Sunday, January 29, 2012

The great blizzard

As I sit here at my desk on this cold and grey January afternoon, with the first light snow of winter gently falling outside the window, I find my mind being drawn back to another snowfall, thirty years ago this month. However, this was no thin covering like today, but the most severe blizzard I can remember in my sixty-five years of life.

December 1981 had been exceptionally cold and snowy, one of the worst Decembers I can recall. I remember it so clearly because at that time we were living in conditions not much better than a building site, as our decrepit old farmhouse was gradually renovated around us. The roof was in the process of being replaced, as were the windows, and I will never forget the fortitude of the double-glazing fitters, as they struggled to install our new aluminium-framed windows in the middle of a record-breaking cold spell.

Towards the end of the month, with snow still lying thickly on the ground, we went away to spend the Christmas holidays with DH’s recently-widowed mother, and arrived home in Wales at the beginning of January. DH and I went back to work and the children to school, and fortuitously, as it turned out, I made a point of stocking up the larder and the fridge as soon as I went into town.

That was on Tuesday, market day in the little town where I worked, and two days later, on the night of January 7th 1982, the snow began to fall. It fell all night, and by the time we woke up on Friday morning it was obvious we weren’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon. All day we stayed indoors, watching as the snow continued to fall without stopping, and it was still falling when we went to bed that night. It wasn’t until well into Saturday morning that it finally stopped and by that time we had around two feet of level snow everywhere and drifts that filled our lane from hedge-top to hedge-top.

A neighbouring village street
In those days we had no television, so our only source of news was the radio, and we listened avidly to every news bulletin we could find. We discovered at once that this had been no local blizzard, but a very widespread and severe weather event, which had virtually paralysed the southern half of Britain.

For days our village was cut off from the outside world, and even when the first snow-ploughs had cut through the worst of the drifts, only four-wheel drive vehicles could cope. We live on the 1000’ contour line, nearly two miles up a steep hill from the centre of the village , and it was at least a week after the snow stopped falling before the first snow-plough went along the single-track county road at the end of our lane.

Drifts above my head
We knew that we would almost certainly have to clear our lane ourselves before we could get our vehicles out. Once the plough had been through we asked a local contractor to try clearing it for us with his digger, but the lane was too narrow for him to be able to manoeuvre properly.

It was at this point that DS, then newly a teenager, and with a teenager’s urgent need for extra pocket money, volunteered to dig out the lane if we would give him what we would have paid the contractor. Naturally expecting that his enthusiasm would soon wane and our money would be safe, DH and I readily agreed and found him a snow shovel.

Don't scratch my car!
The weather was beautiful, if very cold, and the sun shone day after day from a cloudless blue sky. DS wrapped up warmly and set to work. And how he worked! He persevered valiantly all through the first day and by the time dusk fell had definitely made an impression on the 5 to 6 foot drifts which filled the lane. But it was obvious that it would take him far too long to finish the whole 150 yard stretch which needed to be cleared, even if he could find the energy. We would all have to help.

Next morning all four of us set to work, two at each end of the lane and dug towards each other for the best part of the next two days, until finally, like explorers meeting in the wilderness, we broke through the last few feet and finally had a gap wide enough for our small cars to pass.

The following day we made our first foray into the outside world since the snow had started to fall eleven days before and thankfully replenished our depleted stocks of food – and yes, DS did get the money we had promised him.  J

It wasn't all work

Note about images  These were not all taken at the time of the great blizzard, but in winters around that period. They give a good impression of the kind of drifts we often had to deal with back then.


  1. Oh Yes! I well remember that January. I was working at Wadhurst College in E Sussex, and had to return from teh Christmas holiday on the very day that the snow started. I drove from London in ever worsening conditions, down the A23 to the M25 and then along to Sevenoaks, and by the time I got on to the A21 to go South to Tunbridge Wells both lanes of the dual carriageway were well covered in snow. Hardly any traffic on the road, but as I went up the hill from Sevenoaks there was a lorry trundling up at about 5mph in the inside lane. I, in my little Renault 5, thought I could get past him on the outside lane, so set about it. As I got leve with his cab, i 'lost' the car altogether - to this day I don't know what happened for about 20 seconds or so, but I ended up , still in the outside lane but with a stalled engine and front of car facing the central barrier!! How I didn't hit the lorry or the barrier I just don't know, but I have a very strong suspicion that there were a row of angels each side of my car fending me off! I was still shaking when I arrived back at school, about 20 miles further on, and the senior matron sent me to bed with a cup of tea and a sandwich, as I remember, with instructions not to get up until next morning!! I don't think they were ready for me in the next world then! A very hairy experience. The South-East had it very badly that year, too.

  2. Yes indeed I remember that winter very well too.
    We live in a relatively high-lying part of Aylesbury and generally speaking don't suffer too badly in snow. But oh boy was that some winter!
    The night in question when as you said, the whole of the country was besieged, we went to bed on a dry evening and woke to find snow so deep outside that we couldn't get to the garage to get at our wellies.
    We didn't get the car out for 3 days and even then took five hours to get half-way to work, gave up, and took another 3 hours to get home again.
    Amazingly, when people talk about bad winters and heavy snow, they always mention 1963 and 1987 but no-one ever talks about 1981/82.
    A fantastic post and terrific pictures Perpetua.

  3. Fortunately I have no memories of snow here in Dixie..except for the occasional inch or two that evaporates before it becomes slush but, I have lived in places where snow was an issue.

    I've sat through hurricanes and watched tornadoes criss cross across our house...I'll take those every time over the snow. I cannot deal with the cold.

    Your son and you and your entire family have my genuine admiration.

  4. Oh, boy do I remember that winter, The Daughter's first!!

    I had to dig my way out of Higher Hill twice in the December (second time so I could go to Witney to get married to Husband #1 on 21 December) and the Christmas we spent with my new in-laws in Surrey was still very snowy. Her grandfather dug the letters of his baby granddaughter's name in huge capitals on the lawn and carried her out to show her. Sweet man.

    As a "delightful" introduction to married life we had deep deep cold that January which froze the pipes in the loft so when it finally thawed we had a downpour cascading from the attic down two flights of stairs to the front door. After the stopcock was turned off no plummer was available for several days, so we had no water (and no upstairs lighting as that ring main had to be switched off as well). New bride, baby in nappies, no water and no central heating, no bread or milk in the shops and husband away at work three days a week as soon as the university term started; not likely to forget any of that in a hurry...!

  5. I have memories of long winters in Northumberland, but never 11 days cut off. Being the north east, the snow would stay longer too, often for months.

    The last picture is gorgeous - especially the hills in the background.

  6. Great pictures, Perpetua, and what a weather story! It reminds me a bit of a January 1967 snowstorm when I was a senior in college at Northwestern U. near Chicago. It was the only storm to close Northwestern since its 1851 founding and it lasted three days. Of course, we had no super weather monitoring then, so it took everyone by surprise. The day had started sunny, clear and 50 degrees. By noon, it was a total white-out. But your situation of a house in the middle of remodeling! Oh, my! That was really something! I'm so glad you survived to tell about it!

  7. Thank goodness for D.S.
    I have never been through a storm quite like this. Many years in California and many years of good luck in Oklahoma.

  8. Can't you just feel that snow?

    Smashing photographs.


  9. Love the photographs. I adore snow--we might get some later today...

    When we lived in Norway we had tons of snow and you had to, by law, fit your car with studded tires from Nov to April. Remember my dad chuntering as they weren't cheap but they did do the job. Farmers were on contract during the winter to use their tractors--fitted with ploughs-- to help clear the roads.
    Being a 'snow' country, unlike England, Norway was well equipped to deal with it.

  10. I was running a small bookshop in Oxford at the time & fortunately I was able to walk to work through the snow. But I seem to recall that our takings on Friday 8th January 1982 were the lowest ever recorded for a day's trade!

    At least you've got some snow Perpetua. We still have none here in Prague but we do finally have more typical winter temperatures than previously with the prospect of it being well below 0°C day & night for several days to come.

  11. Crikey, J, that was a close shave! It's why I so hate driving on snow and ice. In the 70s and 80s we didn't have much choice as we had a lot of bad winters and had to get to work, but now we're retired we just pull up the drawbridge and stay put. :-)

  12. Ray, I doubt there's anyone who experienced it who doesn't remember 81/82 when pushed! Like you we were taken by surprise by the snow and by morning our cars were hopelessly trapped and so were we. Nothing moved but snow-ploughs and tractors for days in the countryside and the local authorities ran skeleton services using whoever could manage to struggle into work.

  13. EF, it's a good thing we're all different. I've grown up with snow and actually like it and don't mind the cold, but the unpredictability and raw power of hurricanes and tornadoes would terrify me witless. I'll take shovelling snow, even for days, over that any day. :-)

  14. Of course, Baby Sis, there was a lot happening for you that year. It must have been so difficult to look after a baby in those extreme circumstances. At least our two were old enough to help.

    You're right, that December and January were exceptionally cold. We had to leave a tap dripping all the time to keep the water from the well running, so the pipe wouldn't freeze, as it had in past winters before we learned the trick.

    As for milk, the local farmer was pouring it down the drain, because the tanker couldn't get up the hill to collect it, so DH went across the fields on his skis to get some.

  15. Mark, 11 days was truly exceptional, but living where we do, being cut off is a regular occurrence, even now. Yes, usually snow disappears more quickly in the west of Britain than the east, but I well remember the winter of 78/79 when we had snow on the ground from the beginning of December to the end of February,just not as much as 81/82.

    The hills in the picture are of course those of Mid-Wales, looking south towards Radnorshire.

  16. Thanks, Kathy. It really was unforgettable, both for the suddenness of it (like your storm) and for the sheer depth of snow that fell. We're just not used to snow in the amounts that Mid-Westerners regularly experience.

    If the snow had been clearly forecast we'd have moved the cars to the top of the lane next to the road and left the drifts in the lane to melt by themselves. But it wasn't and we didn't, so we had to dig. :-)

  17. Absolutely, Rubye. A snowstorm of this magnitude is a very rare occurrence in the British Isles and I doubt I'll see another in my lifetime. And if one did come, at least we would have warning of it and be able to make preparations.

  18. Indeed I can, SP. Glorious to look at and so very heavy to dig. :-) We have a LOT of snow photos packed away, but these are the only ones we've scanned so far. They do give the flavour, son't they?

  19. Thanks, Antoinette. Glad you enjoyed them and hope the wished-for snow comes for you.

    I have an old friend who lives in Norway and he tells me the same as you - that snow tyres are nmandatory, the roads get cleared and life goes on, despite the snow. But of course Norway can expect snow every year, while it's so very hit and miss here that it's difficult to take precautions. Sigh...

  20. Hi Ricky. I bet that walk to and from work through the snow was hard work, though, as everywhere got so much snow that year. Given that the snow fell all that day, I'm amazed that you made any sales at all.

    Sorry to hear that you still don't have snow in Prague. That must seem very odd for central Europe in January. We only have an inch or two here, but it froze last night and is cold today, so the snow isn't melting yet and does look so pretty. :-)

  21. Beautifully written and very evocative. Was that really thirty years ago?! Gosh, I'm older than I thought! :D
    I remember it being a severe winter in Scotland too, although not as bad as yours, which sounds pretty epic. There were several snowy winters around that time. We, too, lived up a steep hill beyond the edge of the village, with no hope of cars getting up or down when heavy snow fell shortly before Christmas. I remember that my dad went down to the village on foot to collect the Christmas turkey, and dragged it home on our sledge!

  22. Such a snowstorm I'm sure you all remember, well Perpetua. Your photos of the time are wonderful - nice to look at them and not be going through, isn't it? DS really came to rescue, didn't he, and hard work though it was, it is a time of family and friends helping each other out, though I can't imagine how isolated you felt there and the trials of being in an unfinished remodeling job. Oh my.

    I lived through the same Chicago snowstorm of 1967 that Dr. Kathy McCoy did and remember it very vividly. We've had such a mild winter here this year, making everyone nervous who remembers the mild winter leading up to the great snowstorm of '67. We are used to heavy snows here, of course, which is why it is so amazing when they come every so often and shut everything down.

  23. Thank you, DB. Yes, it certainly was 30 years ago. Doesn’t time fly? There was a lot of snow all over the UK that winter from early December onwards, but the big 36hour blizzard of January 8-9th hit hardest in the south of the UK from the Midlands down. I have never known snow to fall continuously for so long.

    The story of your dad and the turkey on the sledge is reminiscent of a few winters in the 1970s and 1980s, when even if we could manage to get the cars up the hill from the village, the only way we could bring supplies down our lane from the county road was to carry them through the drifts or put them on the sledge. Happy days….:-D

  24. It was absolutely unforgettable, Penny, especially given the state the house was in and the length of time we were cut off. Meals were starting to get a bit boring by the time we could get out again, even though our farmer neighbour brought us some essential supplies up the hill to the top of our lane on his tractor. But we managed to keep warm and at least the weather was lovely when the snow stopped and the children could sledge and even try to ski.

    After both Kathy and you mentioned the great Chicago snowstorm of 1967, I googled it and found an excellent account at Gosh, that must have been a similarly unforgettable experience, though, like ours, better in memory than to live through.

    Other friends have mentioned the terrible cold and snow which hit mainland Europe in February 1956. Interesting that we often remember bad winters more clearly than good summers.:-)

  25. I also remember that winter very well. My son was just a baby and we had just moved house. We lived in Berkshire then. The central heating packed up and no-one could get out to fix it. We got to know our new neighbours well as they spread the word and some turned up with electric heaters for us to borrow.
    Love the pictures x

  26. Thanks, Ayak. Oh dear, another who had to cope with a small baby and no central heating in that dreadful cold. I'm glad your neighbours were so kind and willing to help out with temporary heating. True neighbourliness in action.

  27. Dear Perpetua,
    Wow! I've never realized that the British Isles had blizzards! I'm so insular. The photographs truly enhanced your story and I'm glad DS received the money for all that work he'd done. What did you and your husband receive???? The wonder of being able to get in town I suppose.

    The Stillwater, Minnesota, blizzard I remember is the one on Halloween in 1990 or 1991. We got 36 inches of snow within three days. But fortunately, the city had the snowplows out and we weren't snowbound long. And my home was warm and cosy, so I baked bread, make soup, and played with the cats!


  28. Glad you enjoyed it and had your horizons broadened, Dee. :-) Yes, we do get blizzards from time to time, though not with the regularity and frequency of the US. We can go for years together with virtually no snow and then have one or more very bad winters which everyone remembers. But your Halloween storm, which I've just googled, sounds much worse.

    You're right - DS deserved every penny and we were very glad to be able to get out to the shops.

  29. Arizona ice damming? We learned a new word in January 2010 as the snow levels crept up from the ground to meet the rooves on our buildings. No power for days, all roads closed to Greer, no services, no deliveries. It was quite an event. Fortunately, we had already escaped to the desert only 2 hours away. It's an amazing state.

  30. Hello Janet. Arizona ice damming? I've had to do a lot of googling today, with all these stories of great American snow-storms from my readers. I must admit that I had never connected Arizona with the idea of snow, since my mental image is always of a spectacular landscape of desert and rocks and hot, hot sun. You live and learn!

  31. I must've completely blocked out any memories of that winter, Perpetua! Can't remember the first thing about it.

    However, I DO remember subsequent snowy winters, and none with more clarity than the one when my two boys were pre-teens and we had a Nanny from Perth, W.Australia. I came home after a snowy day to discover that, as it was her first sight of snow in the whole of her 20 years, she'd had the kids making snowballs which she'd carefully stowed in the freezer....just so she could get the full effect for a few days longer!

  32. ROFL Croixblanches! Now that's a story to dine out on. :-) As we had rather a lot of snowy winters in the 1970s and 80s, it's easy for them to blur into one another without a big event like being snowed in for the best part of a fortnight. :-)

  33. I remember some dramatic blizzards and snow in the 70s and 80s too - being near the Pennines meant that we often saw snow when others didn't too. I remember driving home from Uni once and my hometown was just littered with abandoned cars and huge drifts everywhere - it was very strange, very eerie. There'd been no snow in London, of course!

  34. If you grew up near the Pennines as I did, you couldn't have avoided seeing blizzards, Annie. :-) I think the hard winters of 2009-2011 were a salutary reminder of what winter was regularly like in the past. Certainly the kind of scene you describe, with abandoned cars and huge drifts, was not unusual.

    I think what was different about the blizzard of January 1982 was that it hit the southern half of Britain with such force and London was very badly affected. My memories of it are indelible.

  35. No, Please No! If I had to live through that sort of winter here, I'd probably go crazy. We can't get the car out when it snows but we can walk to the village, which has a small shop for basic food stuffs.

  36. Well, I admit that 11 days is a bit excessive, Friko, but getting snowed in is always a danger when one lives as far away from the village as we do. We had at least a day or two of being cut off in each of the last three bad winters, so we just make sure we’re well stocked with food, then hunker down and wait it out. The internet is such a boon in these circumstances. Without it I’d probably go mad too. :-)

  37. Wow! I am trying to imagine what a snow drift is like that it takes four people to shovel snow just to make a path. I think the thing that comes to mind is how life would have a very different pace from what I experience simply because you have to account for the time that a snowstorm interrupts! I just felt cold reading this :-) That particular winter must have been a little frightening! You'd wonder if it was ever going to stop!! Debra

  38. It’s very deep, Debra, and often so hard-packed from the wind that each shovelful is very heavy, or alternatively the snow is so fine and loose that you can hardly dig it at all.

    Thankfully snow of this depth doesn’t happen often. Mostly our drifts are smaller, but still enough to prevent us getting the car out until they have been dug out or have melted. Thankfully too we are now retired, so we can just stay at home until things improve, instead of trying to struggle into work as soon as we can. But despite the difficulties I still love snow, as its beauty transforms the landscape.

  39. Hi Perpetua,
    I'm impressed with your memory of this event, and with the amazing photos.

    I can recall the winter of 1995, when it seemed we had a blizzard every Wednesday. We never got the amount of snow you described here, but still. A weekly blizzard is something else!

    Thank you for sharing.

  40. I think I'd like to spend a winter someplace where precipitation falls as snow. We were in Arizona last month and missed Seattle's snow and ice.

  41. Hi Nerima. I think we in Britain remember the big blizzards well because they aren't a regular event, but something extraordinary that we only have to cope with a few times. The idea of a weekly blizzard all through the winter makes me shudder!

  42. Hi Linda, so would I. Mostly our winter precipitation falls as rain, which is why big snows are so disruptive. We're just not geared up to dealing with them and life grinds to a halt. Sorry you missed your snow, but you may still get some when you get back home.:-)


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