COLUMN: Weather Wise with Gordon Currie

According to ancient weather lore, if curlews call on the wing as darkness falls it indicates easterly winds and cold weather. (S)
According to ancient weather lore, if curlews call on the wing as darkness falls it indicates easterly winds and cold weather. (S)

Gordon remembers the March of 1962, plus gives propsects for the week ahead.

Sweet voice of solitude, the

Speaking of Spring,

A streamlet of song to our hearts

Did bring,

Cheerfulness measured by each

Passing day,

Yet lost amid Winter’s misguided

Way;

Oh! Thrush, in your beautiful

Seconds of glory,

Creating sweet music ‘mid frosts

Deep and hoary –

Undaunted in coldness, clear

Throated in rhyme,

It is you we remember as

March falls to time.

These introductory lines were written on March 21, 1962, the year which made a complete mockery of the countryman’s legendary first day of spring.

Cruel March in 1962 was personally remembered by this trickling streamlet of birdsong, cascading in successive evening twilights across the stiffening frosted leys, the faint voices of a displaced season in which we witnessed the utter demolition of an early, budding springtime.

Each successive night, the thrushes and blackbirds repeated their undaunted repertoires from lifeless places, the draughty lane, or the tracery of the hawthorn bushes, appearing torpid and black with tightly folded buds against the greyness of snow-filled skies.

The atmosphere could have been described as surreal with the lengthening brighter daylight of the longer evenings in total contrast with the mid-winter landscape. On one evening, a small group of curlews was observed in one of our fields, having arrived in the district soon after the 21st. Coincidentally it is recognised by ancient weather lore that if curlews call on the wing as darkness falls, it indicates easterly winds and cold weather.

In many respects, March 1962 afforded an interesting example of the way in which many people let their ideas on the weather situation fall completely out of perspective.

Some almost boasted over the fact that they “could not remember anything like it before,” or alternatively, “there had never been a spring like this!”.

Memories were short – it was only 15 years beyond the events of 1947. Such disbelief was undoubtedly conjured by the phenomenal temperature switch of the season, from a February spring to a Siberian winter in March.

Never before, or since, on my records have we experienced a reversal of monthly mean temperature in such magnitude. From an overall mean of 41F (5C) in February, the March figure fell precipitously to 35.5F (1.9C), almost equalling the coldest March, 35.0F (1.4 ) in 1947.

The outstanding feature in 1962 was the persistence and severity of night frosts, with minima down to 16F (-8C) in the middle of March and 21F (-6C) as late as the 28th.

Looking at the true record of the farming picture, I quote from my farm diary on March 21 “the signs of spring are hidden beneath the drab uniform, wrought upon the landscape by weeks of frost.

“Pastures which scarcely a month ago were truly green and progressive, are now reduced to the appearance of brown heath lands, while alongside the plough-land fallows, hedges and woodlands, the overall theme remains barren and brown, concealing the individuality of the countryside and reducing everything to a serried anonymity.”

Reflecting on the current month’s weather many people will assume that we have been experiencing a very literal raw deal in terms of seasonality, even though this March is still far from the severity of 1962.

Even so, the maximum temperature of 32F (0C) on the 11th was the coldest March day since 2006, when 34F (1C) was registered on the 12th. We have to go back to 1979 to find daytime maxima at freezing point in mid-March.

In spite of all the misgivings about spring’s progress this year, we could do worse than spare a thought for our Victorian ancestors in the north country who had to endure some of the most ferocious March snowstorms ever recorded in the 1880s.

This was a period of railway transport boom with the development of many local railway lines which catered for the increasingly popular dependency on travelling between the many relatively small townships here in the north. However, the truly dire conditions of intense snowstorms in mid-March 1886 and 1888 literally crippled railway transport network, causing total chaos on blocked railway lines throughout the north, and especially in Northumberland. The worst episode occurred in 1888 when an intense depression crossed England, with its fronts battling with deep Arctic air across the northern part of the British Isles. The celebrated Flying Scotsman was partially buried and held fast in deep drifts between Morpeth and Berwick.

Among the passengers travelling on this train was the Duke of Argyll. An extract from the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore, dated April 1888, states :“On March 16, a snowplough belonging to the North Eastern Railway Company came in violent collision with one of the embedded trains near Annitsford, north of Newcastle. Three gentlemen who were occupants of the plough-chamber narrowly escaped with their lives.”

The blocked lines were not cleared until the 19th.

PROSPECTS FOR THE WEEK AHEAD

Another week of disturbed conditions with spells of unseasonably cold temperatures lies ahead. A further Atlantic depression with quite a vigorous circulation will move into the British Isles by this weekend and probably become quasi-stationary rather like the one last weekend.

The problem concerning this stalemate situation for spring weather lies to the far north, where record high pressure levels with a huge reservoir of Arctic air is anchored from Greenland to Scandinavia. This system is feeding cold air, indirectly, into the circulation of the low pressure over the British Isles, coming into the upper levels of the atmosphere more or less in its original polar temperature. Strengthening sunny areas near the ground warm the surface air and cause convection, with rain, sleet, snow and hail in every conceivable form. Little immediate change is anticipated as we move towards Easter.

Mainly unsettled, with further outbreaks of rain or showers. Cold enough to produce snow at times over the high ground, with a risk of potentially widespread snow at all levels as the weekend begins. Some brighter, drier periods through the week. Day temperatures, 45 - 49F (7-9C). Overnight frost risks continuing, 28F (-2C) with easterly or northerly winds most prevalent.