Wintry end to Easter break: Airship forced down and sailing dinghies capsized as rain, hail and snow hit parts of Britain

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The Independent Online
RAIN, hail, snow and high winds swept across much of the country, bringing a wintry close to the Easter holiday.

Despite the weather, traffic was up 300 per cent on normal Sundays and there were massive build-ups of vehicles at tourist attractions and superstores. 'Frustrated motorists have faced snowstorms, gale force winds, accidents and miles of jams,' Nigel Davison of RAC Roadata said.

At superstores in Croydon, south London, and Newcastle upon Tyne there were queues more than a mile long. In Hampshire, the race meeting at Thruxton caused chaos as cars became bogged down in fields, causing a five-mile jam. The QE2 bridge across the Thames at Dartford was closed for two hours because of gales, leading to an 11- mile tailback.

An airship owned by Virgin Atlantic crash-landed in a snowstorm in Hereford and Worcester. It was forced down when its controls became covered in snow during a flight from Halfan airfield near Wolverhampton to Cambridge. The airship was badly damaged but the pilot and co-pilot were not seriously injured.

Emergency services mounted a major rescue operation when two childen were reported missing after a sudden storm threw more than 20 windsurfers and dinghy sailors into the sea at St Lawrence Bay, Essex.

The Thames Coastguard ordered a full rescue operation with the help of local lifeboats and a rescue helicopter from RAF Manston. The craft were swept away when the squall hit the bay with wind speed suddenly increasing from five knots to almost 50.

A spokesman for the Thames Coastguard said there could have been deaths. He said: 'We could easily have lost people in this accident. They were scattered throughout the river Blackwater. Given the weather conditions the clubs should not have put these people at risk.'

Most of those involved were taking part in a dinghy race organised by Stone Sailing Club in Stone, Essex. All the missing people were accounted for.

In Cambridgeshire, hail and snow caused 20 accidents in 90 minutes. A police spokesman said driving conditions were 'treacherous'.

Scotland has benefited from unusually good skiing weather. Skiers flocked to the slopes in their thousands to make it a successful Easter break for resorts.

Ferocious gales throughout the past months have deterred most people. But Easter brought brilliant sunshine and crisp snow to provide perfect skiing conditions in most places.

'People have been flocking to us. We have blue skies, sunshine and loads of snow,' Stewart Davidson at Glenshee said yesterday.

Most of the Scottish centres had an average of more than 1,000 skiers a day over the Easter break.

For birdwatchers, the unusually cold weather has delayed the spring migration season. By early afternoon yesterday the Bird Information Service's best offering was a short-toed treecreeper, a rare sight which was spotted at a nature reserve at Dungeness in Kent.

Folkestone in Kent was the warmest place in Britain today, with 13C. The coldest place during the day was Buxton, Derbyshire, with 3C. The coldest overnight temperature recorded was at Loch Glascarnoch, in the Highlands, with -2C.

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