I remember the January 1987 spell like it was yesterday. I’d arranged to stay with my aunt and uncle in a rural part of south Essex. The forecast by Ian McCaskill on the Friday night was for a cold weekend with possible snow flurries near the coast. ‘That’ll do’, I thought.
I caught a mid-morning train from Romford on the Saturday morning. As I disembarked at Rayleigh I was shocked by how cold it seemed to have turned. The wait at the bus stop was made worse as my uncle was delayed in picking me up; a black leather jacket I was wearing at the time was totally inadequate.
No matter, though, as I was soon warmed up on reaching my aunt’s house, helped further by hearty home cooking. Saturday was spent driving round rural Essex: my uncle knew a few farmers and was a keen rambler. We walked a circuit around Hanningfield reservoir.
I think we watched Back to the Future that night. By the time I went to bed I remember there was a dusting of snow on the ground. For some reason I kept waking up, each time looking outside to see the build-up of snow.
There was around four inches by morning and, after breakfast, I went with my uncle for a drive around the same rural spots as Saturday. The reservoir was beginning to ice over and I remember my uncle reading a Fahrenheit thermometer and saying that it was “seven degrees of frost”.
When I left Rayleigh that evening the snow was falling thick and fast and the train seemed to be travelling slower than usual. When it failed to move from Shenfield station after 10 minutes I knew something was up; the guard announced that the wheels had frozen to the tracks. Everyone disembarked and caught another. After leaving Shenfield I noticed that the snow cover gradually decreased, with just an icing-sugar like covering in Romford.
My dismay at having left a winter wonderland in Rayleigh disappeared on waking up on the Monday morning and seeing a good few inches had fallen.
BBC Breakfast presenters gravely told us how bad things were. The Isle of Sheppey was cut off and train services were severely affected – I didn’t go to school once that week because the toilets were frozen. For once the conditions, reflected in this footage from Thames News, matched the hype.
East London: Ben Bacarisse was living in Mile End in 1987. He said: “I was living on the 15th floor of a tower block at the time. The prolonged cold caused the main water riser into the block to freeze so no one in nearly 400 flats (there were a pair of blocks) had running
water. It turned out to be possible to tap into the larger street main
with a stand-pipe.
Presumably the constant use kept it running though
I’d have thought it would have to be removed at night. I don’t recall
how long that lasted but it was more than a couple of days.”
Home Counties: George Booth, who was living in Epping, Essex, at the time, explained how the weather affected him: “On the Monday (12/1/87) I accompanied a group of young scholars to the Science Museum. Despite the cold and snow they were happy to walk to the station (and they behaved themselves). It was a strange sight to see
Exhibition Road covered in that thick brownish frozen dust which occurs
when temperatures are presumably too low for treatment to be effective.
Not so good news for the school roof, however. It eventually had to be
replaced after a water tank/pipe burst after a thaw.”
George, who ran a weather station in Epping, added: “On 12/1/87 the maximum temperature in Epping was -8.0c and the minimum was -10.0C. The ‘snow depth gradient’ was very steep NW-SE with SE Essex/E London and N Kent receiving much greater falls than places like Epping. However, it was the severe frost that caused many
problems, particularly in older buildings.”
Dave Cornwell, a retired scientist, from Laindon, Essex, said: “I was working as an operational scientist at a sewage treatment plant in Rainham , Essex. (London Borough of Havering, (just east of London). I remember it well because for the first time anyone could remember the sewage was freezing on entering the works through the screening bars, bearing in mind that sewage is flowing underground and starting off quite warm, usually in winter arriving at about 10-12C.
“It was a major engineering problem because the heat was being conducted away by the metal bars and ice building up and blocking the flow. This could potentially have caused backing up of millions of gallons of raw sewage. A smart engineer made some improvised electrical heaters to fit on the bars and we hired massive tarpaulins to put on the north side to try and cut down the wind chill. It worked a bit till the weather turned. I remember taking the temperature at 9.30 am and seem to recall it was -9.0C.”
John Hall, from Cranleigh, Surrey, said: “We had a little snow on the Monday, I think it was, but it didn’t amount to much. We had to wait for overnight Tuesday/Wednesday for serious snow, but then it certainly made up for lost time. On
Wednesday morning, the gritters must have done a remarkable job on the
roads, as traffic was moving – if slowly – on the B road that runs
through Cranleigh, and I was able to make the 8-mile journey to
“But at the station, a railwayman was standing by the entrance
telling everyone: ‘There are no trains. We don’t know when there will be
any trains. We advise you to go home.’ I managed to get a bus back to
Cranleigh, by which time the snow had just about stopped.
“I didn’t measure the depth of the snow, but my subjective impression that Wednesday morning was that it was almost a foot (30 cm) deep. The wind wasn’t strong enough to cause too much drifting that day, but the following day it became pretty strong, and there was considerable drifting of the powdery snow, with some susceptible local roads becoming blocked. In this southern lowland region I can’t remember another such instance of this ‘delayed drifting’.”
Tudor Hughes, had the added altitude (165m) of Warlingham, Surrey, that made the cold spell even more memorable. “It was just about the most outstanding weather event for me. The 12th was a sunny day with a light NE’ly and a few inches of lying snow and the temperature just wouldn’t rise.
“After a min of -12°C it got up to -9.2°C (12-hr max) which I think is a COL record though obviously not a UK one. The 24-hr max was -8.9°C, agreeing with the reading from Coulsdon (Ian Currie).
“In the evening some smoky-looking stratus appeared and snow fell from cloud so thin that the moon was visible. It snowed intermittently for a further 2 days until the level depth was 39 cm. At the top of the North Downs (Tatsfield) the depth was about 3 times that.”
Tudor added: “The temperature was below -5°C for about 40 hours and below 0°C for eleven days. I whacked up the heating and opened the loft door. A burst pipe and frozen tank is the last thing you want.
“The extraordinary thing about January 12th was the lapse rate. This was no cold inversion – the higher you were the colder it was. I reckon the maximum at the top of the Downs (877 ft) was -10°C. There was some relatively warmer air above 700 mb but even so the 1000-500 mb thickness was 498 dam. Not quite the purple line but well inside the brown one.”
Unlike some cold spells the severe weather was not restricted to the SE corner of England.
The South West: Len Wood, from Wembury, southwest Devon, said: “Even here on the coast this was the coldest spell I experienced since moving here in 1983. We had four successive ice days and my record min of -10.1C was recorded which still stands.
“With quite a biting easterly wind it was hard to keep our bungalow warm.
Cold was coming up through the floors so I blocked the air bricks and we covered the floors with anything we had handy, old carpet, blankets…
“I remember another effect of the extreme cold was to make all the leaves turn black on the privet hedge down the length of our garden. They subsequently fell off. The hedge did recover the next summer though.”
There is a study of the heavy coastal snowfall of January 11-13 by W.S.Pike here.
Some more charts from Smartie on the Google Group Weather and Climate…
2m temperature and snow depth at 12 UTC 12 January 1987 from a downscaled simulation of 10-13 Jan 1987. The ERA Interim reanalysis was used as initial and boundary conditions. Contours of physical snow depth start at 2.5 cm every 2.5cm.
The main convergence zones appear quite well resolved at DX ~12km
This is the first downscaling grid. It has the latest ‘scale-aware’ convection scheme from WRF (Multi-scale Kain-Fritsch). The deep and shallow components should both be active (haven’t confirmed this).
Hourly output from this is used to initialise nested 6 and 2km grids. On the 6km grid the deep convection should be almost off and shallow convection still active.
On the 2km grid there is no Cu scheme ie. it’s ‘convection permitting’ in the jargon.
The plots can be compared with the letter by Lumb (Weather, 1988,, V43, 31).
Hypnotised by a long line of red lights and a sudden feeling of being totally alone in the darkness were surreal sensations I experienced as I took on the challenge of the Dunwich Dynamo last weekend.
I’d read a few personal accounts of this 120-mile blast through the Essex and Suffolk countryside but nothing really prepares you for the ride that starts in the fading light of East London.
A sea of cyclists greeted you as you arrive in London Fields – a mix of serious lycra together with quite a few souls in regular clothes who look as if they were popping down the shops for a pint of milk rather than an overnight ride to the coast. The park was also still busy with people out enjoying the warm weather with the thermometer still hovering around 25C. Though the event has been running for 24 years a couple of bemused onlookers asked me “what the hell is going on”.
“This is NOT a race”, screams the first line of a sheet of A4 directions handed to me by one of the organisers. And without any fanfare, at 8pm, legions got on their bikes by the Pub on the Park. My intentions of grabbing a big bowl of pasta before the start were soon forgotten as I joined the throng making its way through the narrow confines of Martello Street bike path.
The procession through Hackney was not everyone’s idea of fun though the sheer number of cycles was enough to stave off even the most impatient motorists.
East London quickly turned into suburban Essex and the scrum of cyclists had already turned into a single file. The sun was already set by the time we reached the Wake Arms roundabout though I assured my two cycling buddies that there would be plenty of options for pasta and coffee in Epping – noble intentions that ended up as pork pies and cans of Coke from Londis…
I’d never cycled beyond Epping – unknown roads even harder to navigate in the darkness. Familiar names started to flash past: Moreton, Fyfield, Leaden Roding and the 32-mile point Great Dunmow. Pockets of villagers screamed encouragement at cyclists including a four-person handbuilt contraption, tandems and one brave cyclist who’d brought his child along in a trailer.
We stopped for a pint in Great Bardfield at 43 miles; locals joining in the party atmosphere as cyclists either stopped or pedalled on. Although just gone midnight conversations seemed to hover over the fast pace of the tour, probably helped by the fine weather and almost constant light westerly breeze. Finchingfield, Wethersfield, Sible and Castle Hedingham then passed in quick succession before we reached the halfway point at Sudbury about 1am where huge queues had formed for coffee and a barbeque put on by the local fire crews.
Though the temperature never fell below 16C over the entire event tiredness was now starting to set in but before we got too ensconced in our chairs we decided to push on.
It was this part of the event where groups of cyclists started to spread out though, because most were cycling at roughly the same speed, you started to notice the same people: the guy in the Heinz baked beans top, the group cycling for Alzheimers, the guy with the kiddie trailer (again) comes into view, the child still awake and appearing to be transfixed by a tablet. I exchanged pleasantries with a guy in a top with the dragon of Wales emblazoned on the back – inane conversations though most seem happy to just get their heads down and eat up a few more miles.
It was around Bildeston that the roads suddenly seemed to turn really dark. Pedalling on I focus on the line of red lights in the distance – almost hynotised by the rhythm of the whole thing – but then suddenly realised that I was cycling downhill at roughly the same speed as I would in daylight. I turned my head to find that my two cycling buddies were nowhere to be seen, and neither were any other riders. An overwhelming feeling of being alone suddenly dawned on me and I eased back on the pedals though it was a good 10 minutes before my companions catch up – one asked just what exactly was in the muesli bars that I had been munching away on for six hours.
At 3am the delirium started to set in: the University Challenge theme tune was going on a loop in my head – a couple of cyclists that have brought along loud speakers failed to distract me. Our charge to the coast was eventually interrupted by a puncture, my cycling buddy exclaiming in the darkness: “This wheel doesn’t feel right!”.
By 4am the sky had long begun to lighten and the fading batteries of many riders’ headlamps was no longer such a pressing issue. I think it was around Sibton Lake that pop-up cafes started to emerge at the side of the road. Alas, the long queues prevented us from stopping, so terrified were we that if we stopped for too long our bodies would cease up. No matter. Many other cyclists by now were beginning to stop and rest on verges; a few oblivious that the sun was beginning to rise as quick as they were falling into a slumber.
The last 10 miles from Framlingham, once the sun had risen, seemed to be the hardest. I’m not sure if it was my brain being unable to cope with the additional distraction of having to deal with looking at beautiful countryside. And a couple more inclines seemed to be the last straw for a few cyclists who got off and walked.
The pine scrub of Minsmere spread out after passing through Darsham before our ultimate destination Dunwich, the Lost City, ended our odyssey. After 10-and-a-half hours we’d done it.
On a Saturday closest to full moon in July thousands of cyclists congregate in London Fields and ride 200km through the night to Dunwich on the coast of Suffolk.
Modestly described by the organisers as a “gentle bike ride to the beach, through soft country on good roads” the hours of darkness present a huge challenge for participants.
Michael Barry, the retired Canadian professional road racing cyclist, rated the challenge 5/10, harder than the 280 mile London to Paris ride which he ranked only 2/10.
Taking place in summer you would expect long hours of moonlight to be a welcome assist for these brave souls who peddle hours through the night to reach their goal. A look at the synoptic charts and statistics of each ride, however, reveals weather that is often a long way from being summery.
Looking in detail there appears to be very little chance of the ride coinciding with a heatwave. In 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2014 riders left the capital during days where the mercury reached above 80F (26.7C) – though this represents only 17% of starts. Temperatures around 70F (21.1C) are much more common.
Over 40% of the rides have seen over 1mm of rain on the opening day, this falls to 17% on the second day – a dry end to the marathon challenge is perhaps to be expected.
Patrick Field, of the London School of Cycling, said that 2007, the wettest start day to a Dynamo, was “gloriously wet”.
Perhaps what this blog also reveals is that UK weather at full moon, even in high summer, is notoriously unpredictable. Luke Howard , the father of meteorology, tried for 50 years to
prove a link between the weather and phases of the moon, but died still mystified at the ripe old age of 91.
A movie of all synoptic charts highlights just how unsettled this time of year can be found here.
* The author is planning to take part in this year’s event to raise money for Cancer Research.
** Full stats for the weather in London during the Dunwich Dynamo back to 1992 can be found here: https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=A148835276FAFDEE!2561&authkey=!AEMmoeUZRVSq7uU&ithint=file%2cxlsx
The Met Office, earlier this week, warned us that extreme summer rainfall may become more frequent in the UK because of climate change. The research, produced in collaboration with Newcastle University, says that while summers are expected to become drier overall intense rainfall producing serious flash flooding could become several times more frequent.
I hadn’t thought much about the story until, as part of my attempt to find out what this summer is going to turn out like, I discovered some fascinating details of several events during the summers of 1811 and 1828. Many have remarkably similar characteristics to the Boscastle flood in 2004 – the kind of episode the Met Office tells us could become far more common by 2100.
The entries for 1811 in Luke Howard’s book The Climate of London once again shows that extreme weather is nothing new and serious flash flooding was actually more common all those years ago.
May 20 1811 A severe thunder storm came on at Ingatestone, Essex, accompanied with a deluge of rain. In ten minutes the water ran about three feet deep in the streets. The same night at Potter street on the road to Newmarket hailstones nearly as large as pigeons eggs fell accompanied with the most terrific thunder and lightning.
May 27, 1811 Hereford: We were visited by a dreadful storm of thunder and lightning accompanied by torrents of rain very destructive eastward of this city. It commenced about three o’clock in the afternoon and continued with little intermission till past eight. This storm and the consequent inundation of several thousand acres of land destroyed a number of lives and much property.
June 8, 1811 A severe storm of rain hail and lightning took place in Birmingham and the neighbourhood. The hail or rather pieces of ice which fell are described as of prodigious size and considerable damage has been done to the windows. Worcester this day another most tremendous storm of thunder lightning and rain took place about 11am equal to that of the 27th except the hail.
A storm was also experienced June 28 at Bury and its neighbourhood. The lower part of the houses were filled with water which lay in the street 5 feet deep. The hail stones 5 8ths of an inch in diameter broke near five thousand panes of glass. About twenty six head of cattle were killed last week by the lightning at Bisby and Walsham in Norfolk.
July 2, 1811 In the neighbourhood of Wonersh near Guildford after one of the most sudden strokes of thunder a deluge of rain took place so instantaneously as to carry away or destroy every thing which impeded its progress. The damage is estimated at not less than 1,500.
July 21, 1811 A heavy fall of rain did much damage at Stamford. In the meadows about Barrowden, Wakerly, Harringworth, Thorpe, Caldecot and Bringhurst immense quantities of hay were carried away. Several thousand loads it is supposed have been destroyed in addition to which the injury sustained by the land has been very great. The water rose thirteen feet in less than four hours in Wood Newton parish.
In 1828, a spring that was also similar in terms of temperature and rainfall to this year, more entries in Climate describe flash flooding events.
July 8, 1828 Extensive rains on Tuesday afternoon the 8th instant about four o’clock a storm of wind rain and hail accompanied with thunder and lightning broke over the town and neighbourhood of Taunton with a degree of violence never before remembered by the oldest inhabitant. The thunder in heavy peals was heard simultaneously from the east and west and the wind at one period of the storm blew a perfect hurricane. At Kingston the banks were thrown down for several miles and three rams the property of Mr Welch valued at thirty pounds were killed by the lightning. The corn is sadly levelled by the storm. The hailstones were of uncommon thickness and in their descent destroyed much glass in the windows of private dwellings and outhouses. Various statements of mischief have reached us from our correspondents for many miles round all representing the storm to have been of unqualified violence. Taunton Courier
The inundations occasioned by the constant heavy rains in Flintshire and Denbighshire have proved most injurious and in some instances destructive to the iron works in those counties. The Coed Talon works belonging to the Welsh Iron Company have sustained very considerable injury, the bridges, dams and culverts belonging to those works were all carried away by the tremendous torrents and bursting of the springs. On Thursday night week the waters in the immediate vicinity of the works rose to the extraordinary height of 22ft above their ordinary level and in a few hours extinguished the furnaces such was the impetuosity of the flood and the influence of opposing elements of fire and water that the most serious apprehensions were entertained that the furnaces would have been blown into the air.
Happily the buildings sustained the shock and no lives have been lost. It is stated by the oldest inhabitants in the neighbourhood that such awful effects from impetuous torrents were never before witnessed by them. Throughout a great part of Oxfordshire and Worcestershire the wheat and barley have suffered considerably by the late heavy rains Friday afternoon, a solitary dark cloud passed over the north end of Winchester towards the valley of Itchen Abbas the sun shining from the opposite part of the horizon. The spot whereon the cloud appeared to rest seemed to be enveloped in total darkness whence shot a stream of electric fluid accompanied by a short but tremendous crash of thunder and hailstones of considerable magnitude. So violent was its force that it killed two fine horses belonging to Mr Twitchen of Itchen Abbas and struck the carter to the ground where he lay in a state of insensibility for some time, his frock was singed by the lightning. About the same time a cottage occupied by the shepherd of Mr Twitchen s brother at Mitcheldever experienced its violence by being greatly shattered and the shepherd’s wife struck instantly dead. During the same day three horses belonging to Mr Budd of Hatch Warren Farm, near Basingstoke, were struck dead by the electric fluid and a man who had charge of them was so dreadfully injured as to render recovery hopeless. Bath Chronicle
The list goes on… I’ve had a look at all summer rainfall since 1797 to see if 1811 and 1828 were particularly wet years but the records I have, taken by Luke Howard at Stratford, are nothing out of the ordinary.
The summer of 1811 in London saw a mean temperature of 16.1C (1.5C cooler than the current 1981-2010 average) while rainfall was 211mm (just under 150% of the current average). The summer of 1828, however, was warm for the period – at 17.5C. Rainfall was high at 317mm (218% of today’s summer average). Of course totals in the areas affected in the articles would have been much higher.
So when the Met Office says climate change is going to bring more flash flooding in summer I wonder if it is the climate cycling back to a period where we’ve seen it all before.
*For those interested below is a continuation of summer flooding events that plagued the country in 1811, 1828 and possibly many other events of records we have probably sadly lost.
Sussex The accounts from the western part of this county both on the coast and in the weald concur in stating that the effects of the thunder storm of the 3rd instant were most severely felt. So severe a storm has not been experienced since 1821. The storm on the evening of Thursday night was most violent in the neighbourhood of Chichester and lasted from eight in the evening till nearly four in the morning, the electric fluid entered a cottage at Birdham and shivered a bedstead rolling its occupier with the bed on the floor lut who escaped without injury. Brighton Herald
The almost constant rain which has been experienced in Penzance and its neighbourhood has been very detrimental to the hay harvest West Briton PL
July 10, 1828 We regret to state that the floods in this neighbourhood still continue and the waters indicate by their colour how great the mischief is amongst the hay. The Welland and the Nene are of the hue of strong tea proceeding from the essence of the hay which is entirely washed out of whatever was not stacked before the 10th instant. – Stamford Mercury
Cambridge The late heavy rains in this part of the county have laid and much injured the corn crops and likewise considerably impeded the hay harvest Bury Herald
July 17, 1828 Sheffield In our last publication we alluded to the long continuance of hot weather which had been experienced in this neighbourhood. On Tuesday, however, a change took place and on Wednesday the rain fell more heavily and incessantly than it is remembered to have done at the same season for several summers past. Indeed not only were our two rivers remarkably high but the springs of many wells which had failed at the usual time experienced a temporary refluviation. Sheffield Iris, July 17
Malton, July 17 Every hour brings fresh accounts of the extensive losses sustained by the occupiers of land bordering on the Rye and Derwent. Hay has been floating in swarth and in cock of all sizes and the loss in various kinds of grain and potatoes is incalculable. Such a weight of rain and such a flood were never known at this season of the year. On Sunday morning last Sunderland was visited by a thunder storm. The lightning was remarkably vivid the peals of thunder were tremendous and the rain fell in torrents. The Wear was also much swollen. Great quantities of hay came down the river. From our correspondent at Durham dated Sunday afternoon: Since early on Saturday morning Durham and the neighbourhood have been visited with a succession of heavy rains insomuch that the river Wear is swollen to a dreadful height and has done and is still doing frightful damage to the adjacent fields which are overflown to the extent of many hundreds of acres many of which are meadow some just mown some in pike and some standing uncut – Tyne Mercury PL, July 17
Doncaster, July 19 I have within a few days been over a considerable tract of land in this and the adjoining county for the purpose of ascertaining the effects of the late floods on the crops. A great portion of the country through which the Derwent runs as well as the other rivers which empty themselves into the Humber has been overflowed to a very considerable depth and the consequence has been the complete destruction of the greater part of the grass which was cut and those crops which were not cut will not be worth the trouble. We regret to state that in this town and neighbourhood the weather has continued extremely unfavourable throughout the week. Scarcely a day has passed in which we have not been visited by heavy falls of rain accompanied in some instances with thunder and lightning. We have not heard of any further injury being done in the vicinity by floods but we fear that the wheat and other crops as well as fruit and vegetables will suffer greatly from the long continuance of wet weather. – Manchester Mercury PL, July 20
Although within the last few days several thunder storms have fallen in this immediate neighbourhood we have not heard of any serious injury to life or property. On Wednesday week 9th at Great Houghton during a thunderstorm the lightning descended through the sky light which it destroyed in the roof of Mr Brook’s house and through the ceiling into an upper apartment and shook down the tester of the bed on which Mrs Brook was reposing without, however, inflicting any injury further than the alarm into which she would naturally be thrown. Its course was then along a passage in which there was a cupboard whose contents of glass and earthenware were partly demolished and the door of the cupboard dashed along the passage at the extremity of which was a young female who happily escaped unhurt. – Doncaster Gazette PL, July 21
Newark July 21, 1828 You cannot possibly have an idea of the effects of the late stormy weather and the consequent inundation of the large tract of country unless you were to see it. All the country from this place situated on the banks of the Trent down to the Humber has been completely overflown and has borne the appearance of one expansive sea.
Bedford July 22 In consequence of the dreadful and continued rains every thing in the neighbourhood of this town is in the most frightful state. The Ouse has overflowed its banks in every direction as well below as above the bridge and for miles nothing is to be seen but a weary waste of waters with islands of hay or haycocks. The early season for hay gathering in the northern counties was favourable in the extreme and a great quantity of hay out of the abundant crop was secured in capital condition. About the middle of the last week the barometer sunk rapidly and torrents of rain fell day after day till the rivers became swollen and on Sunday and Monday last vast tracts of land particularly in the southeast part of this county extending from Doncaster to Hull were inundated. Even in the neighbourhood of Wakefield the hay was seen floating in the fields and near Barnsley a great deal was either washed away or rendered useless except for litter. The corn crops have also been much beaten down by the heavy rains and potatoes in low situations have suffered from the floods. – Leeds Mercury
Whitby From the 8th to the 13th instant a succession of heavy rains has been experienced at Whitby and its neighbourhood which did considerable damage to the bridges on the Esk. On Sunday morning the platform of the elegant suspension bridge at Ruswarp belonging to James Wilson Esq MP was wrenched from its abutments and together with the cast iron pillars was thrown into the stream. The small stone bridge recently erected by Edmund Turton Esq on the new line of road was also carried away likewise a bridge at Cock mill and another in the neighbourhood of Egton. The neat bridge at East Row has been so far injured as to be passable only by foot passengers. Great quantities of timber, hay were washed away and the fields and gardens completely flooded. From all parts of the country accounts pour in of the disastrous effects produced by the late uncommonly heavy rains. From Ganstead and Withernwick in Holderness to beyond Driffield a distance of from twenty five to thirty miles the country presents an almost unbroken sheet of water. The quantity of hay corn and potatoes destroyed and likely to be so is beyond all calculation thousands of acres of the latter are literally rotting in the ground. From Doncaster down to Gainsborough and the low grounds at the junction of the Ouse and Trent the inundation is stated to have been still more destructive than in this immediate neighbourhood. – Hull Advertiser
The south western districts of Scotland appear to have been visited by the same excessive quantity of rain that has been experienced so generally over England. It would appear, too, that the crops there are in general good and that the wheat in particular promises to turn out better than in the south July 30.
Deal Aug 9 The wind has blown very hard the whole of this afternoon at intervals almost a hurricane. Wind WSW
Brixham (Torbay) Aug 9 At three o’clock this morning it came on to blow quite a hurricane from the SSW and continued unabated until four this afternoon since when it has been more moderate.
Falmouth Aug 9 It blew a heavy gale here last night and continued until noon this day from the SSE to WSW
Penzance Aug 9 The wind has blown a perfect hurricane from SW all this morning. Accounts of damage.
Noon. PL The storm still continues with unabated fury. Great numbers of trees have been blown up by the roots and many mows of corn in the fields are quite upset and the sheaves blowing about in all directions PL
The Thames was higher on Wednesday last than has been known at this season for twenty seven years. All the low land about Goring Pangbourn Mapledurham, Caversham, Sonning &c was under water. – Berkshire Chronicle
I first wrote this blog in December 2013 not realising that the following winters were going to turn so mild. Winter 2013/14 ranks the worst of any winter I’ve studied in this area back to the snowy season of 1946/47. The following three winters ranked 53rd, 62nd and 42nd – the only ‘top 10’ winter for snowfall of the past 30 years was 2009/10!
Snow is a very rare commodity in lowland Great Britain – even rarer in the Home Counties, and in our part of east London. Pulling back the curtains on a cold winter’s morning to be greeted by a fresh fall of deep, crisp and even snow is something most children experience and hold dear for life. The slush, ice and chaos that inevitably follows all too quickly is forgotten.
My memories of winters in the 1970s and 1980s is that they were far snowier and colder than they are today. But were they *always* cold and snowy? I decided to have a look back through the archives to find out. My first stop was the Met Office’s now defunct Snow Survey of Great Britain. This excellent compilation of reports logged by observers nationwide was printed annually as part of British Rainfall. But through lack of interest and cuts printing ceased after the 1991-92 season. Data continued to be collected though the modern version of the survey uses satellite technology to estimate daily UK snow depths – the spiel on the Met Office website tells us that this is far less subjective than an individual nipping out at 9am every morning to ‘stick in a ruler’ and, those within sight of high ground, to observe where the snow line is. Call me old fashioned but this is not very romantic and does a disservice to the hundreds of observers who down the years diligently logged all their information as objectively as possible. But on to the data…
Regional data was not included in the survey until the 1965-66 season. Though Wanstead isn’t listed I have taken an estimate from data supplied from stations at Eastcote (53m), East Barnet (70m), Charlton Park (46m), Twickenham (13m), Teddington (9m). Because this area is influenced by Thames streamer snowfall that blows in off the North Sea and is funnelled upriver I have also considered readings from Epping (107m), Rayleigh (73m) and Southend (27m). Indeed, in some years Wanstead’s snowfall is much more similar to Rayleigh and Southend than it is to Greenwich and Teddington. Though my site is only 18m it seems to catch the snow much better than surrounding areas – probably to do with the fact that Aldersbrook is surrounded by greenery. People walking down from Wanstead village often remark that Wanstead Park is far snowier than the village a couple of dozen metres or so higher. Before 1965 I have used data from Woburn, Bedfordshire, which at 89m and 40 miles away as the crow flies, is the closest station in that long running series.
The mean temperature of a winter can look cold but it doesn’t always tell the full story. You can have a winter dominated by high pressure over the near continent making things very dry. But the anticyclones that ridge from Central Europe to the Azores can leave us in the ‘warm’ part of the high – and often lead to days of anticyclonic gloom; cold grey, dank and boring weather with little sunshine. On paper a season can look cold but in reality totally unremarkable; it is the number of days with ‘snow lying’ that people remember. For snow to settle it needs to be cold! For this reason I haven’t bothered with ‘snow falling’ data as it can snow at 4C in very dry air – yet nothing settles. Most weather geeks find ‘snow falling’ the most frustrating when it doesn’t stick. So on to the results.
Once I worked out the ‘snow lying’ days I decided to devise a winter index by dividing ‘snow lying’ by seasonal mean temperature. Because the results using Celsius were problematic in that 1962/63 becomes very skewed upwards I decided to use Kelvin. The results are quite surprising. Coming out top, not surprisingly, is 1962-63 with an index of 25.2 and 69 days of snow lying. Second is 1946-47 with an index of 21.1. Third is 1981-82 with an index of 10.5 – surprisingly ahead of 1978/79, the first winter in the series that I can recall; I remember returning home from school one night in December 1978 and the snow being as deep as the twelve-inch step to our house.
The index of 25.2 for the 1962/63 winter and 21.1 for 1946/47 – over double the amount of 1981/82 – shows how ‘off the scale’ those two winters really were. My father, who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the weather, can distinctly recall the severe conditions of 1962/63. He said the roads were so thick with snow that when the thaw finally arrived in March he’d become so used to driving on snow that he crashed through somebody’s front garden wall, after losing control of his Mini on surface water sat on the ice.
More recent winters, which pale by comparison, rank surprisingly highly. The 2009/10 winter comes in at Number 10, higher than the legendary 1986/87, where the coldest day in recent times was recorded in London, which came in at Number 12. It should be noted that January 1987, when on the 12th the temperature did not rise above -5.5C all day, was sandwiched by a mild December and February.
Somebody asked me if it would snow and by how much over the next three months. The simple fact is I don’t know. While a predicted mean can look chilly on paper it is impossible to decipher how many peaks and troughs there will be. Just by looking at winters with a mean of, say, 5C doesn’t tell you much about snowfall. When you look at 1985-86 (mean 4.1C) there were 22 days of snow lying at 9am – yet 2005/06 was colder (3.9C) and only 3 mornings saw snow lying – though that winter was particularly dry – the 13th driest in the series.
The median for ‘snow lying’ days in this series is six. The rolling median of the past 30 years, however, is only 2 so, with this in mind, if it does snow you should get out there and make the most of it.
You can view over 70 years of winters in this area, all ranked using my winter index here.
*It should be noted that a day of ‘snow lying’ only qualifies if there is more than 50% cover at the observation time of 9am. This means that it could snow 1cm at 10am – if that snow thaws by 9am the next day it won’t count. Though 8 winters appear snowless it is possible that these winters did see temporary coverings
One of the worst weather-related tragedies ever to hit the London area happened 75 years ago this month.
What started as a bright and sunny day in Valentines Park, Ilford, turned into disaster at ten minutes to five on Monday, 21 August 1939, when lightning struck a corrugated iron shelter where about 30 people, many of them children, had taken cover from a thunderstorm.
Seven people, including five adults and two children, were killed and 21 injured in the incident near an open air swimming pool where earlier families had been enjoying picnics.
The event was recorded in The Times the following day: “About 5 o’clock there was one final flash, followed by a deafening crash. Everyone in the shelter was thrown to the ground and rescuers who had heard the cries of the injured found them piled in a heap. One of the two women killed had most of her clothing torn off. A man was lying dead on the cross-bar of a cycle. A woman at the back of the shelter was lying unconcious with her arms round two screaming children.”
A survivor of the tragedy, Mrs H. Treves, of Barkingside, told how she had gone to the park that day with her two daughters, June, three, and Shirley, seven, for a picnic. She told The Times: “Suddenly the storm broke, and we ran for the shelter. Inside there were about 30 people, and we were all huddled at the back away from the rain. I sat on a bench at the back of the shed with June in my arms and Shirley by my side. Suddenly I was flung from the bench. I must have been stunned for some minutes, because when I came to I found Shirley lying beside me and the ground heaped with people who seemed unconscious. I heard June whimpering, and eventually found her beneath three or four people. One of the men lying across her was dead. I escaped with only burns on my side. June had burns to her foot and Shirley burns on her shoulder and foot.”
One woman told how she had a lucky escape. Mrs A. Galey, of Ilford, said: “I stood in the shelter for about 20 minutes, and then something inside me urged me to leave. I had got about 50 yards when there was a flash and I felt numb. I turned around to go back to the shelter, and then saw all the people huddled on the ground. It looked like a battlefield”
Among the injured were a number of electrical workers who had been repairing a cable which ran through the 150-acre park. Neither the hut, which measured about 20ft by 12ft and had a sloping galvanised iron roof, or the two trees immediately behind it, were damaged.
The local paper, The Recorder, reported the horrific scene that unfolded moments after the strike. It describes other park users frantically trying to help the stricken people in the shelter. One of the first on the scene was Mr A.B. Rowe, an A.R.P warden, from Romford. He said: “I was coming from the pool when a boy ran up and said ‘They have been struck’. I went over and found a heap of people, some terribly injured, in the shelter. During the war I saw some terrible sights, but none more horrible than this. Many were terribly burned and others were twisted into all kinds of positions and unable to move.”
Another helper was Mr H.G.B. Goater, of Eastern Avenue, Ilford. He had also been to the pool and was attracted to the scene by the screaming. “It was like a battlefield. I have seen nothing like it. The dead and injured were in a heap in the shelter.” Mr Goater spent several hours going back and forth to King George hospital with his car, first taking the injured for treatment and then waiting to take home some of those who were allowed to leave.
Among the dead was Dorothy Cribbett, of Capel Road, Forest Gate. She had taken shelter in the hut and was waiting for her 11-year-old daughter, Peggy, to join her when the lightning struck. Her grandson, Ian Braithwaite, 44, whom I managed to track down while researching this piece, takes up the story. “As my mother was making her way from the pool to the shelter lightning struck a bicycle that was leaning against the shelter – leading to the deaths of the people.”
Ian, who now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, commenting on the original article, said: “It makes for very grim reading and was far worse than I remember my mother ever talking about. I know my mother found my grandmother dead in the park and for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old to find someone in the condition that was reported must have been absolutely horrendous.”
He added: “It is one of those stories that you think must be made up, especially as I am drawing on childhood memories from over 20 years ago. Also my own mother died when I was 14 and I have no other known relatives from her side of the family. But I remember her telling me that is what happened.”
He continued: “It seems like it was a pretty miserable time for my mum back then. She was only 11 when her mother was killed and when the war started her father took her to Devon where he came from. In 1943 her grandfather was killed in a bombing raid on Torquay by the Germans. In the same raid a bomb was dropped on a nearby church killing 20 children at a Sunday school service. And we think we have it tough today.”
Ian has been trying to piece together memories of his mother and said: “I am hoping that someone may be able to give me more information surrounding this event or if anyone knew my grandmother or my mother. My grandfather’s name was Ernest Charles Cribbett.”
The violent storm, in what up to that point had been a mostly cool and changeable summer, brought flooding to areas around the town and several properties were struck by lightning. Whole chimney stacks were brought crashing to the ground when houses in Selborne Road and Courtland Avenue were hit. Another resident in Woodlands Avenue, Ilford, described the moment before their chimney stack crashed into their living room. “There was a blinding flash and a great crash. We thought the house was going to cave in on us: it seemed as though a bomb had dropped on it.”
The storm also affected the Barkingside area. As the rain fell in torrents a chimney stack on two houses in Tomswood Hill was struck by what an occupant of the house described as a “ball of fire that crashed on to the roof and came zig-zagging though the front room and out of the scullery door”. Elsewhere in London severe flooding in Ealing is mentioned in The Times. And large hailstones were reported in Surrey.
Rainfall in thunderstorms varies greatly – and this storm was no exception. Met Office rainfall data from the day shows that Loxford Park, the closest rainfall station to Valentines Park about a mile to the south-east, recorded 30mm – almost double that of City of London Cemetery, just over 1.5 miles to the north-west of the storm’s centre, which recorded 15.7mm. In view of the rain and the lightning strikes which happened less than a mile away, across the River Roding, Wanstead had a lucky escape that day.
While researching this I found it strange that local memory of the incident is very vague. The oldest generation of my family, a few of whom lived off Ilford Lane, cannot recall the incident though I believe quite a few had already moved out of London as part of the evacuation before the Second World War. Perhaps it is also possible that while this incident by today’s standards is horrific it pales into comparison with what was to come just over a year later with the start of the Blitz in September 1940 – which would result in the loss of thousands of lives in the East End and across the UK.
The disaster in Valentines Park equalled the number of deaths of those under a tree on Wandsworth Common in 1914.
Other deaths caused by lighting in London include two women who were killed while walking in Hyde Park in September, 1999.
According to TORRO, the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation, about 30-60 people are struck by lightning each year in Britain of whom, on average, three may be killed. You can read further on lightning impacts and safety tips to avoid getting struck here. The Met Office also features a page of lightning advice.
I would like to thank Redbridge Central Library for their help in accessing the archives for this piece. And to Mike Ashworth who kindly gave permission to use the superb newspaper bills montage. You can see Mike’s work at his Flickr site. Thanks also to the Met Office.