It may be frosty outside but Britain has largely escaped the savage winter weather that affects much of Europe at present.
Yet some British winters have gone down in the annals. Of those, in Cambridgeshire 1895 and 1963 stand out.
Reporting the icy conditions in 1963, The Cambridge News recalled the ‘freeze-up of 1895’, ‘which lasted for six weeks, beginning in January. A tremendous blizzard with snowdrifts hedge high was followed by a sudden but short thaw and then six weeks of severe frost. There was skating on the Cam from Midsummer Common to Ely and skating on the roads.
Living on the edge of the Fens, where winter skating has a long tradition, many local people had their own skates – either proper boots or just blades that fixed to their shoes. So on the few occasions when the Cam has frozen over sufficiently to allow safe skating, everyone took advantage.
Skating on the Cam near St John’s College 1963
Skating on Parker’s Piece 1963
The 1963 freeze-up didn’t please many. Angry letters to the Cambridge News complained about people not clearing the pavements in front of their shops and houses.
‘Disgusted Ratepayer of Cambridge’ complained in a letter to the paper, ‘When I came to Cambridge in 1926, it was an offence if your frontage wasn’t cleared by 10 o’clock.’ He went on to say, ‘I was managing a shop on Mill Road at the time, and I had not got round to clearing the frontage by 9.50m. A policeman came into the shop, looked at his watch, and politely reminded me that the pavement was to be cleared by 10am.’
The Cambridge News of January 1963 reported ‘ Children and Shoppers’ having to walk into the City as the weather ‘stopped buses and transport throughout Cambridge’ and ‘Many Building Workers’ being laid off. William Sindal Ltd, builders, had apparently already been forced to lay off 70 men due to the conditions ‘with more to join that number if the current conditions prevail’.
That same year the WRVS came to the rescue of ‘Villagers Stranded in the City’ one weekend, most of whom had come into the City to go to dance halls and the Cinema. They took 50 blankets to the Police Station where a canteen had brewed tea for those marooned.
Being temporarily stranded in the City Centre last Saturday night I did wonder what would happen to those people who were struggling to get back to the villages. Taxis were in short supply and the night buses suddenly became most popular option.
Camaraderie quickly springs up amongst people trapped in such a situation. Like the baker who survived the icy waters when the Titanic sank, strong spirits helped warm the soul and other parts.