Britain’s Worst Ever Winters

This season had been relatively mild - until the Beast from the East arrived. From the Scottish Highlands to the south coast, British winters can really hit us hard with some extreme weather events. Here are some of the worst.

The Wicked Winter of 1836

When British Gas was founded in 1812, the Met Office didn’t even exist. It wouldn’t be established until 1854, and even then it was only set up as an experimental government department, so records were the preserve of amateur meteorologists. Still, the winter of 1836 made a big impact and earned a place in British weather history when the most disastrous avalanche in UK history occurred in Lewes, East Sussex, the day after Boxing Day.  

Serious Snow in 1947 

Skip forward a century, and another big hitter struck in 1933, when a series of intense snow storms raged across the country from 23 to 26 February. However, it’s 1947 that really marks the arrival of the modern British winter. Famously harsh, it also took the nation by complete surprise. The weather had been unseasonably mild until snow arrived on 23 January. After that, snow fell every single day, somewhere in the UK, for 55 days straight. 

Snowflake - Britain's worst ever winters

The Big Freeze in ‘63

But the worst winter in recent history is generally considered to be the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1962-63. It remains one of the coldest on record, with temperatures falling lower than -20°C, right across the country.  

Glasgow experienced its first white Christmas since 1938, while in Wales and the South West snowdrifts were up to 6m deep, cutting off whole villages for days at a time.   

Lakes and rivers froze over, and the sea turned to ice in several ports and harbours. In Braemar, Scotland, temperatures reached what was then a new low of -22.2°C. 

Chilled in the 80’s

In January 1987, areas of London, Essex, Kent and Surrey experienced unusually heavy snowfall, with Kent in particular suffering its worst conditions for over 20 years – over 50cm of snow was measured in East Malling. Some towns and villages were completely cut off. On the Isle of Sheppey things were even more extreme. Heavy snow combined with strong winds resulted in drifts over 6m deep.  

Frosty winter field - Britain's worst ever winters

F-f-f-reezing in the noughties

Extreme snow returned in 2010. That December was the coldest in 100 years, with mean temperatures a cool 5°C lower than the 1971-2000 average. 

Transport delays and cancellations, lost sales and sick days were widely reported to be costing the UK economy over £1.2 billion a day. 

But winter doesn’t have to be bad news. During the Little Ice Age period that occurred between the 16th and 19th centuries, Londoners frequently held impromptu ‘frost fairs’ on the Thames. The last of these took place in the February of 1814, when a spontaneous five-day party saw revellers eat, drink and dance on the frozen river, and, it’s said, even parade an elephant across the ice. Enterprising men and women sold hot apples and roast ox, and pop-up pubs appeared selling gin and wormwood wine.

Gloves on a radiator - Britain's worst ever winters 

Winter brings all manner of weather to our door, from snow, sleet, floods; even avalanches and hurricanes. So make sure you’re prepared for whatever the weather throws at you by watching your boiler for changing pressure levels, keeping chilly pipes well insulated – especially those in the loft – and checking the batteries in any wireless thermostats. 

It’s also worth kitting out your home with draught excluders, heavy curtains and floor coverings. These easy investments come with double benefits: they’ll help you stay cosy and cut your energy bills. 

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