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The 1963 “Big Freeze” in London when it “snowed for 3 months” and people were left without water because “the water pipes were frozen”

If you look at Britain’s position on a map, we really should be a much colder country.

We were saved by a westerly wind which brought in milder air from the Atlantic – but during the winter of 1962-1963 that westerly wind was brought to a halt.

High pressure near Iceland blocked it, and a high pressure system that hovered over Scandinavia blew freezing cold air from central Russia towards Blighty, which led to The Big Freeze.

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The coldest winter in more than 200 years has hit the country – and London hasn’t been spared the freezing weather either.

If the seashores don’t slam anymore because they’re frozen over – and, according to my Welsh grandparents, they were – there isn’t a lot of “urban heat” that can do.

Blizzards, blocks of ice, snow drifts and temperatures dropping to 20 below freezing made it the coldest winter since 1740, according to the Met Office.

And the memories are still vivid for those who lived it.

December 30, 1962, the scene in Piccadilly Circus, London, with snow and slush rendering the area empty of traffic.

“Coming home from a Boxing Night party it started to snow,” one person said on a London Facebook group. “We didn’t know he would still be with us three months later.”

“No central heating,” she continues, “frozen windows from the inside, hoping that the coalman would pass.”

In Trinity Church Square in Borough, residents with frozen pipes found themselves without water and had to bring buckets to street fire hydrants, “for weeks and weeks,” according to another from the group.

“We were a family of 7,” she told me, “so all the kids had to scramble to help bring back buckets of water. One day I was at the fire hydrant when I was 10 years old and a man pulled up in a car and started talking. tome.

A row of three milk bottles standing in front of a window with frozen milk pushing out the caps, possibly the home of photographer John Gay, 30 Cholmeley Crescent, Highgate.
A row of three milk bottles standing in front of a window with frozen milk pushing out the caps, possibly the home of photographer John Gay, 30 Cholmeley Crescent, Highgate.

“My mother saw him from our footsteps, dropped her two buckets and ran towards me – she thought he was trying to take me!”

In fact, he worked for the council and checked that everyone had collected their water, and sent plumbers to those who didn’t.

Because so many homes did not have central heating, there was often ice inside the windows in the winter – but during the Big Freeze it was even worse.

One user recalled waking up to find “a crust of ice on the top edge of my sheets where my breath froze overnight”.

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The novelty of playing in the snow quickly wore off – a lot of people had to dig to get out of their snow-covered homes, and one person said to me, “It was awful. My lips were chapped from nose to nose. chin.”

Six and seven year olds had snow up to their chests when they went out, and the knitted gloves did very little to protect themselves from the cold (many wore socks on their hands if they did not have gloves) , and one person tells me that they remember having ice crystals around their nose when they went to the store to buy bread.

Others remember the pain from the frozen fingers was nothing compared to the agony of their thaw – more than one person mentions crying by the fire after school.

Most schools had heaters which was handy as it was a place to thaw frozen milk.

The frozen fountains of Trafalgar Square.  January 1963
The frozen fountains of Trafalgar Square. January 1963

Playgrounds were off-limits because they were “just a patch of ice for weeks,” one person said, and as tempting as it must have been to slide over onto their stomachs, they were forbidden to play ice. ‘outside – and, with the number of cutting knees while sliding on the ice, this is hardly surprising.

Of course, all was not catastrophic. One person remembers: “I was 10 years old. We lived on a street with a slight downward slope. We were sledding and shopping. I now know the hardships for “adults”, but we were just spending the time of our lives. “

“I lived in Denmark Hill and the snow and ice stayed with us until March even though we were a few miles south of London Bridge,” says Robin Dadson.

“A few years later we moved to Biggin Hill and a local told us he parked his Mini car in a space in front of his house around Christmas and then saw it three months later. “

As was beautifully summed up by one of the group, one of the many who remember London in the good old days, “The ‘good old days’ weren’t always so good!”

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