The weathermen are warning that a cold spell is likely to develop during the second half of January.  To date the winter has been mild, too mild, bar a few days of beautiful hoar frost during the second week of December.  Nature could do with slowing down a bit as very early springs are fraught with danger, usually ending in tears.     

Fifty years ago, the infamous winter of 1962-63 was kicking in.  It was the worst winter since 1795 or 1740, depending on how far back you can remember and/or which weather data sets you accept.  The bad weather began up north before Christmas in ‘62, before a belt of snow became stationary over southern England on Boxing Day and a severe blizzard hit the South West on the 29th & 30th.  Power lines were brought down and drifts up to 20m were recorded.  The snow then froze, the temperature barely exceeded zero all January, and there was much freezing fog.  There were ice flows under Tower Bridge, and the sea was frozen for half a mile off Margate.  Huge stalactites of ice hung from every bridge.  Then, a 36 hour blizzard hit the South West in early February.  That snow also froze, apart from an incipient thaw mid month.  For 60 days there was significant snow on the ground down south, and remote villages were cut off for three weeks.  Then, on March 6th, the sun returned, the temperature reached 17C and Brimstone butterflies took to the air. 

 I remember it rather well, starting with a nightmare journey in freezing fog on glaciated roads en route to Bruton, Somerset, from visiting Grandma near Gloucester.  We got trapped in Frome, where the car then remained for weeks.  At that time my mother taught Latin and needlework at the girls boarding school in Bruton.  Foolishly, the sign at the main entrance used white lettering on a bottle green background, which meant that dextrous use of white chalk ensured that the school was regularly transmogrified into SUNNY HELL SCHOOL FOR GIRLS.  Eventually we got to Bruton by train, only for me to get trapped there.  I missed almost an entire term of St Custard’s Preparatory Boarding Skool 25 miles away at Crewkerne, where my peers included Nigel Molesworth, Thomas Peason and Basil Fotherington-Thomas.  Being trapped in a girls skool should have been a nightmare for a nine year old boy (a few years older and it would have presented serious opportunities…), but the weeks were spent helping on the farms and tobogganing on a large tin tray borrowed from the  skool kitchen.  The chef was a very nice man, when he wasn’t playing the bag pipes, which he did early each morning.  Throughout I wore shorts as boys under 13 were not allowed to wear long trousers in that era.  I can still sense the raw pain of knees rubbed red on the hard-crusted soot-stained snow.  The skool also had some absurd rules: girls were only allowed to wash their hair once every three weeks, and pet rabbits could be mated only with express permission of the headmistress.  Mother’s diary points out that ‘some of the rabbits couldn’t read’.  The larger girls made an igloo cathedral, decorated with giant icicles.  

Mother’s diary records the tale of that winter in Sunny Hell.  The skool was in crisis: the primitive heating system regularly failed, gas was being rationed nationally due to a power workers dispute, coal was in short supply as Avonmouth docks had frozen over, oil could not be delivered, power cuts regularly occurred because of power lines being brought down and an industrial go-slow, and burst water mains lead to water rationing.  Girls were not even allowed one bath a week.  At one stage the Lower IVth ran away en masse, claiming starvation, only to be rounded up by Matron and her Alsatian.  On the surrounding farms things were serious.  Milk churns could not be collected, and the milk froze anyway.  Sheep got buried in drifts and chickens perished frozen to the perch.  Dead wild birds were almost commonplace.  I found several dead Fieldfares and a frozen Green Woodpecker at the base of a beech tree.  Wrens were annihilated.  I did not find a wren’s nest that year, and I was an ardent (and rather adept) bird-nester.

Eventually I was dispatched back to St Custard’s just in time for a major bursting of water pipes there.  My skool trunk had been sent by train via a gloriously inefficient service called Passenger’s Luggage in Advance (PLA), a national institution that needs reinstating if Britain is ever to become Great again.  Mother’s diary reveals that the trunk turned up in May.  At one point she states: ‘The weather is wearing down the veneer of civilisation and the basic ancient Briton is re-emerging.’  The worrying thing is that she then recorded a miserable spring. 

On another occasion I got snowed in splendidly at Timberscombe, in north west Somerset, again missing a lot of skool and whizzing down steep slopes on a tin tray instead.

 

(The above is a reworking of a piece published in The Watershed, our parish magazine).

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