Some nine years ago, we were in the grip of one of the most severe spells of weather to occur in the month of December for over 100 years. Around Durham, snowfall was very deep. Here’s a selection of photos taken by Gary Tidbury of the conditions around Framwellgate Moor in Durham.
A good mate of mine just posted these extraordinary photos on Facebook of an ‘Ice Spike’.
“This morning I had never heard of an ice spike and if I had ever seen one, would have had no idea what it was and shrugged it off as something strange. A post on another site had a photo of one happening in the great outdoors of Northumberland along with an explanation of the strange event. That reminded me that yesterday, in my small beaker used for inaccurate assumptions of rainfall measures, I had noticed a frozen stick shape protruding above the top. It must have been 6-8 cm long. I shrugged it off, wrongly presuming that by chance (a million to one ?) an icicle had fallen from the roof some 4 feet away and several higher and landed, unbroken in the beaker !?! On reading said post, I went outside to find this …”
When December 2010 came along, it was a complete shock to the system. There had been no below freezing December (average below 0.0 degC) since 1890. That’s 120 years. These are temperatures from the CET series (Central England Temperature).
Records in the CET go back as far as 1659.
So, let’s look at those sub-zero December years. The first is December 1676 (mean temp -0.5 degC). Back then, the temperatures were only recorded to the nearest half degree and there aren’t any daily temperatures available to me, so I can’t really embellish that too much other than say, imagine a below-freezing month when there were no heated houses. Brutal stuff.
Next in the list, after a big gap of 112 years, is December 1788 (-0.3). This time, daily temperatures are also available. December 1788 was generally cold throughout, but especially severe from the 12th to 23rd. There was a short milder period lasting only Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, before severely cold conditions returned between Christmas and New Year.
There was only a short few years before the next one in December 1796 (-0.3). This month contained the coldest ever Christmas Day (-10.8 degC). Again, there were two really cold spells : the start of the month until 11th December, and then around the Christmas period (20th-27th). The weather warmed up again towards the New Year.
Moving into the ‘Dickensian’ period, when snowfall became popularised on Christmas cards, the next sub-zero month was December 1874. This month averaged just below freezing at -0.2 degC. The first 13 days were on the chilly side at an average of 2.1 degC, before the really bitter weather set in after that until the end of the year. The period 14th-31st December averaged -2.0 degC, which is incredible for an 18 day period.
Another ‘Dickensian’ winter produced the next freezing cold December, just four years later in December 1878 (-0.3). This month, and the following January produced the third example of consecutive freezing months in the record (after Jan and Feb 1684, Jan and Feb 1740, before it happened again for a fourth time in the winter of 1962-63). In December 1878, the severe spell was slap bang in the middle of the month. The period 9th-26th December averaged -2.8 degC. By New Years Eve, it was up to a balmy 10 degC before the January deep-freeze regained it’s grip into the New Year.
And so to December 1890 (-0.8 degC). The last sub-zero December before 2010. The month was severe from the 9th until the year’s end. This period averaged -1.9 degC. The coldest day was 22nd December at -6.5 degC. December 1890 was actually the coldest December on record, closely followed by December 2010 (-0.7 degC).
Coldest December Days (1659 to date)
25th December 1796 -10.8 degC
12th December 1981 -8.5 degC
27th December 1798 -8.4 degC
28th December 1798 -8.2 degC
17th December 1859 -7.7 degC
31st December 1783 -7.1 degC
18th December 1859 -7.1 degC
20th December 2010 -7.0 degC
24th December 1870 -6.9 degC
19th December 2010 -6.8 degC
As can be seen, most of the extreme temperatures fell in the freezing months, the exceptions were in 1981 (a very cold month with a colossal amount of snow that just missed out on sub-zero status at +0.3 degC), December 1798 (a short exceptionally cold spell from Christmas Eve to the 29th), December 1859 (a short, very wintry spell between 13th and 19th), December 1783 (very cold immediately after Christmas) and 1870 (very cold in the last third of the month).
December 2010 was arguably the most remarkable of them all, because it occurred during the current warming trend, whilst the others were in the more traditionally accepted Maunder Minimum and Dickensian winters which were much colder on average anyway.
When will the next one be? It may not be in our lifetimes, or it may be in a couple of years, there’s really no way of knowing. However, Exacta Weather and The Daily Express seem to think it will occur every year! 😏
This is archived content that used to be on the Met Office website, but isn’t anymore so I decided to resurrect it for posterity, adding my own comments and adaptions. It’s a page to refer to when people talk about the harsh winters of 1946-47 and 1962-63, the two UK winters that are used as benchmarks for how bad winter can get.
Rarely in the UK – or anywhere, for that matter – is a train completely buried in snow. But that’s exactly what happened on Dartmoor in March 1891 and in northern Scotland in January 1978. The winters that produced such phenomenal snowstorms were not, however, generally snowy – unlike the remarkable winter of 1947, the snowiest since 1814.
Fig 1: A car stuck in snow at Hebden Bridge – 1963
Since daily meteorological records began in Britain in the 17th century, there have been a number of severe winters. The coldest of all was probably 1684, when the diarist John Evelyn took a coach to Lambeth along the frozen River Thames. Frost Fairs were frequent as the flow of the Thames was restricted by the bridges, slowing it down and making it more susceptible to freezing over.
There was an exceptionally cold and protracted winter in 1739/40 when, between November 1739 and May 1740, snow fell on 39 days in the London area. January in both 1795 and 1814 were colder than January 1740, and the month of February in 1855, 1895 and 1947 were colder than February 1740.
England and Wales would have to wait 223 years for a winter as cold as 1740: this came in 1963.
But what was so remarkable about the 1739/40 winter however, is that the mean temperatures of both January and February were below freezing (0 °C) in the Midlands and southern England. The only other known instance of two successive months with mean temperatures below freezing took place in December 1878 and January 1879.
Before the brutal winter of 1962-63, there was also the equally notorious winter of 1946-47.
The serious snowfall in 1947
Although there were many shorter wintry interludes before Christmas in the winter of 1946-47, the ‘famous’ part of the winter didn’t really get going until the last third of January (see below).
From 22th January to 17th March in 1947, snow fell every day somewhere in the UK, with the weather so cold that the snow accumulated to a great depth. The temperature seldom rose more than a degree or two above freezing, which meant that very little melt occurred and snow just piled up, layer upon layer, until great drifts were everywhere.
There were several snowfalls of 60cm (2 ft) or more, and depths of level snow reached 150 cm (6 ft) in upper Teesdale and the Denbighshire Hills. Across Britain, drifts more than five metres (16 ft) deep blocked roads and railways. People were cut off for days. The armed services dropped supplies by helicopter to isolated farmsteads and villages, and helped to clear roads and railways.
The Calm Before the Storm
In mid January 1947, no-one expected the winter to go down in the annals as the snowiest since 1814 and among the coldest on record. After two cold spells that had failed to last – one before Christmas 1946, the other during the first week of January – the weather had turned unseasonably mild.
Fig 2: 0600 UTC on 31 January 1947. A low near the channel islands and high over southern Scandinavia, a typical pressure situation during the 1947 winter. Occlusion giving snow over southern counties of England.
During the night of 15-16th January, the temperature at Leeming in North Yorkshire didn’t fall below 11.7 °C. The following day, maximum temperatures close to 14 °C were recorded in Norfolk, Herefordshire and Flintshire. All this mildness was soon to change.
An area of high pressure moved northwards from France on 18th January. Two days later, the anticyclone was centred off north-west Norway. It then drifted south-east to southern Scandinavia, and dominated the weather over the British Isles for the rest of the month. The first night frost came on the 20th and the winter began in earnest on the 23rd, when snow fell heavily over the south and south-west of England. Even in the Isles of Scilly, a few centimetres of snow fell. The blizzard in south-west England was the worst since 1891; many villages in Devon were isolated.
1947’s Unrelenting harsh weather
The cold, snowy weather continued through February and into March. Any breaks in the cold weather were short-lived.
On no day in February 1947 did the temperature at Kew Observatory top 4.4 °C, and only twice in the month was the night minimum temperature above 0 °C
The mean maximum temperature for the month was 0.5 °C (6.9 °C below average) and the mean minimum was -2.7 °C (4.6 °C below average)
On 26 of the month’s 28 days, snow was lying at 0900 UTC
South of a line from The Wash to the River Dee, mean maximum temperatures were everywhere more than 5.5 °C below average and, in some places, more than 7 °C below average
Mean minimum temperatures were more than 4 °C below average everywhere in the south and south-west of England, and almost 6 °C below average in some places
February 1947 was the coldest February on record in many places and, for its combination of low temperatures with heavy snow, bore comparison with January 1814.
One notable feature of February 1947 was the lack of precipitation in parts of western Scotland. Because of the persistent anticyclonic conditions, some places that were normally very wet had no rain at all. A completely dry month in western Scotland is unusual. It was unprecedented in February.
Another unusual feature of February 1947 was the lack of sunshine in the Midlands and south of England – a complete contrast to the north-west of Scotland, where the weather was unusually sunny.
At Kew, Nottingham and Edgbaston, there was no sun on 22 of the month’s 28 days. At Kew, there was none at all from the 2nd to the 22nd. Hardly anywhere in the Midlands and southern England did the sunshine totals for the month exceed 40 per cent of the long term average.
When skies did clear, night-time temperatures plunged. A minimum of -21 °C was recorded at Woburn in Bedfordshire early on 25 February. Without the cloud, the month would almost certainly have been even colder than it was, certainly at night.
March 1947 : More snow, flooding and then gales
In some parts of the British Isles, snow fell on as many as 26 days in February 1947. Much of the snow was powdery and was soon whipped into deep drifts by the strong winds.
If February hadn’t been enough, March was even worse. In the first half of the month, there were more gales and heavy snowstorms.
Fig 3: The flooding of 1947
On 4th and 5th March, heavy snow fell over most of England and Wales, with severe drifting. On 6th March, drifts were five metres (16 ft) deep in the Pennines and three metres (10 ft) deep in the Chilterns. In some places, glazed frost occurred. On 10th and 11th March, southern Scotland had its heaviest snowfall of the winter, and the snowstorm reached the Scottish Highlands, where, on 12th March, drifts more than seven metres (23 ft) deep were reported.
Meanwhile, mild air with a temperature of 7-10 °C edged into the extreme south-west of the British Isles on 10th March, bringing rain. The ensuing thaw was rapid. By the evening of 11th March, vast areas of southern England were under water. After weeks of frost, the ground was frozen hard. The rain and meltwater couldn’t soak into the ground. Surface run-off was the only option.
The warm air spread northwards and eastwards. Meltwater from the Welsh mountains poured into the valleys of the Severn and Wye, flooding Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. The rivers of the English Midlands burst their banks. By 13th March, Fenland rivers were close to overspilling.
On 15th March, a deepening depression from the Atlantic approached the British Isles, bringing rain and severe gales. During the afternoon of 16th March, mean winds over southern England reached 50 knots, with gusts of 80-90 knots.
Buildings were damaged and waves were whipped up on floodwaters. In East Anglia, where the major rivers flow north-eastwards, the south-westerly wind drove water before it and waves pounded the dykes. Water levels rose and the dykes gave way. Most of the Fenland was inundated. Troops were called in, but they could do little to stop water pouring through the breached dykes.
River levels rose relentlessly. For example, the banks of the Trent burst at Nottingham on 18th March and hundreds of homes were flooded, many to first floor level. When floodwater reached the tidal part of the Trent, it was impeded by a high spring tide, and the whole of the lower Trent valley was flooded.
The floods in the West Country subsided after 20th March, but rivers continued to rise in eastern England. The Wharfe, Derwent, Aire and Ouse all burst their banks and flooded a huge area of southern Yorkshire. The town of Selby was almost completely under water. Only the ancient abbey and a few streets around the market place escaped inundation. Seventy per cent of all houses in the town were flooded.
Fig 4: Maximum and minimum temperatures Edgbaston, Warwickshire 15 Dec 1946-16 Mar 1947
The cold and snowy weather had, at last, ended, but the misery of the floods continued into the spring. And to make matters worse, the severe difficulties caused by the winter of 1947 were aggravated by the fuel and food shortages that remained after the Second World War.
1962-63 was the coldest winter since 1740
The winter of 1962/63 was the coldest over England and Wales since 1740. As in 1947, anticyclones to the north and east of the British Isles brought bitterly cold winds from the east day after day. As in 1947, depressions followed tracks to southward of the British Isles and their fronts brought snow to England, Wales and the southernmost parts of Scotland.
Mean maximum temperatures for January 1963 were more than 5 °C below average over most of Wales, the Midlands and southern England and in some places more than 7 °C below average. Mean minimum temperatures over this area were equally far below average. The story was much the same in February.
The winter began abruptly, just before Christmas in December 1962. The weather in the first three weeks of December was changeable and sometimes stormy, but not particularly snowy. From the 4th to the 6th December, London experienced its worst spell of fog since the Great Smog of 1952.
Ten days later, the weather was particularly wet and stormy, with a gust of 88 knots recorded at Blackpool during the night of 15/16th December, the strongest since records began there in 1946. The weather situation changed markedly on 22nd December. On the 23rd, high pressure extended all the way from the southern Baltic to Cornwall, bringing cold easterly winds to much of England and Wales.
A belt of rain over northern Scotland on Christmas Eve turned to snow as it moved south, giving Glasgow its first white Christmas since 1938. The snow belt reached southern England on Boxing Day and became almost stationary. The following day, snow lay five centimetres deep in the Channel Islands and 30 cm (1 ft) deep in much of southern England.
Fig 5: The start of the winter: the cold front that brought the snow to England on 26 December 1962. Chart for 0600 UTC on 26 December.
A blizzard over south-west England and south Wales on 29th and 30th December brought snowdrifts 6m (20 ft) deep. Villages were cut off, some for several days. Roads and railways were blocked. Telephone wires were brought down. Stocks of food ran low. Farmers couldn’t reach their livestock. Thousands of sheep, ponies and cattle starved to death in the fields.
From Boxing Day 1962 to early March 1963, much of England was continuously under snow. Unlike the winter of 1947, however, 1962/63 was sunnier than average in most parts of the area affected, considerably so in some places.
Manchester’s sunshine total for January was more than twice the average. Even in the south of England, where snow fell frequently, sunshine totals were above average in most places.
The most remarkable feature of the 1962/63 winter was not so much its snowiness as its coldness. The winter of 1947 was snowier than 1962/63, but not as cold.
In January 1963, there were 25 or more air frosts almost everywhere in southern England and south Wales. In February 1963, air frost occurred every night at Durham, and almost every night in the English Midlands. At several stations in southern England and south Wales, mean maximum temperatures were below 0 °C in January and little higher in February. Mean minimum temperatures were well below freezing almost everywhere in England, Wales and Scotland away from coasts. Extremely low temperatures were recorded – for example, a minimum of -22.2 °C was recorded at Braemar on 18th January.
Fig 6: Maximum and minimum temperatures Leckford, Hampshire 8 Dec 1962 – 9 Mar 1963
Lakes and rivers froze. Ice formed on harbours in the south and east of England. Patches of ice formed on the sea. Huge blocks of ice formed on beaches where waves broke and the spray froze. Coastal marine life suffered severely.
As in 1947, so it was in the winter of 1962/63: brief thaws occurred from time to time, and winter didn’t fully relax its grip before early March. In the last few days of February and the first few days of March 1963, sunny weather brought afternoon temperatures of 4 or 5 °C, but clear skies allowed temperatures to plummet at night. Frosts were moderate or severe.
At last, on 4th March, a mild south-westerly flow of air reached the British Isles. There was occasional rain that day in most parts of Britain, and further rain the following day in the west and north, this time prolonged. On 6th March, there was no frost anywhere in the British Isles and the temperature in London reached 17 °C – the highest since 25th October 1962.
The coldest winter over England and Wales since 1740, and the coldest over Scotland since 1879, had ended. With the thaw came flooding, but nothing like the scale of the 1947 floods. Soon after the winter of 1962/63, life returned to normal.
While I was researching weather ‘top tens’, I discovered Jonathan Webb of TORRO’s top 30. He’s given his top fifteen widespread events and his top fifteen convective (more local thunderstorms events). I’ll try to contextualise the widespread events as to how they affected the North East. I’ve also colour coded them (Green = Yes, Red = No)
Widespread Events (as defined by Jonathan)
1 Severe cold and floods of January-March 1947
Probably the most notorious winter in the North East of England. This winter still has eye-witness accounts and is still within ‘living memory’. Coming just after the conclusion of the Second World War, the country was already still suffering from shortages and damages to infrastructure. The winter came at a really bad time. The winter didn’t really get going until the third week in January 1947, but then it all went a bit mental. February 1947 was brutal. There were huge amounts of snow in the North East in mid-month. 4 feet of snow lay at Forrest-in-Teesdale on the 18th. My dad told me they had to tunnel to get out of their house in Spennymoor. The 5 brothers amused themselves by jumping out of the upstairs windows into the giant snowdrift that was in the front garden. The severe winter continued into the first half of March 1947. We had -21.1 degC at Houghall, Durham on 4th. All the snow melt caused significant flooding after mid-month.
2 Icestorm of 26-29 January 1940
January 1940 was one of the coldest January months on record. The period in question was a battleground situation of encroaching Atlantic air over a severely cold Russian air mass. Where the two met, heavy snow was the result. The main action from this happened to the south of us, so we didn’t really experience anything but snow. Further south, huge accumulations of ice formed around telegraph wires and power cables (increasing their dimension up to a foot thick), which brought them down. It would take the ice about a week to melt as February began.
3 Gale and floods of 31 January 1953
This had a major effect down the East coast of England as a storm surge followed a deep low pressure system which ran down the North Sea. Tides were about 2.5 metres above normal. The Norfolk/Suffolk coast and the South East was affected most, with extensive flooding in coastal areas and a great loss of life (307 people died, many more in the lowlands of the Netherlands). Again, the North East was spared from most of the mayhem.
4 The summer of ’76
This was spectacular in most places in the UK, and it was the beginning of my fascination with the weather. It was the year I sat my O-Level exams and also had a paper round. I remember going out with the papers around 6:30am and by the time I got home at around 8am it was already boiling hot. The hot weather was incessant, and there was also a water shortage caused by the previous winter being extremely dry. The drought broke in September 1976 when the entire country was deluged in heavy rainfall, some extreme. It is Durham’s wettest September on record, suffering 193mm of rain. The wet weather continued into October, compensating itself for the hot dry conditions that had gone before.
5 Winter of 1981-82
The winter of 1981-82 followed soon after the severe 1978-79 winter. The winter was to be remembered by a) extremely low temperatures and b) a huge amount of snow, which lay for the entire month of December 1981 and half of the following month. The North East was badly affected, with roads closed and communities cut off. After the snowfall, temperature plummeted. I recorded -17 degC in Kirk Merrington at the rear of our house (it was our first winter there). There was record cold elsewhere, with the UK cold record equalled on 11th/12th January 1982.
6 The severe winter of 1962-63
The second Great Winter of the 20th Century, again there are many people still around who witnessed it. I was only 2.5 years old at the time so can’t remember it first hand, but my parents and grandparents told me what it was like. The cold set in just before Christmas in December 1962. Blizzards plastered the North East towards New Year. The ground lay snow-covered for all of January, February and the first part of March. It wasn’t quite as snowy for the North East as in 1947, but it was still extraordinarily cold and the cold lasted much longer. The cold continued into February, but gradually started to relent and there was no flooding with the thaw, just a gentle melting in the welcome warm sunshine which came.
7 The Great Storm of 16 October 1987
Although this was a major event in Southern and South Eastern parts of England, here in the North East we experienced nothing of the same. The October storm really passed us by and some folks could be excused for wondering what all the fuss was about. Millions of trees were blown down and millions of pounds worth of damage done. This was probably the worst gale since the Defoe Storm of 1703, but wasn’t a whole country event.
8 The late cold spell of 24-25 April 1908
Again, this one was a mainly South of England event, with heavy snowfalls as far north as the Midlands. The most the North East got from this were some very unseasonably cold temperatures so late into April. Oxford had one of the snowiest episodes it had experienced either before or since.
9 The blizzards of January-February 1978
In January 1978, the first big blizzard affected the very North of Scotland from 25th-29th with a Northerly gale. This followed an intense low pressure system which dragged in the Northerlies. The air pressure in Durham dropped to 963 mb. The blizzards of February 1978 caught the North East because it was a classic Easterly snow situation. There was a foot of snow in Newcastle by the 13th. The exceptional blizzard of the month was in the South West of England, peaking between the 18th and 20th February.
10 Rain over the east on 26 August 1912
August 1912 was one of the dullest, wettest and coldest of the 20th century. This coming after the stunning summer of 1911. It was Durham’s coldest August on record, averaging only 11.8 degC (3.6 degC below average). Although Durham was wet, it wasn’t it’s wettest ever, but this event submerged large parts of East Anglia, destroying bridges and leaving places under 15ft of floodwater. This was probably the worst August can get.
11 Gale on 2 January 1976
This became known as the ‘Capella’ Storm. I remember this little bugger storming through. It was a tight circulation and the centre passed over Scotland on an almost exact West to East trajectory. The North East was sheltered slightly by the Pennines, but not by much as ferocious gales were felt across much of the country. Gusts in excess of 50mph were widespread and it destroyed many a greenhouse and even a caravan site in Doncaster. The gales wrought havoc in Europe as well. There’s a Wikipedia analysis page about this storm here
12 Rain of August 1952
This month’s deluges led to the catastrophic Lynmouth Flood which swept through the tiny Devon village on 15th/16th August. There was reckoned to be about 10″ to a foot of rain dropped on the catchment area of Dartmoor over the period, which rushed down the tight valleys causing 34 deaths in the town. This month was actually a very dry one in the North East of England, with less than an inch of rain in places, so the rains were a mainly southern event.
13 The extended summer of 1911
The Summer in 1911 ran from May until the first half of September. The ‘worst’ month of the summer was June, but the first 10 days produced some temperatures in the high 20’s in North East England. There was flooding in the second half of June in the North East after heavy rain on 23rd/24th. July was superb over the whole country, including Durham. However, the south had sunnier, warmer and drier conditions. The all time high temp for July 1911 stood as a record until 2006. August 1911 was also very hot, with it’s high temp record standing until beaten in August 2003. Durham also experienced very high temperatures.
14 Heavy rain in the SE on 14-15 September 1968
This was a South East England event, mainly around the London area. More than 8″ of rain fell in the day. The North East and Durham saw nothing of this episode at all.
15 Heatwave of summer 1906
Before 1911, 1906 was remembered as a very good year. May was notable for cold, with 65mm of rain measured at North Shields on 19th, but after that the summer was hot and fine, particularly in June and July, with heat returning at the end of August and into September. It was very hot in the first week of September 1906. The 1st of September 1906 was Durham’s hottest recorded September day, with 30.0 degC. This record still stands.
This photo was taken (we think) in February 1895. It shows people sweeping the ice on the river, perhaps preparing it for skating or maybe a curling competition. The location is just below Prebends Bridge.
February 1895 was one of the coldest Februaries ever recorded in Durham.
Noticeable is how little vegetation cloaks the slopes below the Cathedral. The building to the left of the photograph is the Old Fulling Mill.
Prebends Bridge can be seen in this photograph, everyone is skating!
The exact source of the photos is unknown.
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