Here’s a song by one of my favourite artists, Loudon Wainwright III. It was written during the cold spell in 1987, when Loudon was living in England.
Loudon Wainwright III – You don’t want to know (1987)
It was colder than a witches tit, colder than a Polar bear’s nose,
Colder than the shoulder of my old flame, colder than hell ever knows,
Not quite as cold as you think it is when the wind chill factors blow,
But at Centigrade and Fahrenheit it felt way below zero.
The electric duvet was cranked way up to 10, the gas fires were on full blast,
When i get the bills from both of those Boards i don’t know if the money will last,
I was fully clothed in my entire wardrobe but i still couldn’t feel my toes,
The pipes all burst and we had another first, the water in the toilet bowl froze.
When the radio ordered me to stay at home i obeyed though i was miffed,
But the roads were ice, there was a ton of snow, and when the wind blows snow will drift,
I was brushing and flossing my chattering teeth and in the mirror i saw my breath,
Half frozen watching the TV news, the other half of me was worried to death.
We’ve got helicopter rescues and freezing old ladies and the choochoo trains won’t go,
On the M4 there’s a 5 mile tailback, lorries jacknifing in the snow,
And it’s summertime down in Australia and what gets right under my skin,
On the TV they showing suntanned cricketers, they’re just rubbing it in !
And they’re saying it’s from Siberia, that Communist, Arctic zone,
What we’ve got is a Russian plot to make the World it’s ice-cream cone,
Whether we’re gonna get a break, the weatherman will not say,
I took my dog for a walk and he took a crap, you won’t smell it until April or May.
And the same thing happened here last year, but you don’t want to know,
In England people go around wearing raincoats and training shoes in the snow.
It was the coldest day on record, in the coldest week in memory,
It was the coldest month in the coldest year on the coldest night in history,
But don’t ask me just how cold it was, you don’t want to know,
On Centigrade and Fahrenheit it felt way below zero,
I’m talking Centigrade and Fahrenheit, it was way below zero.
Loudon Wainwright III – You don’t want to know (1987)
The harsh realities of the brutal winter of 1946-47 are chronicled here in a writeup of The Time Traveller clipped from the Northern Echo some time in the 1980s
The churches worry about war-devastated Germany, but most people say that Britain has enough to do in feeding herself. Rationing is worse than in the war – dwindling allowances of basic foods, “points” for others, coupons for clothes and since last July even bread, which has not been rationed before.
We are exhorted to export more, or expect still lower living standards and industry is short of coal. Mr. Atlee’s Labour Government is sadly handicapped in it’s attempt to inaugurate a new era of social welfare and industrial change, including nationalisation of industries like mining, which has been run by a National Coal Board since New Year’s Day.
The Weather looks ominous indeed
Now even the weather looks ominous. Indeed, the last twelve months has been the wettest for a generation, a wintry snap came before Christmas, and the New Year has been very wet; but a very cold easterly air current now covers the country. The first snow fell in midweek – accompanying a forecast of “Bread ration may be cut, less bacon and home meat, beer supplies to be halved immediately” – and today has fallen more generally. Tonight a wintry weekend is setting in.
FA Cup ties were played today in icy winds, and road accidents in one small area of County Durham have included a bus turning over near Bishop Auckland, injuring two of 30 passengers, and a Richmond couple injured when their car collided with a lorry near Bildershaw Bank; and tonight a car and lorry have collided on The Great North Road between Ferryhill and Chilton.
A boy of six and his eight year old sister have drowned in sliding on a frozen pond in Shropshire, and two boys aged eight and fourteen in a Berkshire pond.
Ten feet deep on the North York Moors
By tomorrow night the snow drifts will be six to ten feet deep on the North Yorkshire Moors, along with heavy snow in many other parts of the country, and gales along the East Coast and English Channel, with the wildest day for years in the Straits of Dover, snow on Hastings beach and the heaviest fall for three years at Falmouth in Cornwall.
Despite what it portends, however by Monday the weather will not yet displace such news as the breakdown of Anglo-Egyptian treaty negotiations, and the kidnapping of a judge and an Army officer by jewish terrorists in Palestine. Today, the gangster Al Capone has died in Florida, to which he retired in 1939 after his release from eight years prison for income tax evasion. This is also a weekend of air accidents.
Apart from a Hong Kong report of £1m in gold scattered down a hillside, with a Dakota’s crew of four dead, a Dakota crashed today on take off at Croydon, killing half of it’s two dozen occupants, and a Mosquito came down in a field near Kirkby Fleetham Hall, killing two pilots from RAF Leeming; and tomorrow a Dutch Dakota is to crash after take off in Denmark, killing six crew and sixteen passengers including the eldest son of the Crown Prince of Sweden and film star and opera singer Grace Moore.
A Literary star is to rise in The North East next Thursday with publication of a book of short stories by the young Ferryhill miner Sid Chaplin, who has already received the Atlantic Award for Literature.
The whole country paralysed
By then, the whole country will be paralysed. On Wednesday, there will be 14ft drifts in Essex and 16 degrees of frost that night in London, after gas and electricity cuts during the day, with most of it’s commuters snowbound at home for days to come.
The snow this weekend heralds a nightmare of continuous snow and frost, lack of coal made worse by frozen roads and railways, and colliers stormbound in the Tyne, power stations closing down and, by the end of the week after next, two million people out of work.
Surviving wartime regulations allow the government to fobid electric fires between set hours of morning and afternoon, to ban greyhound racing and suspend television and radio’s Thid Programme, and cut London transport. In the coldest February for over half a century, in snow, in worn clothes and leaking footwear, people are to find themselves trying to revive “wartime spirit” in a “Fuel Dunkirk”, collecting gasworks coke in prams and sacks and queueing for candles. A failure of the national grid and a total blackout will be barely averted in a fortnight’s time.
Slight improvement, then more snow in March
By mid-February, there will be a slight improvement but after a slight thaw and a fog blanket, snow is to return as March comes in, renewing the nightmare. Much of the land will be under an ice cap of snow old and new – a compacted six feet and more in Upper Teesdale and elsewhere – when milder air begins to creep in from the south west.
As the snow slowly melts, the soil remains icebound, vast lakes spread; and a gale on March 16th – ironically the first day of British Summer Time by the clocks – will precipitate a flooding disaster, while Scotland and Northern England are still an Arctic wilderness, York will see it’s worst flood since 1831.
For nearly eight weeks, snow is to fall somewhere every day, with most of the country snow-covered after this weekend. As April arrives with Easter, there will again be blizzards in the North Midlands and snowploughs out in the Peak District. Some sodden land will not re-emerge until May or June. After that, a hot summer is to bring droughts.
After 6 months of way above average rainfall, December has finally stopped the rot. As has been previously mentioned, the wet sequence started in June and ran all the way through to Novemeber.
What usually happens when December is dry is that it’s also frosty. This time, it’s been both mild here and on the dry side. There have only been 4 air frosts, spread equally across the month. (1st, 2nd, 18th and 31st).
The atmospheric pressure was pretty low and cyclonic from the 6th all the way to the 23rd, but all of the rain seemed to fall in southern areas (indeed some places down south were flooded) and largely bypassed Durham. Even though there were 23 days with measurable rain, the total for the month was only 31.2mm. The wettest day was the 10th, coming in with a total of 6.3mm. That was the only day with more than 5mm of rainfall in the month.
Temperatures were also pretty unremarkable, with the highest temperature a modest 11.5 degC on the 6th, right at the start of the cyclonic period. There were mentions of high temperatures in Northern Scotland around the 30th, with air coming around the anticyclone being further warmed by the Föhn Effect, but it didn’t affect Durham. Snow was none-existent in Durham City, although there were falls in the Pennines in mid month.
The mean maximum was slightly above the 1981-2010 average, but the mean minimum was nearly 2 degrees above normal, making the month 1.2 degC above average overall.
A new high temperature for the UK in December was recorded in Scotland on 28th. Warm air coming around the top of an anticyclone was further warmed by the Fohn Effect. The temperature hit 18.7 degC at Achfary in the Scottish Highlands.
As Christmas is over for another year, and we’ve been disappointed by the lack of snow again, we start looking forward to the New Year. What’s sort of weather is normal for Durham in January? Well. looking at the means for Durham, and the extremes, we can see what range is ‘normal’.
Durham Weather Extremes since 1850
Mean Temp : 3.8 degC. (Max 6.6, Min 0.9)
Warmest : 6.8 degC in 1916.
Coldest : -2.1 degC in 1881.
Abs Max Temp : 16.7 degC on 9th, 1888.
Absolute Min Temp : -17.2 degC on 17th, 1881.
Mean Rainfall : 52 mm.
Wettest : 188 mm in 1948.
Driest : 7 mm in 1855.
There isn’t actually much difference between December and January now when compared to the 1981-2010 means. The normal max temp for January is just a shade under 7 degC, and the mean minimum is just a shade above freezing. The slight advantage that January has is that the days have started to lengthen. This starts to be quite noticeable by the end of the month. Bright sunshine averages just under 2 hrs per day.
January can be very cold indeed!
However, things can be a lot more severe, not normally for a full month, but it’s typical to have a short spell of 4-7 days when the temperature averages around freezing and the weather is very wintery. Occasionally we get a month like January 1881 when the mean drops below freezing for the month as a whole. The mean for that month was a very severe -2.1 degC. This month was incredibly cold between about the 8th to the 27th in Durham.
When this happens and the ground is snow covered, intense loss of heat to space occurs and temperatures can drop really low. This usually occurs under influence of high pressure after a heavy snowfall. The lowest ever recorded in Durham was -17.2 degC on 17th January 1881, just prior to the great blizzard that dropped huge amounts of snow on areas further to the south. There had been snowfall after the 9th, then the east coast was under the influence of the Scandinavian High, but the North of England remained dry during the great Southern Blizzard, and had a freezing Easterly gale instead.
When the South West winds blow …
On the opposite side of the coin, when winds blow from the west and south west, January can be relatively warm, but the usual downside is that it is also very wet as well. The warmest January on record in Durham was in 1916, slap bang in the middle of World War 1. In that month, the mean was 6.8 degC. This was about 4 degrees above the mean at that time, but it resulted in the sea of mud that the soldiers fighting in France had to endure. Rainfall was way above average in 1916, but it still wasn’t as wet as 1948.
The highest temperatures can occur when air approaches from the South West around a High Pressure system, when it crosses the Pennines and can also benefit from increased warming from a Fohn effect, this happened in 1888 when Durham experienced it’s warmest January day.
When anticyclonic conditions persist, like in January 1855, Durham can be almost bone dry, with only a few mm of rainfall in total.
Normal January Weather
The normal is not that severe, but typically Atlantic influenced, with occasional frosty nights and a couple of short spells of snow. Snow cover doesn’t normally last more than 5-6 days and sometimes the temperature can get into the mid teens, but expect it to be windy and wet too in that case. Warm/Windy and Wet, or Cold/Frosty and Dry, or anything in between.
I was rooting about in the loft the other day and came across an old logbook of mine from when I lived in Ferryhill. It covered the period of late 1990 and early 1991. Immediately I took interest because there was a memorable period of heavy snowfall in February 1991. What is striking was that snow was 15” deep on 9th and 10th. I know I took some photos at the time, but can’t find them now unfortunately.
Here’s the page from the log.
As you can see, there was an air frost every night for the first 19 days. This sequence actually extended a lot further back into January 1991. There were actually air frosts every night from 21st January until 19th February. There were 24 air frosts in all in January.
February 1991 averaged 2.0 degC and January 1991 was only slightly warmer at 2.1 degC. As you can see, the last few days of February lift the average considerably, hiding what was quite a severe month, especially from 4th-14th.
This is really a forgotten winter for most people. Do you remember it?
The northern part of the county saw it’s first real snow of the winter on 12th December. It was confined to high levels, but gave a good covering in the high Pennines. Here’s a photo from twitter from the top of Killhope.
More photos from a friend of mine Barry Wilkinson who went skiing in Weardale.