The Winter of 1962/1963 - Probably the coldest since 1795!
Back in those days, I lived with my parents at Burton Mill Cottage near Petworth in West Sussex and I was apprenticed as a diesel mechanic to J H Sparshatt a heavy truck repair company in Chichester which was about 15 miles away over a range of hills known as the South Downs.
The snow and big freeze started around the end of December 1962 and Christmas was spent at home huddled around a coal and wood fire. No central heating, just one fire to heat the whole house. We had an outside toilet which had a one inch gap under the door for ventilation. Can you imagine sitting on a privy contemplating the small snow drift which had built up in the opposite corner! Bladder control was mastered at an early age as in cold weather, you only went to the toilet when it was absolutely imperative.
Anyway, after Christmas it was back to work on my 350cc Velocette Viper motorcycle. My Mum would already have my gloves and socks warming up in the oven and my bike would have been wheeled out of the shed, put on it's centre stand, started and left to warm up. On would go PVC leggings over my jeans, a wax cotton Barbour jacket insulated with newspapers, a scarf around my neck brought up over my mouth and nose and last of all goggles which were kept on the cold windowsill to prevent misting up. The bike would now be about three feet back from where I left it ticking over - singles tend to walk backward on their stands when ticking over !
I managed to get over Ducton Hill as it had been gritted and with much sliding and sideways moments I arrived at Sparshatts which boasted just the one, oil fired heater - old engine oil that is, none of your modern stuff.. This one heater worked by injecting a mist of old engine oil by compressed air into a cast iron heater. We started work at 8:00 in the morning and it took at least an hour to start the heater. By the first tea break it was glowing red hot and it was very warm when you were close but freezing about 12 inches away. Many is the time that someone's diesel soaked overalls would start to smoulder but we were cruel enough not to put the victim wise to his impending conflagration.
A truck had broken down somewhere in Kent and as we had the biggest wrecker* in the area it was our job to recover it. I was volunteered to go with the driver and so we set off in our un-heated Leyland Octopus. Reaching Brighton we encountered a very heavy blizzard which was so severe that our windscreen wipers stopped working altogether. Guess who had to put his hand out of the passenger window to reach around and clear snow from the screen and give instructions to the driver. We eventually had enough and turned around and headed back to Chichester.
I now had to get on my bike and ride home. All went well until I got to the top of Duncton Hill. I tried riding down but after falling off for the umpteenth time I laid the bike down, sat down on the road and kicked it down with my frozen feet.
I eventually arrived home after a journey, which only took about 20 minutes in good weather, had taken me well over two hours. My parents were very concerned with my frozen condition and kept me walking up and down the lounge with a cup of tea held by my Dad at one end and a cup of coffee held by my Mum at the other. Eventually circulation returned with the resulting agony and I lived to tell the tale. Looking back it is now obvious that I was suffering from hypothermia but that word had not been invented yet.
The outcome to my story is that after completing my apprenticeship I high-tailed it in 1967 to warmer climes – Zambia in Africa, where I lived and worked for the next ten years commencing at first on the Hell Run**
On the 29th and 30th of December a blizzard across south-west England and Wales left drifts 6m (20ft) deep which blocked roads and rail routes, left villages cut off and brought down power lines. Thanks to further falls and almost continual near-freezing temperatures, snow was still deep on the ground across much of the country three months later.
In the intervals when snow was not falling, the country simply appeared to freeze solid - January daytime temperatures barely crept above freezing, and night frosts produced a temperature of -16 °C in places as far apart as Gatwick and Eskdalemuir in Scotland. Freezing fog was a frequent hazard - but the spectacular rime deposits that built up over successive days were a photographer's dream.
January was the month when even the sea froze (out to half a mile from the shore at Herne Bay), the Thames froze right across in places, and ice floes appeared on the river at Tower Bridge. Everywhere birds literally dropped off their perches - killed by the cold and lack of natural food.
February was marked by more snow arriving on south-easterly winds during the first week, with a 36-hour blizzard hitting western parts of the country. Drifts 20 feet deep formed in gale-force winds (gusts in excess of 70 knots were common, and a gust of 103 knots was recorded on the Isle of Man). Many rural communities found themselves cut off for the tenth time since Christmas. Throughout the winter thousands of sheep, cattle and ponies starved because it was impossible to get enough fodder to them.
A slight lull in the wintry proceedings happened around mid-month, but in the third week of February it was the turn of the north-west UK to suffer - in Cumberland the snowfall was reckoned to be the worst in living memory. By the end of the month the weather over the country had reverted to 'normal' - cold but clear and sunny days with severe night frosts and freezing fog.
A gradual thaw then set in - the morning of 6 March 1963 was the first day in the year that the entire country was frost free, and the temperature soared to 17 °C in London. Temperatures recovered, and long icicles playfully speared into snowdrifts by children in January, finally started to shrink. Monster snowmen and snowballs - now adrift and melting in the green 'seas' of gardens and playing fields - were soon all that was left of the winter that was probably the coldest since 1795
* “The Hell Run” keeps fuel for Zambia flowing
A report made in February 1967
The main route for fuel & oil supplies is a 1,500 mile (2,400km) highway from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia and is known to truck drivers as the Hell Run because of its many hazards.
The fuel lift was the result of sanctions against Rhodesia which until Ian Smith and his Cabinet declared Independence, Zambia obtained its fuel from a refinery near Umtali.
The Zambian Government offered substantial payments to truck owners who were prepared to risk “The Hell Run”
The road which passes through the Tanzanian Highlands and drops to the Masai Plain, is both lashed by rainstorms and then scorched by the Sun and since the fuel run began more than a year ago, more than sixty men have died on it.
Often the the rain or dust on the road is so bad that headlights have to be used during the day and passing another vehicle is usually impossible. Trucks get stuck in the mud, slide off into ravines or crash and roll-over because of driver exhaustion. The biggest danger of all was the cargo where the smallest spark or even the heat of the Sun could cause an explosion. Many burnt out wrecks could be seen on the side of the road.
Vehicles which had survived the trip returned to the Port of Dar es Salaam carrying copper wire bars and this became an important route for Zambia’s vital copper exports.