In late February 50 years ago the worst winter for decades still had a few days to run. It was not until the beginning of March that winter 1963 finally loosened its grip. Here transport expert and political adviser Neil Mitchell recalls how, as a nine-year-old Westcountry schoolboy, the weather affected his family.
Fifty years on, my memories of the truly remarkable winter of 1962-63 as experienced both at home on our farm in Devon and at boarding school in Bristol, remain very vivid indeed. Frankly, if you weren't there at the time you cannot possibly imagine it!
I was then nine years old and our family home in West Devon was "Goldburn", a large typical Devonshire Queen Anne-Georgian farm house set amid extensive lawns and a home farm of some 250 acres. The property was (and still is) located a couple of miles north of Okehampton, just beyond "Golburn Cross" and its letterbox, at the cross of the roads leading north and west respectively to the villages of Jacobstowe and Folly Gate.
I had also just commenced my first terms as a Boarder at Clifton College Preparatory School in Bristol.
My first three-month term of boarding at Clifton Prep had ended on Tuesday December 18, 1962. I was understandably very excited upon my return home to Goldburn, for four weeks' holiday including only our second family Christmas back in England following some five years spent in South Africa.
The pleasure of embracing our close family atmosphere, seeing my parents and brothers, being with our pets and the farm animals, enjoying what was for me still the relative novelty of watching television (it having been absent in both South Africa and at Clifton), savouring the comforts of roaring log fires and mother's cooking, playing with my toys, was sheer bliss. Then the thrill of decorating the large Christmas tree all added to the air of homely joy and excitement.
During the earlier years of my childhood in the southern hemisphere, Christmas Day had of course always coincided with the heat of midsummer and I had constantly been puzzled by our receipt of seasonal cards from England which featured "traditional" snowy scenes. Hence, I had high expectations and hopes that Christmas 1962 would be white.
Although there was so much other festive enjoyment and happiness at Goldburn there was no snowfall on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Little did I, or anyone else, realise what was to come over the next nine weeks!
Usually, upon awakening each morning in my bedroom at Goldburn, which was located to the rear of the house, I was accustomed to hearing our free range hens clucking, Coquerico the cockerel crowing, sheep bleating in the distant fields, crows cackling and rooks squawking in the treetops and so on. Thus, as I still remember clearly, I was very perplexed on the morning of Wednesday December 26, 1962, (Boxing Day) when I awoke to a totally different sound – or the absence of it – seemingly utter silence, apart from a just discernible very light pitter-patter (yet not that of familiar rain drops) against my large sash window.
Despite the best efforts of the Dimplex electric radiator, my bedroom was cold in winter so it took courage to climb out of bed to investigate what lay behind the curtains. As I drew them back, I was met with a dazzling and wondrous sight – the landscape and trees totally enveloped in a deep layer of freshly fallen crisp white snow. Better still, masses of large flakes were continuing to cascade down from the dark grey skies above.
Great excitement for my brothers and I, who (with Tessa the golden retriever) were soon dressed and outside in our Wellingtons – wrapped up in our jumpers, scarves and gloves – rolling snowballs and making snowmen. But for the farmers in the area, including father, this apparent seasonal delight was in reality to prove to be the beginning of a nightmare – exemplified by the immediate urgent need that day to dig the sheep out from their snowy entombment in the fields.
Fortunately, our cattle and pigs were already sheltered in the farmyard sheds, from which clouds of steam were being emitted from the warmth of the animals within.
As the day wore on, there appeared to be no end to the falling snow. Then, when darkness fell, a biting easterly wind gained strength thereby creating ferocious blizzard conditions and massive drifting. Indeed, this notorious Great Freeze of 1962/63 was not only to prove harsher than the infamous post-War winter of 1947, but possibly the worst on record – certainly in the 20th century.
Although most of the UK was affected, Dartmoor and the surrounding high ground of Devon, upon which Goldburn was situated, was particularly badly hit. With the wind howling around the house we heard of the postman's van being enveloped in a drift at Goldburn Cross, as he tried to make the last collection.
Then ironic news of the final train services (prior to closure) on the Plymouth-Yelverton-Tavistock-Launceston branch line being stranded with a few passengers on board, one at Bickleigh the other at Tavistock South stations. Later, the Southern Region main line from Waterloo to Plymouth via Okehampton and Lydford became completely blocked, even the hot steam locomotive snow ploughs becoming buried beneath deep drifts and the crews having to be rescued. The areas around Sourton and Whiddon Down were now accumulating mountainous drifts, all roads and communications being progressively cut off and the Moorland animals being frozen to death.
The morning of Sunday December 30 revealed further massive accumulations of snow around Goldburn – with a general covering now some two feet deep. The drifting had buried the main road considerably deeper, to the height of the hedges – probably some 10-12 feet. As the latter compacted, it eventually became possible for my eldest brother Nigel to drive the tractor along the top!
Very soon, the priority for the authorities was not to rescue us, but to drop hay and feeds by helicopter to the stranded ponies and sheep remaining alive on Dartmoor. They also lowered food parcels to the most isolated cottages and farms on the Moor.
As the year of 1963 commenced and the days passed, there were yet more snowfalls, blizzards and freezes – adding layers of compacted ice over earlier coverings. This provided we boys with a unique opportunity as, by cutting blocks from the undisturbed covering on Goldburn's lawns, we were able to construct an authentic full-sized igloo. The igloo and our snowman were later to remain intact long after the eventual thaw and to appear most odd as they stubbornly stood on the green grass and resisted melting until the spring!
Five more inches of snow settled on January 3, and a succession of blizzards during the period January 9-13 saw temperatures drop to a record minus 8 degrees Centigrade. There was to be no respite, with the freeze continuing well into February – the blizzard on Tuesday 5th being driven by a Force 9 Gale and piling up drifts some 20 feet deep!
My second term at Clifton Preparatory was due to start on Tuesday January 15, 1963. I think that courtesy of brother Nigel's ability to drive our 1953 Land-Rover from Goldburn into town along the top of the frozen snowdrifts, perhaps circa 10 feet above the road surface, my mother and I were able to reach Okehampton Railway Station on schedule for the BR Southern Region Westcountry Class steam locomotive-hauled rail journey to Exeter and change for Bristol. We then travelled across the Russian-esque snowy wastes of the Westcountry to Bristol, in time for my return to school. A pity, I felt!
The City of Bristol was in poor shape in those days. Its heart still dominated by Second World War bomb sites and ruins, the City Docks and warehouses slipping into dereliction, its road traffic management totally inadequate, its buildings poorly maintained. And, despite its urban surroundings, the city was also suffering badly from the freeze. The main traffic thoroughfares were cleared, but piled high on either side with dirty snow heaps, while untreated side streets where still lying under thick layers of compacted ice. My memory of The Avenue in Clifton being that our taxi had to crawl over about a foot's depth of solid ice along its entire length.
And so it continued... and continued... and continued. I find that in a letter home posted from school, it was not until March 3, 1963 (some nine weeks after the first snowfall of the Great Freeze) that I finally wrote: "There is a great thaw happening here and most of the playground is now showing through the snow…"
So, although I had still not witnessed a "White Christmas", I had instead experienced winter snowfalls the like of which will surely seldom, if ever, be repeated in the British Isles again?
1963 would progress with public scandals rocking the Macmillan Conservative Government, John Profumo and Christine Keeler's being the most publicised, whilst internationally the earlier Cuban Missile Crisis had hastened the deepening Cold War between the Russian Soviet Bloc and the West. On the lighter side the emergence of The Beatles and the beginnings of Swinging London (around Carnaby Street and Portobello Road) marked the beginning of what was to become a rebellion of youth culture against the Establishment throughout the remainder of the decade branded as the Permissive Society.
My childhood letters home from Clifton reflected a narrower interest in what was going on at Goldburn, how the pets and farm animals were, what new machinery had been delivered and so on. I was also deeply pre-occupied with how many days remained to the end of each term – but seemingly no enthusiasm whatsoever for any further snowfalls!
Half a century later, shivers from big freeze linger
The last of our readers’ memories of that long-running and freezing winter are published today.
We remember the blizzards bridging 1962/63 well!
Our eldest son was ten months old and we had been to Copplestone on our Ariel motorbike and sidecar to spend Boxing Day with my parents. On returning to Yeoford in the early evening, there was black ice on the railway bridge, and we skidded in a figure eight! By the next morning the blizzard was raging.
My husband also had a solo Triumph motor bike on which he managed to squeeze through snowdrifts, for many weeks, using his legs as skis to reach the main road, so that he could get to work in Exeter.
Weekends were spent walking two miles to visit my husband’s parents on their farm, or around the lanes surrounding Yeoford.
We had a weekly delivery by a grocery van, using snow chains during this spell of snow and ice. Our family knew the driver well, so when he visited my parents on a Monday, they would give a parcel of goodies for us, which he brought to us the following Thursday. How we looked forward to his visit each week!
We didn’t get out of Yeoford as a family on the motor bike and sidecar until March 1. Even then, many side roads were still blocked and we always carried a garden spade to clear accumulated snow and ice, for us to get through.
Mrs Lorna Warren
In the big freeze of 1963, I was a 15-year-old schoolboy glad I had moved into long trousers!
I can remember a biting easterly gale, and joining other people carrying buckets of water up our road from a neighbour’s supply that was not frozen. These were then carried up and tipped into the header tank in the attic.
My father and a plumber dug out and cut the water pipe at the base of the garden wall where it was not frozen, about 20 yards from the house, and attached a tap and hose which ran up into the attic. This was dismantled after every top up.
I can remember father cranking the Hillman Minx with the handle in the mornings and seeing the memorable sight of eight lapwings on the lawn in the snow.
In 1962/63 I was a naval wife, my husband stationed at RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset, with a son born in 1960.
Once the snow had started just after Boxing Day, my friend, Margaret, went into labour with her fourth child. The midwife could not get to us so I helped my goddaughter into a snowy world! We lived on the naval caravan site across the A303 from the Air Station. We were more fortunate than those in quarters at Ilchester as, thanks to the lads from the camp who fetched coal from Sparkford station, our stove stayed in from October to April.
To keep water available, a standpipe was kept running. Anyone passing, knocked the icicles off! Our chemical toilets were normally emptied overnight but being frozen it was quite a problem. It was quite a relief when the snow finally cleared.