Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Book - Reflections on the frozen North (Yorks)

When the snow started falling. Sebastian Oake looks back one year at the start of the great freeze-up

THIS weekend as you watch the weather forecast, spare a thought for yourself exactly one year ago.

If you were anything like me, you were certainly not ready for what was about to unfold – the most savage early start to winter in living memory.

A year ago this weekend, the forecasters were beginning to talk about a possible spell of colder weather, in their guarded, cover-all-bases way.

On November 19 the Met Office, speculating about the coming week, said: “Early indications are that there might well be some snow. However, it is too early to say exactly where and when.”

A huge block of high pressure over Greenland and low pressure to the south of Britain were conspiring to draw in freezing air from northern Russia, where the temperature was minus 25C

The North Sea was still relatively warm and easterly winds were expected to pick up significant moisture on the way. It could mean only one thing. Snow, and lots of it.

It started falling in earnest on November 24, beginning in the usual places – Scotland, the North-east and the North York Moors.

The A169 at the Hole of Horcum on the road to Whitby was blocked for two hours after a lorry skidded in the snow. It was a signal of things to come.

Later the police said conditions were becoming treacherous in several parts of the county. Soon weather warnings seemed to be coming as thick and fast as the snowflakes.

One bitter day turned into the next and conditions worsened. By the start of December most of the UK was covered with snow.

Roads became blocked, drivers sat shivering in their cars and lorries, buses were suspended, airports were closed, council services were disrupted.

Many parts of Yorkshire had least a full foot of snow with drifts often many times deeper and being added to all the time. In Sheffield, volunteer snow wardens took on the impossible task of trying to keep the roads and pavements clear. On the morning of December 3 it was announced that the temperature at Topcliffe near Thirsk had fallen to minus 19C the night before. It was the coldest night ever recorded in Yorkshire.

On December 9 the weather eased but it was a false dawn.

A week later the bitter cold hit back once more, this time straight from the Arctic. Britain was to stay snowbound until well into the New Year.

After the first few days of the cold blast, you couldn’t buy salt at the supermarket. Cats and dogs became confused and frustrated indoor prisoners. Log piles and oil tanks depleted at an alarming rate. On the news we heard about the ultimate pub lock-in at the Lion Inn at Blakey, 1,325 feet up on the North York Moors. Surrounded by drifts of up to 16 feet, two guests from Sheffield and five staff were cut off for more than a week.

With little to do except gradually empty the beer barrels, it might sound like heaven, but from the snowed-up pub, staff told the “novelty was beginning to wear off”.

Each day brought with it fresh stories of stranded people and hardship, but also of good neighbourliness and people doing their best to carry on as normal.

The cold blast inevitably claimed its victims. A man in his 70s was found dead in the snow at a caravan park at Cleethorpes. Perhaps saddest of all, at Bellerby Bank between Richmond and Leyburn in the Yorkshire Dales, a Good Samaritan was killed after he got out of his Land Rover to help a motorist in difficulties and was hit by another vehicle.

What can we expect for this winter? Paul Hudson of Look North, says: “The hype surrounding this year’s winter forecast has been remarkable, unparalleled in my 20 years as a meteorologist.”

Private weather companies and amateur forecasters have made all sorts of calls but, according to Hudson, the most likely outcome is a winter perhaps colder than average but not as bad as last year.

Paul Hudson and Ian McCaskill have just published Frozen Britain (Great Northern Books), including the story of last winter.

Sebastian Oake contact: sebastian@smartercat.co.uk

Bleak winter to remember
December 2010 was the coldest December across the UK for at least 100 years. Only January 1940, February 1947, January 1963, February 1963 and February 1986 were said to have been colder months.

The winter of 1963 was overall the coldest of the 20th century. In December 1962 much of the country suffered from freezing fog, turning to choking smog in the cities as smoke from thousands of coal fires mingled with damp, still air. For many, the snow started falling seriously on Boxing Day. In many parts of Yorkshire it lay on the ground into March.

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