The Long Frost of 1963 by Neil Wastell

It came with a bang on Boxing Day 1962. That day it snowed heavily but we had no way of knowing that it was to be the start of the worst winter for centuries, the bad weather not ending until March.

I was at school and used to cycle from our house in Welbeck Avenue to the grammar school on the other side of town and back again for lunch every day.

I've only sporadically kept a diary over the years but I did keep one for the first half of 1963, giving up for some unfathomable reason at the end of June. It was my GCE year and the entry for Monday 21st  January 1963 reads:

"FULL-SCALE REVISION. V V Cold. Welbeck Ave and other minor roads - a sheet of ice".

Then the following day I wrote:

"V V cold indeed. 21 degrees F of frost during night but still cycled to school. Bussed home".

That entry tells a lot and I remember that day very well. Too well. I wore only my usual school clothes, the only concession to the weather being the addition of a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf. When I got to school I was so cold I was almost ill and found it very difficult to get warm all day. I was probably suffering from mild exposure. In fact the diary shows that I was off school for the rest of that week but according to the diary did manage to enjoy watching ‘Dr Kildare’ on Friday evening. On the Thursday, I recorded that we had power cuts, the milk on the doorstep was frozen solid, ice bursting through the top. On Saturday there was a crash between a bus and lorry at Freeman's Place, caused by the treacherous road surface.

It's difficult to imagine how hard it must have been in such weather in those cold, damp, only partially heated houses. The post-war visionaries who designed the two living-room, three-bedroomed, indoor- and outdoor-toilet council houses included a coal-house and wash-house but did not go as far as including central heating in the design (or build garages, but that’s another story). We had the main fire in the sitting room plus a paraffin stove and that was it; paraffin from Mr Thompson at the Post Office for two bob a gallon and hot water from the Ascot.

The lowest recorded temperature occurred on Tuesday January 22nd but all that week was desperately cold (as I wrote in the diary), the temperature not rising above freezing at any time in the North between January 18th and January 25th. During that week 300 workers were evacuated by helicopter from the Fylingdales early-warning station and 40 lorry drivers spent their third night in hotels and cafes between Bowes and Brough. London Airport (as it was then called) was closed and for football fans it was another blank Saturday. In fact between December 22nd and February 8th 420 cup and league games were postponed. No football league grounds had heated pitches, the only major sports ground which was heated was the rugby ground at Murrayfield. Train schedules were in chaos as diesel fuel, coal, points and water-troughs froze, and pack ice was seen drifting in the Humber. There were many deaths from the cold and a big run on disposable nappies because mothers had no way of drying flanelette ones. No tumble dryers then. The Thames froze at Oxford and cars could be driven on the ice.

Packed snow lay around for weeks. Ice formed on the inside of the bedroom window during the night and in the morning we would lie in bed and scrape patterns in it, before the ordeal of getting out of bed and dressing as close as possible to the paraffin stove, which mother had thankfully lit earlier.

It was a cold winter in more ways than one. On January 14th Charles de Gaulle announced that France would veto our application to join the EEC, and on the 18th Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party died. By the time the winter was ending John Profumo informed the House of Commons that there had been "no impropriety whatever" in his relationship with Christine Keeler.

The severe weather ended suddenly with rapidly rising temperatures as winters often do and on 6th March I recorded that the “thaw is really in progress, Skerne well and truly flooded, water all over the road”. By the 15th of March conditions had improved to the extent that I could write that it was like “a beautiful summer’s day, could be June”.

I am too young to remember the winter of 1947 which many people say was harder to endure because an exhausted Britain had limited supplies of everything and much was rationed. Nevertheless while writing this during a particularly mild and wet winter, the long bitterly cold and snowy winter of ’62 – ’63 remains firmly rooted in my memory.

Written by Neil Wastell, 13th January 2007