Whatever happened to spring sunshine?

March's dismal weather has been breaking records. David Randall reports on the disruption and chaos that have hit most of Britain

Winter storms continued to blight virtually the whole of the country yesterday, with heavy snowfalls in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Wales, road and airport closures, and thousands left without electricity. Severe weather warnings covered the land, with only the south coast escaping.

The worst of the snow was in the Peak District, Pennines and north Wales. Bingley in West Yorkshire, which had 8.6 inches, and parts of north-east Wales, where 11.8 inches was reported in places, vied for the unenviable record of the most severe falls. A 27-year-old man was found dead in deep snow in Brierfield, near Burnley in Lancashire, yesterday. Police say the man, who has not yet been named, attempted to walk home late on Friday night. His death was not being treated as suspicious. At Millom in Cumbria, about 70 people who were stranded overnight were put up in a school; in Dumfries and Galloway motorists were trapped in their cars until morning; and in north Wales, the British Red Cross was brought in to help transport medical staff to hospitals in 4x4s, after roads became impassable. David Hallows, service manager for emergency response for the Red Cross in north Wales, said: "I've never seen snow like it. It's a metre thick in places and it's not drifting."

The most widespread of the power outages was in Northern Ireland, where ice on cables and falling trees brought down power lines and damaged the network especially in Counties Down and Antrim. Some 35,000 customers were without power, and the blizzards and 6ft snowdrifts meant engineers struggled to reach the problems, never mind repair them. In the south-west of Scotland, 6,000 homes lacked electricity, residents on the Isle of Arran have been warned they may not be reconnected for days, and around 350 customers were also without power in Cumbria.

The principal transport casualties were provincial airports. Heavy snowfall forced the closure of runways at East Midlands airport. Humberside and Leeds Bradford airports were also closed, as, for a time, was Doncaster's Robin Hood. The runway at George Best Belfast City airport experienced a number of closures throughout yesterday, while flights at Belfast International were also disrupted. On the roads, driving conditions across the country were treacherous, and most difficult in Cumbria. Snowdrifts closed many roads in the area, with others – including the M6 between Hackthorpe and Shap – passable only with care. Police advised motorists not to travel in the south and west of the county unless absolutely necessary.

Some idea of the severity of conditions came from Phil Chapman, landlord at the Brown Cow Inn in Millom, Cumbria, who has been trapped inside the pub with 12 other people including two children, since 9am on Friday morning. Mr Chapman said that they have no idea when they will be rescued and are without electricity, but are still all in "good spirits".

He added: "The roads are closed around Millom. Nobody can get here – we're surrounded by about 6ft of snow. We haven't tried to leave yet – we all think it's safer just to wait here for the time being and we have a coal fire on the go. The police have been trying to create some kind of plan to get us out, but it's difficult with the snow being so deep. There is plenty of beer to keep us going, although we might run out by Tuesday, so were hoping we will have been rescued by then!"

In the West Country, which although flood-hit has avoided the snow, one of the lingering effects of this long, cold and terribly wet winter is the number of potholes which now pock-mark the region's roads. Councils say there are already an average of 5.2 potholes for every mile, adding up to a massive 65,000 ruptures and breaches throughout the 12,500 miles of road in Devon and Cornwall.

The explanation for the refusal of winter to make way for more spring-like conditions is that the weather pattern across Europe has often been in a blocked state over the past few months, with high pressure building across Scandinavia and Greenland. This has prevented Atlantic low-pressure systems from taking their usual track to the north of the UK, which normally brings mild and fairly wet weather to north-west Europe. Instead, low-pressure systems have been diverted further south, allowing cold easterly winds to affect much of northern and central Europe.

All this just a week before the start of British Summer Time. We are now heading for the chilliest March in 51 years, the cold facts being that the average temperature in central England has been 3.8C so far, fully 2.2C below the long-term figure for the month. Cheery characters will say that it could be worse, pointing to 1913's gales, when part of Worthing pier blew down; 1931's snows, when some roads in London were impassable for days; and 1947's soaking, when triple the average rain fell. But then the month could be so much better, like 1907's sunniest ever, with temperatures in the 20s and 10 hours of sun each day of the Easter holidays; or 1929, when similar temperatures were recorded, plus very little rain – there was a complete lack of it all month in north London; or even last year's blissful March, with warm temperatures, plentiful sunshine, and less than half the average rainfall.

So that, then, is spring, which used to lead to a period of the year we called summer, a time, apparently, of warmth and sunshine. Older readers may recall it.

Additional reporting: Heather Saul and Mathew Di Salvo

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