales. More than a foot of snow coverered parts of Scotland, which has suffered its coldest winter for five years, with lows of minus 14C on Wednesday, and Northern Ireland, suffering similar temperatures, had its heaviest snowfall - seven inches - for 18 years.

According to the Met Office, it was probably the most extensive snowfall across Britain since February 1994 - it was certainly the heaviest in London since then - and its occurrence underlined the fact that snow is becoming a rarity in our lives. Warmer winters, which scientists are attributing to global warming, are producing fewer and fewer white Christmases, or indeed white Januaries or Februaries. In the south of England, for instance, from 1970 to 1995 snow and sleet fell for an average of 3.7 days, while from 1988 to 1995 the average was 0.7 days.

Last winter, for the first time ever, Hamleys, Britain's biggest toyshop, had no sledges on display in its Regent Street store in London and enquiries yesterday drew a blank.

* Air services were hard hit, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland. More than 1,000 passengers were stranded when Glasgow airport shut down at 5.30am yesterday because of the snow, and did not reopen until 2.15pm. Ulster's three airports also closed and hundreds of passengers spent the night in terminals; the airports reopened in the course of the day.

It was a similar story at Liverpool Airport, closed for much of the day, and even at London's major airports - the runway at Gatwick was closed for several hours and at Stansted and Heathrow a number of early morning flights were cancelled or delayed.

* Rail services were also hit, but most of the problems were short-term. All London Underground lines experienced delays, including some caused by points failures, and services were at one point suspended on the Northern Line between Hampstead and Edgware and between Archway and High Barnet. But there was good news for some travellers. Railtrack said it still hoped to finish its huge, week-long programme of track and signalling work in time for the main New Year return to work next week.

* Road transport was perhaps hardest hit of all as frozen snow turned roads into ice rinks and police and motoring organisations warned people not to drive unless their journey was absolutely necessary. Most motorways had speed restrictions on them and many were down to two lanes. Ten vehicles were involved in a crash on the M25 between Epping and Brentwood, while major crashes temporarily closed the northbound M40 at junction four in Buckinghamshire and the eastbound M4 west of Cardiff.

In North Wales, a lorry driver had to be rescued from his cab after the vehicle careered off the A55 at St Asaph, near Rhyl, in heavy snow and was left overhanging a busy road below. In Dorset, the A37 between Dorchester and Yeovil was blocked by lorries whose drivers had lost control in the slippery conditions, and in Hove, East Sussex, five people were injured when two buses and a police car crashed on black ice.

In the course of the morning, police in Cambridgeshire attended 58 weather-related traffic incidents, while police in South Wales dealt with more than 90 collisions in nine hours.