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Winter bows out with a cold snap

AN UNUSUALLY mild winter officially ends today with freezing gales, a nasty cold snap and a real threat of snow in the north as Spring, and March, arrive.

Gales blasted cold air into Scotland and northern England yesterday, blowing over lorries and killing one driver on the A1 near Morpeth, Northumberland. Two dozen pupils in West Leeds High School suffered minor injuries after the roof was blown off their classrooms.

At nearby Leeds Bradford airport a 35-seat passenger aircraft was blown right off the runway by a violent crosswind during its take-off run. The British Midland Saab 340 bounced across the grass and ended up more than 100 yards from the concrete, facing in the wrong direction. None of the 15 passengers and three crew, bound for Glasgow, were hurt.

The Meteorological Office counts winter as December, January and February. With one day of data collection remaining, the average temperature for the past three months was 6C, nearly 2C above the long-term winter average. It looked set to be the warmest since the winter of 1989/90, and one of the ten hottest in more than 300 years.

February has been balmier still; fully 3.5C above the long- term average for the month. Weathermen said it looked likely to be as warm as February 1990, which was itself the mildest since the same month in 1869.

The past month has also been unusually dry in England and Wales, with only a quarter of average rainfall. Water companies were hoping the drought was over following a wet November, December and January; now they are pinning their hopes on a return to average rainfall during the next two months.

Anglian Water has announced that it is setting up the first desalination plant on mainland Britain next week. The small research plant will begin taking in seawater at Felixstowe, converting it into 40 cubic metres of freshwater a day. But because this is only a three-month trial of membrane technology, this freshwater will be pouredback into the sea. Anglian says it will consider a ''more permanent'' desalination plant for the area if the pilot project proves successful.