Tales of tragedy and courage in the face of the worst winter for 50 years
I was born in March 1963, so my mother was expecting me for the full duration of the icy blast. Sadly now both my parents are dead but discussions on the winter of 1963 often took place when the weather turned chillier. My father would often argue with my mother that 1947 was worse than 1963. She always disagreed but in 1947 my father was in Plymouth (he was reserved occupation during the war as a ship's welder so endured those years in the city) and my mother was living in Torrington, North Devon. So from geographical perspectives, they would have seen it differently.
My father remembers in 1947 that Roborough Down was impassable. His grandmother (my great-grandmother) also died in the winter of 1947 and the family had problems making it to the funeral (from Peverell to Weston Mill) because of the snow. The gravediggers also had general problems because the ground was frozen. There was some bad flooding which followed the snow: I now live in Laira and there is a fairly famous local photo which shows people leaving Laira Avenue in rowing boats.
A copy of this photo was on display in the Herald Office on Armada Way Plymouth, when the newspaper had a shop there.
As for 1963, my mother vividly recalled it turned much colder very quickly in the September of 1962. They had just moved into Ashburnham Road, West Park, Plymouth. It was as if autumn had been bypassed for winter. Then the snow arrived in heavy droves around the Christmas. There seemed to be no let up and as she was expecting me, she did have problems getting out of the house for medical check ups.
My father was also finding it an expedition to get to work every day (he didn't have a car at that point). As the temperature dropped, they only had a coal fire in the living room and paraffin heaters to keep warm. The paraffin man was the lifeline at one point when the coal deliverers were struggling to get through, as realising my mum was expecting, he carried paraffin 'the extra mile' to get to her.
I suppose because the population was much smaller back then and there was less traffic around, the difficulties were less emphasised and people just 'got on with it'.
Sadly I have no photos to send you but the 'legend' of that winter was often repeated to me.
Mid Cornwall was very badly affected by the winter of 1963. For the small town communities relying on transport it was a daily nightmare to travel to work. Roads, especially the hills, were impassable after a snowfall at night, so many people were reliant on the Great Western Railway. Crowds of commuters huddled on a freezing platform on Lostwithiel station for a chance of boarding a train bound for Par, St. Austell and Truro. The small waiting room – with its smoky fire – was a haven for the lucky few who had got there early. Ticket sales were often unavailable so free journeys were the only perks for the many office workers stricken by the terrible cold and bitter winds.
The camaraderie was wonderful, with food ands drink shared between friends, strangers too – we were all in it together. There were no vending machines or cafes, nothing other than food brought from home. Hard boiled eggs were a favourite because they retained heat for quite awhile. Those lucky few who lived close enough to the local Co-op's first batch of fresh baked bread had many followers. I remember the baker Ernie's great kindness in leaving a door to the bakery open for us bedraggled girls and boys, and the gift of misshapen saffron and yeast buns – never would they ever taste as sweet. He used to cover this kindness by saying: ''Well, if you don't eat 'em, the swans will".
There is one event that has stayed in my memory. It happened after a particularly bad snow drift between Par and St Austell halted the train at Par and all the passengers had to disembark. Of course there was no transport to return home, so a long walk was the only option to get to work. I was one of four young girls who worked for the clay company, E.C.L.P. Our offices were located on Par Moor – close to Carlyon Bay. Between Par Station and our offices were three, maybe four miles of deep snow on the roads and verges, plus a driving wind and hard snow falling.
Not one of us had really adequate clothing for the weather conditions.
I was very quickly wet and chilled and found the going very hard indeed. A friend that I had known since our schooldays saw my plight, took off her mac and insisted that I wear it over my coat. That wonderful act of kindness saved me I know from serious illness – I have had a weak chest since early childhood pneumonia. Her name is Teresa (nee) Parker. She still lives in Lostwithiel, and is a grandmother. From time to time she has asked about me. Our paths haven't crossed for nearly fifty years and we wouldn't recognise one another but, in your pages, may I take this opportunity to thank her very sincerely for her compassion and generosity:
Thank you Teresa.
It was Boxing Day and a football match at Exeter, it suddenly turned cold and at six that evening it was freezing hard, which continued for day and by night until the end of February, when it started to thaw after a heavy blizzard on the 28th February.
But it was the blizzard of the night of the 28 December, that will always live in one's memory.
The temperature was down to around 0-15c it was so cold the snow flakes were tiny, like grains of salt, it snowed all night and blew a gale from the South East.
Huge drifts built up because of the fineness of this snow and causing snow to pile up through any tiny cracks in roof tiles. So many birds died from cold and lack of food.
We had to rescue some heifers from the awful cruel wind to a field of high hedges and sheltered from that S E gale – it was dark, the snow blew in sheets in our faces, drifts were building and the cattle sunk into the snow right up to their bellies, but just made it!
But then there was no thaw, just freezing temperatures, day and night, for two whole months, but dry also with no more snow until the blizzard of the 28th of February.
Where the snow cover was thin the frost dug deep and so many pipes and taps were frozen up yet the livestock had to drink, it was a struggle, and piles of dung just built up in the yards, unable to be carried away and huge problems with milk collections!
By far the coldest winter I can recall yet I remain convinced the cause was the Russian hydrogen bomb tests in those remote Arctic islands of northern Siberia, in the summer of 1962, upsetting nature.
I remember the winter of 1963 well. With an extremely thick blanket of snow everywhere and virtually no transport, my daughter then in her teens, was in Lockyer Street Hospital, Plymouth for the Christmas period. This was a cosy and friendly place, long since defunct in favour of the massive impersonal establishment at Derriford. She was treated to carols sung by candlelight by the nurses. On Christmas Day there was a visit from the late Dame Joan Vickers MP who spoke to every patient. She told my daughter she was far too pretty to spend Christmas in hospital. This of course had the result of raising her spirits at a very anxious time.
I happened to land up in Derriford for Christmas 2010. The nurses were far too busy to sing carols. In any case candles would not have been allowed on the grounds of Health and Safety.
The local MPs were nowhere to be seen and my fondest memory was of the lovely service in the chapel, conducted by the Rev Rodney Baxendale. In 1963 a bit of the wartime spirit returned to what seemed like an endless time of cold and hardship.
At the time of the terrible winter of 1963 I was working as a relief signalman operating out of Okehampton and living at Meldon Quarry Cottages.
I used to cover the branches to Bude and Padstow and main line sign boxes – Exeter, Devonport and Calstock branch.
When the weather was so bad I could not get anywhere, so I went down to the Quarry office and used the only GPO phone in the area, to phone my office in Exeter Central SR. He said go to Meldon Jct if you can they are in trouble up there. Nothing was moving at all. One engine was at the down home. A goods train was put in the siding the night before and the engine was snowed in at the upstarter. Two passenger trains were snowed in at Darries Cutting – both trains were completely covered with snow. That's between Bridestowe and Meldon Jct mainline.
I enjoyed reading your article in today's paper. But the photo of the engine can't possibly be near Lydford main line as it is carrying the branch line headcode – Bude or Padstow. I think it's the engine that was stuck in a drift between Ashbury and Meldon Jct and the Ashbury line gang are digging it out. I remember I stopped the snow plough from going down on the branch as I knew the gang were there.
W J Mortimore
On Saturday 29th December 1962 I was the late turn booking clerk at Bere Alston station. My turn was from 2pm-10pm.
Snow was falling when I commenced my duty. By 6pm blizzard conditions had started.
Trains started to run late, around 7pm the electricity supply failed and the station was plunged into darkness.
I managed to get hold of a guard's oil hand lamp. Working with this light made office work difficult!
I also went to help passengers from Plymouth to cross the station's footbridge, which was in total darkness and very slippery.
I was still on duty at 11.30pm when the station master sent me home. I was required to take duty the next day (Sunday 30.12.1962).
Going home I encountered large snow drifts.
On the Sunday all services were suspended. I was kept busy dealing with train engineering, all trains from Waterloo ceased because of trains trapped near Meldon. This main line was closed for six weeks. On Monday December 31 1962 an emergency train service ran between Plymouth and Tavistock North. My turn that day was 6am-2pm.
The other Bere Alston booking clerk had a week's leave. No relief staff could get to Bere Alston and I was required to work 12 hours then handing the office over to the Station Master.
Around this time the Beeching enquiry was taking place. We on the old southern line thought we would be safe.
The WR regularly ran trains over our route when there was trouble with the sea wall at Dawlish, but the six-week closure showed the old southern route was vulnerable.
On the 6th September 1964 trains from Bere Alston – Tavistock – Okehampton ran no more.
The track from Bere Alston to Okehampton was quietly removed.
The weather also affected the old Plymouth to Launceston branch line (WR) – Saturday 29.12.1962 was to be the last day of service.
The last advertised trains never ran!
The engineering staff deserved the highest praise in the Meldon area.
They worked in extreme conditions with little in the way of specialist equipment.
It is a period of my long (46- year) railway career that I shall never forget.
John T Snell
I was 12 years old in 1963 in the Big Freeze. I lived at Henwood near Cheesewring.
We were playing outside. I remember how thick the snow was. It must have been early January. People started going back to work, even though they were told not to, as the roads were a death trap. I remember so well of the tragedy that struck our village. The police arrived to tell our friend's family her husband – the children's father – had just been killed. We couldn't believe it, I ran in to tell my mum. She wouldn't listen, told me to be quiet. As it was years ago, people didn't talk about things very much. As if you didn't talk about it, things would go away.
I remember the eldest daughter hitting the policeman and saying 'It's not true! Please tell me it's not true!' I didn't understand at that age why she was hitting the policeman. Now losing my husband, I understand the total shock they must have felt. Their father went to work that morning with his workmates. The Land Rover he was travelling in skidded and turned over on the snow, killing him instantly. The family were our closest friends, we all grew up together. We were a family of five children and so were they. How devastating to lose a husband and father, leaving mum with five children to bring up on her own. How did she cope? There were no hand-outs in those days. That Big Freeze will stay in my mind forever. Not the best of memories, as it brings it all back. As I'm sure it does for the family involved.
I still see three of the five today and yet we have never talked of their father's death.
Mrs S A Williams