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Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63

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The recent cold spell during the first half of December saw the coldest night time temperatures since December 2010, writes historian Ian Thomas.

I recorded a minimum of -9.3C on the 15th and a low of -13C was recorded at Sudeley Castle (Winchcombe). However, all of that just doesn’t compare with the winter that I am about to recall, that of 60 years ago. 

1962 63..Garden Suburb.. | Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63
Stranded cars in Garden Suburb, Dursley.

One has to begin the story in October 1962, with settled conditions under high pressure which gave us sunny days but being autumn, dense fog was prevalent for a number of days in mid-month. This then gave way to more normal weather for the time of year until mid-November, when a blast of Arctic air (polar maritime) swept across the country and with it came the first snowfalls in Gloucestershire.

Late on November 17th, rain turned to snow and delivered 2-3 inches by midnight with considerable drifting over the surrounding hills. Frost kept the snow on the ground for a few days with Little Rissington reporting snow on the ground for seven days. The end of the month saw more fog, before another spell of freezing temperatures arrived and this time with freezing fog. Indeed, December 4th-5th had freezing fog all day with overnight lows of -7C (19F). It then turned temporarily milder with rain and snow mid-month and a stormy spell on the 15th.

John Wilkes and brother ..Winter 1962 63. 5 | Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63
The harsh winter was fun for some.

One week later and the big freeze really got underway as bitterly cold air arrived from Russia (with love). Severe frost and the mercury down to -8C on Christmas morning and -9C early Boxing Day. Then the fun began… a cold front moving south across Britain brought sleet, freezing rain and then snow from 5pm that evening. By midnight it was lying 4-6 inches deep and was going nowhere in that cold air.

Temperatures rallied to freezing point (only just!) and then colder on the 28th. A depression forming to the south of Britain saw gale force easterly winds strengthen on Saturday 29th and a full-on blizzard started mid evening, all night and by mid-morning Sunday 30th, another 4-6 inches of driving powdery snow. The wind piled the white stuff into drifts 3-4 feet deep at lower levels and 10-14 feet over the Cotswolds and Forest of Dean. Villages were cut off and isolated for days and the A46 impassable. 

Brian Kelsey Old London RoadWotton U Edge..Jan 1963.. | Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63
Drifting snow made the A46 impassable.

New Year 1963 and yet another 4-6 inches fell on January 3rd. By now anything between 12- and 18-inches level depth along with huge drifts. The bulk of the snow falls was now behind us and this remarkable winter changed direction. This time from snow to intense cold. Under clearing skies, the mercury plunged to -15C (5F) and between Thursday 17th and Friday 25th, (nine consecutive days) it remained below freezing every day. These prolonged and intense conditions had not happened in Britain for more than 200 years and everything froze. All local canals and rivers, mains water supplies, diesel fuel and British Railways Mark 1 steam- heated coaching stock. 

Icy Sharpness 1962 63 1 sml | Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63
A tug pulls a vessel through the ice at Sharpness Dock.

Sharpness Dock was iced up and almost inoperable. The Iris, Mayflower and Primrose steam tugs were brought in to pilot marine traffic to Gloucester along the frozen canal and the mighty Severn iced over from around Slimbridge upstream.

Icy Sharpness 1962 63 5 sml | Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63
Frozen Sharpness Docks.

Three men walked across the ice from Newnham to Arlingham and back again a truly remarkable feat.  Gloucestershire County Council’s monthly meeting at the end of January noted that 5,000,000 cubic yards of snow had been removed from the county road network. 

Icy Sharpness 1962 63 2 sml | Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63
Frozen Sharpness Docks.

Around 60 per cent of cross country train services were steam hauled if only to get some heat through the carriages. The diesels were rendered totally useless in such conditions, and even a steam locomotive hauling the overnight Newcastle to Bristol mail/passenger train had the water pipe from the tender to the engine actually freeze solid at Coaley Junction. A fire was lit underneath it and life was gradually coaxed back to the offending pipe.

Coaley Junction January 1963.. sml | Pictures: looking back at the bitter winter of 1962-63
An impressive snowdrift at Coaley Junction in January 1963, photographed by Gilroy Kerr.

The end of January saw a brief thaw for a few days before the cold returned on February 1st, 1963. Another blizzard on February 5th-6th and more roads blocked, drifts once again up to 6 feet or more at Minchinhampton and Rodborough. Gradually, things slowly got back to normal in late February and finally in early March that winter was over with the night of the 5th-6th, the first frost-free night in Britain since December 21st-22nd 1962.

The numbers make interesting reading. January 1963 was not only the coldest month of the century, but the coldest month since January 1814, with a mean temperature of -3.1C (26F). February had a mean of -0.5C (31F). It was the first time since 1740 that two consecutive winter months had a mean below freezing. The winter was the coldest for 223 years, at -0.3C making it the third coldest since records began in 1659 with 1739-40 the second coldest at -0.4C and coldest of all, 1683-84 at -1.2C.

The only other winter of the 20th century that can match 1962-63 is of course 1947. That winter saw more snow but was less cold and shorter.

Scroll through our gallery of pictures taken in Wotton-under-Edge in 1963 by the late Brian Candy.

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