Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

How different is the winter of 2010 from 1963?

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

Arctic weather continues to create chaos across the UK in what some are saying is the coldest winter since 1963.

Two men wait at a bus stop in Kent
Two men wait at a bus stop amid heavy snow in Kent in 1963

That winter, the snow started on Boxing Day 1962 and the big freeze lasted until March 1963.

Blizzards caused snowdrifts up to six metres deep, telephone lines were brought down and temperatures fell so low the sea froze over.

But with thousands of schools remaining shut, travel problems continuing and power cuts affecting thousands of homes, how different is it in 2010?


On Wednesday about 9,000 schools were shut across England, with 950 in Wales, and at least 250 in Scotland and 16 in Northern Ireland.

While some schools were forced to close in 1963, Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary University of London, said the large number of closures this week indicated the UK had become a "health and safety nation".

But he said people usually lived within walking distance of their schools in 1963 - while more parents and staff drive to school now - so snow on the roads has more impact on closures these days.

Wading to school through inches - not centimetres - of snow is something Christine Hewitt, 64, from Prudhoe, Northumberland, remembers well.

She said at the age of 18 she had no choice: "You put wellies on and walked. If you could get on a sledge, you went to school. Sledging was skiving."

Cultural historian Christopher Cook said the "technology of schools" had also changed.

He said: "You don't hear of frozen loos - heating is much more efficient.

"In 1963 my brother was at primary school and had to break the ice in the toilets - he was told not to hit it too hard with the stick in case he broke the porcelain too."


Old windmill which once belonged to the writer Hilaire Belloc in 1963
The majority of homes in 1963 had no central heating

Thousands of homes across the UK have been affected by power cuts, often because of falling trees on power lines and ice weighing down cables.

National Grid issued its second gas alert in three days - and demand was expected to hit a new record of 454 million cubic metres.

But Prof Cook said it was a very different picture in 1963. Gas and electricity was restricted, most people had no central heating and some people had to resort to collecting coal from frozen depots.

"A few had Agas or fuel burners but most people relied on gas fires in one room or had no fires at all.

"Maybe they had a water bottle to warm the bed," he said.

"I remember waking up to find the inside of my window completely iced up," he added.

He said central heating had made a huge amount of difference.

"Everything is warmer, pipes don't freeze outside the home because of the amount of warmth being lost from houses. In 1963, cold water tanks froze - there was a constant fear of pipes bursting," he said.

Frozen pipes affected thousands of people in 1963, with some getting drinking water from corporation carts driven round the streets.

By 24 January water was being rationed in Wales, as the water board struggled to get supplies from reservoirs.


Traffic in snow in Reading
More snow is predicted as ice continues to cause chaos on the roads

Freezing temperatures and icy roads have created "nightmare" road conditions in 2010 and rail services have been severely disrupted.

Air travel has been beset by delays and cancellations.

Many councils are limiting gritting to major roads only as salt supplies are stretched.

Roads faced similar disruption in 1963, but former policeman Tom Taylor, 68, from Gloucester, said the biggest problem was not a lack of grit - but a relentless, blustering wind.

"It was an unbelievable winter - I used to go out on the beat and on snow patrol in the Cotswolds, sometimes in a Land Rover recovery vehicle, and find people stuck in snowdrifts.

"Most of the country roads were impassable - the wind was horrendous. A snow plough would go down a road, but the wind kept blowing snow back on to the road and it would refill within hours - this went on week after week," he said.

"It was bitterly cold - I used to wear my pyjamas under my police uniform," he said.

There were hardly any motorways - the M1 had only opened in 1959.

But Prof Cook said parts of the sea - and the whole canal system - froze at a time when canals were still being used to transport goods.

He recalled one train having to be "dug out of the snow".

At Coaley Junction in Gloucestershire, the mail train froze and a fire had to be lit underneath it to defrost parts of the engine.


Cheltenham racecourse in 1963
Cheltenham racecourse had to be cleared by hand to preserve the turf

Sporting fixtures have continued to fall foul of the weather, with race meetings at Kempton and Lingfield having been called off and the weekend's racing, rugby and football fixtures under threat.

But that was nothing compared to 1963 - when the third round of the FA Cup took 66 days to complete - according to Prof Cook.

Most horseracing events in the winter of 1963 were also cancelled, he said.

Amid the hardship however a new sport took off - ice yachting.

Pam Gershon, from Harrow, recalls land yachts on wheels being sailed on the frozen Welsh Harp reservoir in north-west London.


 The Post Office at Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire
People tended to stay with one company for their entire career in 1963

On Wednesday insurer RSA predicted severe snow could cost the UK economy £690m a day, while the Federation of Small Businesses estimated one in 10 employees did not make it into work.

British factories are facing gas rationing as supplies drop and demand surges.

But although the CBI business organisation said the cold weather was causing "massive disruption" for companies, it said broadband internet had made it easier for people to work from home.

But Prof Cook said the nature of industry had also dramatically changed.

"In 1963, we were an industrial and manufacturing society - when factories closed the UK really suffered. Now it's financial services, which allows people to keep making money when it snows," he said.

Back then, employees had single careers - joining a company at 16 or 22 and staying for life - whereas now people had "portfolio careers" and "travelled and moved around a lot more", he said.

Businesses were affected in 1963, but people generally "made a greater effort" and "were prepared to put up with more", he added.

Elwyn Davies, then 29, walked six miles in terrible conditions to go to work at Aberthaw Power Station near Barry because it had an essential role to play during the big freeze.

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