A few inches of snow, a touch of nocturnal frost and a flurry or two of sleet – call this a winter? Why, when I was a boy there were fogs and smogs, snow from Boxing Day to March, icicles as long as golf clubs and frosts so severe the sea froze. Real winters, they were – hard enough to see off a pipsqueak like 2009-10 and still have plenty of menace to spare. And so, in response to those who think the present season a cause for complaint, I present the 10 toughest winters in thermo– meter history:
Six of the coldest winters in British recorded history (that is, since 1684) were in the last 16 years of the 17th century, and this was the worst of the lot. The River Thames froze for more than two months, thanks to a January which was more than 6C colder than the long-term average for the month.
The second coldest British winter of all time, it began in late December when temperatures dropped to -9C and were made extra-vicious by biting winds. The following January was one of the coldest months on record.
A great blizzard, aided by strong gales, raged across the whole of the south in mid-January, laying down more than 2ft (60cm) of level snow in places, and paralysing London. Passengers were trapped in trains (in one case for 26 hours), mail deliveries were suspended for a week, and the Thames flooded in places, drowning more than 100 people. It was all accompanied by severe cold – on 18 January, York's maximum temperature was -7.8C, and, on the 25th, a minimum of -21.7C was recorded at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. A rival blizzard was the one which struck in December 1836, lasted five days, and put down snow so thick that, in Lewes, Sussex, an avalanche killed eight people.
One of the heaviest snowfalls of the 20th century, with a blizzard that began on Christmas Day in the Midlands and Wales, and then spread south by Boxing Day. In Kent, there was 2ft of level snow, and drifts of 20ft were measured in the Chilterns. Some B-roads remained unpassable for three weeks. In Surrey, food parcels were dropped by aircraft to marooned villagers, and the Daily Express, ever imaginative with the facts, reported a "Glacier near London". What it was referring to was a 15ft wall of frozen snow near Purley, Surrey. The thaw coincided with heavy rains to create floods in London, where 14 people drowned.
Towards the end of February came one of the worst blizzards to hit Britain. In parts of the north, Wales and the Midlands, there were 48 hours of continuous snowfall, and elsewhere it was almost as bad. Huddersfield had over 2ft of lying snow, drifts of 14ft were measured on Yorkshire's moors and dales, and villages were cut off from the Midlands to the Scottish borders.
A January so cold (averaging -1.4C) that only 1963's was worse. Mid-month, the Thames froze for the first time since 1880. There were heavy snows (4ft in Sheffield) and, in the south, a "glaze" (rain that immediately freezes when it touches a surface, leaving roads and paths lethally slippery). In places this was so thick that the ice brought down tree branches and phone wires. People had to wait for news of all this, because wartime regulations imposed a 15-day black-out on weather news, lest it aid the enemy.
Until 22 January this was a modest winter. Then, on 23 January began one of the greatest periods of lying snows in British history. Even in mid-March, the Scottish borders had drifts of 24ft, and nearly a quarter of the nation's sheep died. At Writtle, Essex, on the 29th, a temperature of -21C was recorded, and most of East Anglia experienced nothing warmer than -5C. February was the coldest ever, and Greenwich had 14 days when the temperature never rose above freezing. In places there were meat shortages because butchers could not chop through deliveries, even with the sharpest cleavers. Oxford had 16 consecutive days of frost, and Kew had no sunshine from the 2nd to the 22nd. Severe gales, rains and a rapid thaw produced terrible March floods. The Football League programme was extended until 14 June as a result.
From 5-9 December, there was one of the worst smogs ever to envelope London. In some places visibility was less than 10 yards. Such was the amount of coal smoke pouring into a natural fog that a black, oily deposit was left on surfaces. The result was, officially, 4,000 extra deaths, although some claim 12,000 died; and, more happily, the campaign that led to the 1956 Clean Air Act, restricting coal fires. The rest of the winter brought snows, storms, and high winds.
The third coldest of all-time. December began with the last great London smog, then gales, before the snow arrived over Christmas. I awoke on Boxing Day morning to more than a foot in Surrey, and before long there were drifts of up to 15ft, and 95,000 miles of roads were snowbound. Over much of the country, snow lay for 67 consecutive days, until early March. January was the coldest since 1814, with -16C recorded at Gatwick on the 13th, -20.6C in Hertfordshire, and the sea frozen off the south coast. On the Thames at Shepperton, the ice was so thick that two grown men could sit mid-stream on chairs. At Tredegar in Wales, a severe early February snowstorm caused record urban drifts of over 5ft. Some 261 Football League matches were postponed, leading to the invention of the Pools Panel, sundry experts who sat and decided the "results" of matches, so that Britons could go on filling in their weekly coupons.
The only winter from the past 47 years to make it into the coldest 50 since records began, at number 28. There were snows everywhere, but a great blizzard hit the south on New Year's Eve, bringing Heathrow airport to a standstill for several days. January's temperature averaged -0.4C, as continuous frosts and snowfalls continued. The weather, and industrial unrest, meant that the abiding image of this winter is one of picketing men and women warming their hands on a brazier.