The snow siege that left villages stranded and even froze the sea
"It all began as the Old Year went out with a bang…" So wrote my old editor, the late Jack Hurley, when given the job of summing up the blizzard that hit the Westcountry exactly half a century ago.
In his inimitable way, Jack wrote that the weather "blew a banshee note at the keyholes – and then the snow-bag was ripped from side to side".
"This was a snow siege," he went on. "All western counties wore the white and weighty shroud, but all except Somerset had some free areas. Over Somerset the spread had missed not a sector of town or acre of countryside."
I was just a boy aged six at the time – but I knew Mr Hurley because he worked with my journalist father Peter Hesp and he, perhaps knowing we were living through historic times, took his tiny eldest son out with him on his snowy travels.
So my first and abiding memory of snow is exactly 50 years old – and it brings me two very different images.
One is the recollection of standing on top of a 21ft-high drift on the top of Porlock Hill, and looking down in surprise at the very top of a telegraph pole which stuck out of the ice at my feet.
My other memory is of my grandfather – village postman Harold Langsford – carrying on delivering with that determined Dunkirk spirit that seemed more prevalent at the time than perhaps it does now.
Not for a single day did my grandfather cease to deliver letters in the lonely rural backwaters of a still and silent, snowbound West Somerset – and I well remember seeing him return home with eyebrows caked solid with ice as if he'd been out with Scott of the Antarctic.
Meanwhile Jack Hurley was reporting: "Helicopters began dropping supplies to stranded communities across the region. On Thursday January 3rd, it snowed again. By January 7th the Ministry of Agriculture had realised the gravity of the situation and was organising a proper airdrop to remote farms on Westcountry hills.
"Villagers at Withypool were becoming concerned as pantry shelves emptied. A group of men decided to make a break for food with the help of a racehorse called Royal Flame. It pulled their sledge through the snow to a rendezvous near Winsford and it was a proud gang of Arctic adventurers who returned home laden with bread, milk and meat."
If you really want a clue as to just how extremely cold it was, then perhaps this short paragraph is the most telling of all: "It was so cold that the harbour at Watchet froze over, and the ice pinned a cargo ship to the wharf."
I later recall seeing the great slabs of frozen sea-ice at Watchet Harbour as they were broken up – some must have been a foot thick, which is quite a phenomenon in itself when you consider what it takes to freeze saltwater.
And so 1963 had come in, as Jack says, with a bang. For a short time things seemed to be slowly improving, as my father noted for his newspaper. "With low temperature persisting throughout the week large areas of the Westcountry remain snowbound. Many farms on Exmoor and the Brendon Hills are still cut off and further supplies of feeding stuffs have been dropped there and on the Quantocks by helicopter.
"Last Saturday, when the fog closed down to add to the hazards, a helicopter crew made a mercy flight to carry a doctor to an injured youth on the Brendon Hills, and then conveyed him to Taunton.
"The day previously, 17-year-old Sydney Payne, of Lower Holworthy Farm, Kingsbrompton, had been thrown from his horse and hurt his head. Overnight his condition deteriorated and when he appeared to be much worse, Dr George Kelly, of Wiveliscombe – who was in telephone contact with his parents – appealed to the police for help.
"At that time a helicopter from Chivenor was standing on the recreation ground at Minehead, where it had gone to pick up GPO engineers to fly them to Goosemoor on the Brendons for repair work. Because of foggy weather the helicopter was grounded – but when the mercy call came through the crew took to the air without any hesitation, flying first to Wiveliscombe to pick up the doctor and then out to the heart of the Brendons."
Mr father phoned Sydney's parents and was told by Mr S Payne senior: "I lit a beacon fire of straw and hoped they would see it through the fog. When I heard their engine I poured diesel oil on the fire and they came straight in. We have no words adequate to thank them."
In hospital the son was found to be in a better condition than had been thought, but his father added: "Goodness knows when he'll be able to come home – we are completely cut off by 10-foot drifts and can get no further than the farm gate."
Meanwhile packets of "complete food powder" (whatever that was) were among emergency supplies flown by helicopter to several lonely farms above Porlock which were cut off by deep drifts.
"Many hill farmers have contrived to open up supply lines by using tractors and Land Rovers over open fields, where high winds have swept the deep snow aside," my father wrote.
"All roads across Exmoor remain completely closed," he went on. "A huge pantechnicon, carrying tons of furniture, was diverted by some thoughtless person up Porlock Hill. Faced with fantastic conditions of ice and snow it crashed on the first corner and had to be abandoned for days until heavy lifting gear could be brought in."
But things were just beginning to improve: "For the first time in a fortnight a trickle of traffic was able to negotiate the Williton to Taunton road," noted Peter Hesp. "It made for a spectacular drive for those who ventured upon it with walls of snow higher than lorry cabs in places where bulldozers had cut through the 12-foot drifts."
The improvement turned out to be a chilly false dawn. Here's how Jack Hurley put it later: "Come early February the worst was generally believed to be over. But the great forces that had created the mini-ice-age were by no means finished yet.
"Tuesday February 5th was the 38th day of the snow siege of the Westcountry – and by afternoon a Force 9 was blowing from the south-east. With it came a blizzard, and in one night all the good work of the clearance teams disappeared under yet another blanket of snow. Some places suffered a non-stop fall of 30 hours. By the end of February more than 160 of Somerset's villages had been cut off."
We've never seen snow like it since – and, perhaps because of global warming, we never will.