COLUMN: Weather Wise with Gordon Currie

Walkers out enjoying the sun and snow.
Walkers out enjoying the sun and snow.

This week Gordon explores the drama of when a bleak midwinter arrives:

The sheep before the pinching

Heaven,

To sheltered dale and down

Are driven,

Where yet some faded herbage

Pines,

And yet a watery sunbeam

Shines.

In meek despondency they eye

The withered sward and wintry

Sky.

The shepherd shifts his mantle’s

Fold

And wraps him closer from the

Cold,

His dog no merry circles wheels

But, shivering, follows at his heel . . . . .

The poet’s portrayal of the old Scottish shepherd in bleak midwinter reminds us of the way we begin to recognise the real sense of urgency, the ultimate drama of our weather, when we find ourselves upon the periphery of a typical midwinter blizzard.

Co-incidentally, the veiled threats of snow just over a week ago created recollections of half a century ago, when, at this stage of January, we were enduring the coldest, cruellest phase of the 1962 – 63 winter, nationally proclaimed to be the coldest winter since 1740. The timescale of events leading up the onset of this memorable winter has led us far away from the prolonged snowfalls of 1947. True, the decade of the 1950s was certainly peppered with extreme events weather-wise, swinging between some notably cold and snowy, but shorter winters, very wet summers, and yet, some extremely dry and hot summers, 1955 and 1959. On the farming scene, crop yields had risen almost meteorically with wheat attaining 34.8cwt per acre, barley, 29.0cwt, and oats, 25.2cwt, by the harvest yields of 1962.

Every farmer and country dweller began to notice the ominous significance in November’s weather in 1962, when powerful northerly Arctic outbreaks began to send the first preliminary shots of winter across the bows of late autumn.

Hedgerows and trees became crowded with flocks of migratory blackbirds, starlings and fieldfares, fleeing the intense cold, already established over Northern Europe. Some of the thickest frost-fogs ever encountered in the Vale of York, cloaked the opening two weeks of December.

The Cleveland Hills seemed to frown the frosted lowland. A faint illusion of warmth lingered in the high Dales above the frost-fogs, but all too soon, the wintry skies became expressionless and laden with snow crystals. There was not a single smile upon the landscape, growth had completely retracted, and we faced the worst.

By Christmas Day, my temperatures records had plummeted to 8 F (-12C) by night, with daily maxima only 27F (-3 C).

Through the opening weeks of January, the fangs of winter continued to sink deeper into the heart of the countryside. On the farm in the cattle sheds, flocks of starlings, blackbirds, robins and wrens sought sustenance from small grains and hay-seeds upon the backs of the cows.

Out of doors, the very silence of the fields smothered in snow seemed completely unrealistic, registering this profound and prolonged shut-down of nature. Even the spirit of the rooks’ unfailing regularity (flying to and from their feeding grounds at sunrise and sunset) was broken by the savagery of the coldness.

Between January 18-24, an intense high pressure system containing the very core of Siberian air began to move from Norway, right across the British Isles, emphasising clear radiation nights over deep snow-cover.

National temperature records were broken and my own night minima fell to between 2F and 4F (-16C to -17C) during this period. However beautiful the casual onlooker may have found the scenery across the fields, extreme cruelty existed beneath winter’s form.

Even the sparse grasses of the pastures had been ruthlessly combed, and wheat crops almost perished by the sheer weight of ice and the tightening grip of frost. In daily practicalities on the farms, problems mounted with frozen pipes and water supplies. The plastic piping evolution was just emerging at the expense of metal piping – you simply could not thaw out plastic piping with blow-lamps!

Subsequent events during a very cold and largely sunless February began to resemble the pressure and weather patterns of February 1947, but the second-half of the winter will be revealed in a subsequent article. The daytime coldness of January 1963 gave a mean daily maxima of 30F (-1C), compared with 33.0F (0.5C) over a similar period in 1947.

Ten days of sub-zero temperatures in January 1963 is one of the longest periods of continuous frost on my records, only to be exceeded by the records of December 2010.