Chris Packham introduces a classic documentary from the BBC's archive, which takes a look at the worst winter of the 20th century in 1963.
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Welcome to Winterwatch with a difference.
And if you think it's a bit chilly outside, then think again.
We're going back 50 years to the Big Freeze of 1963, and we're going to be
asking what impact this horrid winter had on us and our wildlife.
As a naturalist, I really love winter.
There's all sorts of exciting things going on.
From the simple, like the barking of foxes or hooting of tawny owls,
through to some of our greatest natural spectacles -
vast flocks of waders gathering at their high-tide roost.
Millions of starlings performing their fabulous aerial acrobatics
and the sound of wild geese filling the air.
Of course, with all the leaves off of the trees, it's often the best time
to actually see the wildlife,
as I am finding out here at Winterwatch HQ
at the Aigas Field Centre in the Highlands of Scotland.
But let's not forget that this is also the most challenging
time of year, both for us, and for the wildlife,
especially as our weather is becoming more and more topsy-turvy,
In some winters, like this one,
the whole country is virtually underwater.
But in others, Britain is covered with ice and snow,
as in the winter of 2010.
But that was NOTHING compared to 50 years ago.
Now, I was just 18 months old back in 1963, when we experienced not just
the worst winter in living memory, but the worst winter for 200 years.
From Boxing Day 1962 to early March '63,
the whole country lay under a thick blanket of snow and ice.
And, for a while, it really did seem as if it would never come to an end.
It was called the winter to end all winters,
but it's gone down in history simply as the Big Freeze.
In a few moments,
we'll take a look at a documentary that was made towards the end of
this terrible winter, and it really does illustrate just how hard it was.
But whilst you're watching this fascinating footage,
do spare a thought for the plight of our British wildlife,
something that the film-makers at the time didn't seem to fully appreciate.
After you've seen the film,
I'm going to explore what happened to our wildlife in the '63 winter,
and what might happen if we suffered a similar Arctic freeze-up today.
For the next 45 minutes,
snuggle up in your centrally-heated living rooms as we're going to take
a trip through time to when there weren't colour or widescreen TVs.
It's the Big Freeze of 1963.
For London, it was the coldest January
since records were first kept in 1841.
For Manchester, it was the coldest since records
were first kept in 1888.
For Aberdeen, it was the coldest since at least 1895.
In Southampton, Bognor Regis and Worthing, it was the coldest
since their records were started in 1900.
When you've been through the sort of weather we've all endured
these last seven weeks, there's some gratification in knowing that
it's been more than just bad weather.
This one has already earned its place among the five
most spectacularly bad winters of the last 100 years.
It will go down in history and folk memory
as that terrible winter of 1963.
The events of it have hit us in a series of nasty,
cold, isolated chunks.
But if you put them all together,
they form a continuous and developing story.
It is this story we're now going to tell.
By the way, when we talk of temperatures,
we'll be using the old Fahrenheit scale.
The Big Freeze began on December 22nd.
On December 24th, Christmas Eve,
the BBC's One O'Clock News bulletin said this -
"It is snowing heavily in parts of Scotland,
"and Glasgow has its first white Christmas since before the war.
"In southern England, there's a chance of snow,
"but it won't be coming before Boxing Day."
The forecast was right, and for most of Britain,
26th December turned out to be everything a Boxing Day should be.
The snow came down and lay where it fell,
and the holiday was somehow complete.
The new white world created in the night was something to be enjoyed
for the sake of Christmas.
Snow-covered buses still ran,
and there was no reason to think this was anything more than just
another cold snap, like last year or the year before.
It seemed the whole thing was just perfect - the more the better.
Now this was beginning to look something like a winter.
CHILDREN SHOUT PLAYFULLY
Every sledge and toboggan was out,
and those who hadn't even a tea tray made do.
This was a holiday, and although it may seem fantastic now,
far from spoiling the fun, for most people, the snow just completed it.
So far, the snow was fun.
Mercifully, all the thousands of parents and children
who built snowmen on Boxing Day
didn't realise they would still be there in February.
The first inkling we had that we were in for something exceptional
came the weekend after Christmas.
Before the first snow had even looked like melting, in fact,
while most of it was still lying where it had fallen,
there came another and even greater blizzard.
It was the worst blizzard for 15 years,
and in southern England, the worst avalanche of snow in living memory.
Again, it was the Southwest that bore the brunt,
but it swept all the south and east of England.
There were gusts of nearly 90mph, and it was bitterly cold.
The wind was so cold that the sea froze on the Essex coast.
In places, temperatures went down to 19 degrees.
It was in this blizzard that three people died battling against snow
and two more were suffocated in a snowbound car.
With this blizzard on top of the heavy Boxing Day fall,
there were now drifts of 15 and 20 feet.
Motorists were advised to take no journeys whatsoever,
not even essential ones.
Hundreds of villages were isolated, and so were towns like Weymouth,
Okehampton, Tavistock, Bridport and Blandford.
Dartmoor was like Siberia,
and the prison and Princetown were cut off for days.
By the time this blizzard had finally blown itself out,
200 main roads were impassable and 95,000 miles of road were snowbound.
The dislocation of Boxing Day had become the chaos of New Year's Eve.
1962 went out with the southern half of Britain
littered with abandoned cars.
In the last few weeks, most of Britain's motorists
have gained a lifetime of experience of driving in snow.
The Boxing Day snow had caused bad enough blockages,
but that had been at holiday time.
Now, we were shivering to work again,
and a way had to be cleared for essential supplies -
lorries to docks and factories and shops,
routes for buses and coaches and so on.
But the residential roads, the roads where most of us live,
they didn't have that sort of priority.
By now, the pedestrian, like the motorist,
has had plenty of experience in coping with snow and ice.
We've learnt the hard way.
To add insult to injury,
many dustbins weren't emptied for three weeks.
We discovered that our dustmen were also the road-clearing party.
This was the result.
We were even accused of causing a milk bottle crisis by hiding
our milk bottles in the snow.
Finally, after five days' battling, milk roundsmen had to take the day off
with exhaustion, and 15,000 London housewives went without milk.
As we've said, the worst area hit by the blizzard was the Southwest,
where almost all the roads were blocked.
In fact, the A39 from Lynton to Porlock was blocked on December 30th
and is still blocked to this day.
There was a similar story of abandoned vehicles
and snowbound roads in Wales and the Midlands,
and of course the M1 did keep open throughout.
That's from London up to Birmingham and Coventry and the Midlands,
although it was reduced to single-lane traffic on occasions.
Now, except for the A681 up here, the Todmorden to Bacup road,
all roads crossing the Pennines closed at some time or another.
The Snake Pass, the A57 which goes from Sheffield to Glossop,
was blocked and is still blocked now, and it'll be two weeks before
they make any attempt to clear it because of the great walls of snow.
Scotland, of course, was badly hit up here.
The A939, for example, which goes from Cockbridge to Tomintoul,
and the A941 from Dufftown, the roads there are blocked
and they've been blocked for some 50 days so far this winter.
And if, like me, you've been motoring down in the southeast of England,
it's been almost as bad. During the days of the big blizzard,
so few cars reached London from the outlying areas,
that parking meters, usually crowded in central London, went begging.
It was estimated that only one in ten were in regular use.
Road clearing throughout Britain was held up by a shortage of rock salt,
or rather by snow hindering the deliveries of rock salt.
The first snowfalls quickly used up stocks in the cities and towns.
1,100 tons went in Westminster alone in the first few days.
Lorries couldn't get through to replenish them.
But it wasn't just our road system that was chaotic.
There was serious dislocation on the railways too,
as any of you who had to travel by rail that first weekend of the blizzard
doesn't have to be reminded.
The 11.20am newspaper train from Manchester down to Brighton
was snowed up for two days.
Now, perhaps you grumble like the rest of us in London
at the tube's running up to 50 minutes late
because of snow on the exposed part of the line.
Or, there again, perhaps some of you, some of the hundreds
if not thousands of passengers who spent the chilling hours
stuck or snowed down in the snows here on Dartmoor
or else between Edinburgh and Carlisle,
or perhaps between London and Birmingham here.
The tracks disappeared under drifts of snow, but the trains
miraculously kept moving, or, at least, most of them did.
But points froze everywhere, and in many places,
rolling stock froze solid and refused to move.
There were casualties.
In Lancashire, a signalman collapsed and died in the cold
on his way to work.
On Boxing Day, 18 people were killed and 30 injured
when the Scottish express in the snowstorm
ran into the back of a slow train.
On all regions, trains were cancelled or delayed.
In many cases,
it was a matter of waiting for the ploughs to get through.
On top of Arctic conditions,
the demands on the railways got even heavier than usual.
In badly hit areas,
trains were often the only form of communication.
Men worked all day and all night to keep branch lines clear.
These lines, already fighting against redundancy,
suddenly became vital links.
Trains were diverted. Birmingham to London went via Oxford.
Expresses were cancelled and schedules thrown out of the window.
Up in Scotland, the main line between Edinburgh and Carlisle
was blocked by an avalanche a quarter-of-a-mile long.
Not until hundreds of tons of snow and rock had been blown on the line
was it considered safe to start shovelling,
and then it took 24 hours to get through.
One goods train on Dartmoor got completely buried.
Two other engines went to its rescue with snow ploughs,
but a blizzard was blowing.
The drifts were 20-foot high and they got buried too.
After which, the whole lot froze solid and it took 80 men
over a week to dig them out and get them running again.
Luckily, this wasn't the main line.
If things were bad on the railway,
they were equally chaotic at airports. Planes were frozen in.
At London, one runway was kept going,
and flights were cancelled at the dozen.
BA lost a quarter of a million pounds from cancellations.
The paralysis of our roads, railways and airports was sudden
and dramatic and the nation's resources of snow ploughs,
shovels, rock salt,
dynamite and muscle were quickly turned at getting
the long-distance lorries and the mainline trains moving again,
but that was cold comfort
if you happened to live away from one of the Ministry of Transport
trunk roads or else at the end of a British Railways branch line.
For our villages and hamlets and farms, the big blizzard
was the beginning of a monstrously memorable winter, of a tragic winter.
By New Year's Day, at least 11 people had died
as a direct result of the blizzard.
At Marlborough in Wiltshire,
a 60-year-old woman went out to exercise her dog.
She was later found dead with the dog whimpering beside her.
You had to go up in a helicopter to see the full
effect of the blizzard, and the effect was total paralysis.
Farmers had stopped thinking about producing to survive,
it was now a question of surviving to produce.
For villages and farms all over southern England,
the telephone was the only remaining link with the rest of the world.
Britain was no longer one island surrounded by water,
it was hundreds of islands surrounded by snow.
Many places were running short of food,
a Wiltshire orphanage with 30 children under five years old
was cut off for three days and desperate for fresh milk.
And trapped in the deep snow were some people needing
medical supplies and help and expectant mothers with babies due.
It's no wonder the helicopters had the busiest week in their history.
Devon and Cornwall were worst hit,
but people were marooned over the country.
14 were stuck in a pub with a shortage of everything
except whisky, others weren't so lucky.
The helicopters got supplies through to the prisoners of Princetown
who, by now, included all the prison officers
and the whole population of the village as well.
As blizzard followed blizzard,
more and more farms needed supplies from helicopters -
medical supplies, fresh vegetables, baby foods,
even a load of coal on one occasion.
If you were snowed up in the countryside,
you really were snowed up, sometimes to the eaves.
People in towns who complained about clearing the front path have
never had to undertake an engineering project on this scale.
But farms have to get food out as well as in.
Many couldn't even get it out of the ground and when they did,
they couldn't get it away.
That was when we had the vegetable shortage - prices of cabbages,
carrots and potatoes shot up.
Over half the nation's broccoli crop was destroyed,
sugar beet factories closed for lack of supplies, the milk situation
was nearly desperate, Dorset farmers threw away a quarter million
gallons in three days,
because milk lorries couldn't reach collecting points.
And of course, there were the animals - 6,000 of them
on Dartmoor went without any food for four days.
Again only helicopters could help.
Worst hit of all were the sheep.
In the murderous winter of 1947, 4.5 million died -
nothing on that scale has happened yet,
but it's been a terrible time for lambing.
The full effects of the weather on sheep can't be measured yet
because many ewes who haven't had lambs may have been
critically weakened, but other animals who look less
well-equipped for the snow have fared better.
All the deer in Richmond Park have come through,
but they've had to have three times the amount of supplementary feed
and still they're getting thinner.
All the same, the picture isn't one of universal dumb misery.
These three stallions in Norfolk, for instance,
had a high old time in the snow.
Chaos on the roads and railways, chaos on our farms
and villages, but also chaos for British sport.
The Boxing Day programme was the first to be hit,
all racing was cancelled, no rugby league games took place
and only five first division football matches,
but that was just the start.
Since then, little organised sport has, in fact, taken place.
The football league fixture list
and the FA Cup tie programme is in a glorious, chaotic mess.
The latest count of matches postponed or cancelled is
approaching the 500 mark and the season's already been extended
once, so it looks like being extended again and again.
Over 1,000 rugby games are being put off
and not a single race meeting has taken place since the snow
started and at a couple of greyhound meetings even the electric hare froze.
For ordinary winter events,
conditions were as bad as they could be.
All the racecourses were the same
and there was no need even to go out and inspect the course.
One despairing glance was enough. In fact, the going was so soft,
there was only one way of getting around the track at all.
A few horses did manage to get some exercise,
but the majority were snowed up in their stables.
The big joke was football, at least, it was a joke to some people.
If you are a manager, a player or a Pools promoter, the laugh became
increasingly more expensive as the fixtures came and went unplayed.
When it came to making the draw for the Cup,
the proceedings had a distinct air of farce.
It became a case of the winners of the match between A or B will
outplay home against either C or possibly D if it thaws,
and it didn't.
Shovelling continued more as a gesture than anything else.
One rugby league ground was cleared by using £5,000 worth
of chemicals, but for most it was useless even to try.
At Murrayfield, Scotland managed to play by using their new
electric heating system and the boys of Chelsea soccer team finally
got themselves a game by fixing up an away match with a team in Malta.
Others had to content themselves
with decisions from a panel of experts under Lord Brabazon
which decided who would have won the matches if they'd been played.
But for most of us, Saturday afternoons were
the time for the big dig-out, the business of finding
your own car, digging it out and finally persuading it to move.
With no sport to distract Father,
it was a case of find the shovel and get clearing.
And when the steps and the pavement and the front path
and the back yard were all clear, there was still the roof.
All over Britain, the streets rang to the sound of shovels.
the snows of 1963 were compared with the big snows of 1947.
But now, people were making comparisons of a different kind,
comparisons of adversity, comparisons with the Blitz.
Mr John Pedder,
the postmaster at snowbound Lynmouth in Devon said this -
"There's a real touch of wartime spirit,
"a tremendous community feeling, people who have been
"enemies for years are chatting with each other again."
A single week was bringing more stories of grim endurance,
courageous rescue, than ordinarily in a whole year.
a party of soldiers had a very narrow escape from freezing to death.
Six young recruits, with only three months Army experience,
had been sent out on a map-reading exercise.
It very soon turned into a survival test.
After two days of blizzard and 18 days of frost, two of them
were finally located and rescued by helicopter.
They were in a pretty bad way,
but not as bad as the other four who were found here in a deserted house.
After their tent had blown down in the gale
and their boots had frozen, so they were impossible to get on,
the four men had struggled to shelter in their stocking feet.
Three of them had to be carried out to the helicopter.
All of them were frozen stiff and had severe frostbite.
It had been quite a lesson, but not in map-reading.
Helicopters were also used to rescue two old ladies on Exmoor,
both of them over 75 and for long time they refused to go.
The RAF had been supplying them with food
and they could see no reason to budge,
but in the end they got so bored with their own company,
they decided to move after all, if only for the trip.
In Monmouthshire, there was another urgent job for helicopters.
Here, it was to pick up electricians and carry them and all
their gear out to one of the most desolate spots in the country.
..the high-voltage cable to use great lengths of rope which could be
run out, attached to the helicopter and flown over the cables.
With the rope looped over the cables, the men set out to walk,
pulling the loop and knocking the ice off as they went.
It was a long and bitterly cold operation,
but they cleared the wire and kept the steelworks going.
The longest walk of all or, at any rate,
what must have seemed like longest walk, was from Fylingdales.
This was the scene of the great airlift,
but before the helicopters arrived, 100 stranded civilians
took to the moors and walked back to civilisation.
It was only four miles, but the drifts were 14 feet deep
and the snow was very soft.
By the time they reached the railway, most of them were done in.
Luckily, the line was still open and they reached home by train.
With racing cancelled, the betting shops
were as deserted as the courses, but not in Doncaster.
Here, a bookie had the brilliant idea of running his own
races on the premises.
The mice did show a tendency to fall off the course,
but money changed hands, which, after all, is the only part that matters.
By about the end of the first week in January,
the story began to change.
Up till then, it had been the story of snow,
now it turned into the story of ice.
We'd already had blizzards on an almost unheard-of scale,
now the unrelenting frost.
Nothing thawed, nothing melted and the frost went deeper
and deeper into the earth.
The roads and railways have had their turn, now it was the waterways.
Ice two-feet thick on the River Yare stopped
shipping between Norwich and Great Yarmouth.
The car ferry service to Fishbourne on the Isle of Wight was stopped
because of dangerous pack ice.
At Torquay, the sea froze as it crashed over the promenade.
The channel froze at Dover and Eastbourne.
Across at Dunkirk, the ice stretched for five miles,
so it looked as if we were going to be joined with Europe
whether de Gaulle liked it or not.
At Windsor, a man was seen riding a bicycle on the frozen Thames.
At Kingston, the Thames froze from bank to bank for the first time
At Oxford, one Charles Easter drove his Austin 7 across the Thames to work.
The first car river rally was held on the Thames at Bablock Hythe.
A school of mullet was frozen in the ice in Southampton Dock
and provided a freshly chilled picnic for some lucky gulls,
but it was surely those two commuters skating to
work in Leicestershire that provided THE picture of the Big Freeze.
The canals froze first, just about all of them.
The Grand Union was a strip of ice running from Brentford to
the Midlands, but the bulk of our water transport goes along
natural waterways and the first of the busy ones stayed navigable just.
But many rivers froze up along the edges of the navigable channel.
At some, the ice was two-feet thick
and an iceberg ten-feet high was sighted at Greenwich.
It grew so cold that diesel oil froze solid
and beer and lemonade bottles burst.
As the bitter weather went on, even the coast
and harbour started to ice up.
At several places, the sea froze,
sometimes for a hundred feet out from shore.
There was pack ice in most ports on the Humber.
It forced a lightship adrift and there were sheets of ice in the dock
at Chatham, Liverpool, Bristol, and Southampton.
It was like a polar landscape.
Ships at their moorings were frozen in everywhere
and some underways stuck fast.
At Waltham, lifeboat men couldn't get to their boats for the first
time in 40 years.
Car ferry services were cancelled and so was the London-Paris train.
The coastline of Britain was like an enormous deep-freeze.
It was about then that we learned that the Soviet Antarctic base
in Queen Maud Land had reported temperatures of 39 degrees,
13 degrees warmer than London.
For the first time in living memory, the Medway froze
right across from Chatham to Rochester with ice two feet thick.
The Navy had to use an icebreaker to keep Chatham Dockyard free.
Of course, not everyone found the ice a menace.
What you lost on the football pitch, you gain on the ice rink.
Suddenly Britain had become a winter sports resort.
For most of us, the sport was improvised and unofficial,
but in Lincolnshire the freeze made the professional ice race championship of Great Britain
possible for the first time since 1959.
At Ruislip, the water skiers managed to adapt themselves to the new conditions,
with a car instead of a motorboat to do the towing
a new sport was born. A pointless one, but new.
It was also perfect weather for another more orthodox winter sport -
If you haven't got an ice yacht of your own,
you could always adapt a sailing dinghy.
It froze so hard that, for only the second time since 1935,
the great curling bonspiel, the Grand Match,
could be held on the lake of Menteith.
There were nearly 2,000 competitors.
Motorcycle scrambling was one of the few outdoor sports
that could carry on uninterrupted by the weather.
It set new problems, but it also gave it a new interest.
As the cold got deeper still,
the landscape of Britain took on a totally new appearance.
One result of the deep and enduring frost
was to produce fairyland sights no-one had ever seen
and no-one may ever see again.
This waterfall on Exmoor hasn't looked like this in living memory.
Perhaps even more spectacular are the Aysgarth Falls
and while even this sight may not reconcile you to this winter,
at least it's one of the few items on the credit side.
In other parts of the country, things weren't quite so beautiful.
Chaos turned into crisis.
It soon became clear that we simply couldn't cope
with a cold spell of this severity and duration.
Salt, water, gas, electricity, paraffin, milk, milk bottles,
vegetables, coal, candles, disposable nappies -
all of these were difficult or impossible to get at some time or other.
And the water crisis is by no means over yet.
In London alone the Metropolitan Water Board
have had well over 3,000 burst mains reported
since the cold weather started.
In Birmingham, hundreds of underground service pipes froze solid
and in the Manchester area the number of bursts of all kinds
approached the 200,000 mark.
In many parts of the country, water rationing was the order of the day
and the emergency water tanker became a familiar sight.
But for thousands of people
this was the only supply of water there was, apart from melted snow.
In other places, tanks were set up in the street,
but even they froze up, and you needed hot water to thaw out the tap
before you could get cold water to make hot water with.
And after all this, when you've found enough buckets and kettles,
carried them along the street, fill them up and carted them back again,
you still couldn't do the washing-up
because the waste pipe was frozen and the water wouldn't run away.
The only ones who didn't mind were the children.
School lavatories froze and that was the end of school.
In parts of South Wales, even the 11+ was put off.
120 schools in Hampshire never opened at all after the holidays,
and in London over 20,000 children stayed at home.
From every street in every town the same plea was heard,
"Please send the plumber."
But the worst failure was in electricity.
The grid simply couldn't deliver the power fast enough.
We got used to power cuts, at least in the London area,
during the power workers' go-slow early in January.
But once that unofficial dispute had been settled,
we assumed - wrongly, as it turned out -
that there would be enough electricity to go around everywhere.
It soon became apparent that someone had underestimated
our electricity requirements, even for a normal winter,
and the buck of the blame was passed pretty smartly around,
almost as quickly as the electricity was going through the grid itself
during those frenetic days. The electricity board admitted
that they had to make massive disconnections in the Southeast
and practically no-one in the country
had full power right through the crisis.
The electricity people's advertising slogan,
"Plug in electric living, that's all you have to do,"
had by now a pretty hollow ring.
In Piccadilly, the lights went out for the first time since 1949.
Hospitals were cut off without warning.
Canterbury Cathedral blacked out in the middle of a service.
Shops and offices kept going by candlelight.
As the load increased, the supply dropped.
And then came the worst - electricity cables
from Britain's largest power station
were short-circuited by freezing fog.
Men worked non-stop for 72 hours
to clear the ice and get the supply going again.
And, of course, when electrical power was cut, everyone turned to gas.
Many people, in fact, had their ovens on and open when heating.
Faithful, constant gas - "You can rely on gas," the ad said.
But, alas, we couldn't rely on gas. Gas couldn't cope either.
The demand for gas rose everywhere,
and where they could deliver they couldn't keep up with the demand.
If you wanted coal for the fire, you had to go and fetch it for yourself.
Reserves at the coal yard shrunk.
The solid, frozen heaps got smaller and the demand became more desperate,
but the coal couldn't get through.
Coal for gas for industry,
coal to run the railway engines to pull the coal trains,
coal to make electricity and after that coal for the ordinary consumer -
the old and the sick, the ones who depended on coal to keep warm.
And when the coal did arrive, it was frozen solid in the trucks
and had to be thawed out before it could be unloaded.
The heaps were hard as rock, but valuable as a gold.
British Railways introduced a coal lift,
20 special trains carrying 650 tonnes each
shuttle backward and forward to the south of England.
Emergency lorries ran through the ice and snow in a never-ending stream.
As a coal board official said, "We were on a knife edge."
What would have happened to the country
if the freeze had gone on for another week?
We shall mercifully, we hope, never know.
On January 25, warmer air moved in from the Atlantic
to cover Scotland, Northern Ireland and northern England
and by the morning of the 26th covered the whole of Britain,
and that was the thaw.
We never thought slush could look so beautiful.
People even started to see their lawns
for the first time since Christmas.
Of course, it brought out the bursts.
This one closed London's Southampton Row,
but after being frozen stiff for 35 days it was a small price to pay.
It wasn't even the fast, dangerous thaw we'd been warned of.
It was slow and mild.
It seemed too good to be true.
It WAS too good to be true.
Three days after the thaw, the freeze was back with a vengeance.
The blizzards followed.
Again, the West Country took the first onslaught,
but Wales caught a packet as well.
When the blizzard stopped,
we took stock again and found it was worse than ever.
On 8 February 70 people were marooned in cars and lorries around Dartmoor.
Had they gone by train, they wouldn't have fared much better -
30 people were trapped in a train on Dartmoor too,
50 in Argyllshire and another 18 in Ayrshire.
The London train was eight hours late to Edinburgh.
London to Stranraer passengers were 17 1/2 hours late.
All the same, rail travellers were at least spared the ultimate indignity.
All over Britain, motorists and highway authorities
started digging out yet again.
This time, it was worse than ever before.
Again, 200 main roads were blocked
and now not 90,000 but 130,000 miles of highway were obstructed by snow,
most of them paralysed.
Scotland and Cornwall were completely cut off.
Again, there were large-scale rescue operations.
The chief one was the relief of Whiddon Down.
This party of Royal Marines from Lympstone
were digging their way to the village
where hundred motorists and lorry drivers
who abandoned their vehicles had taken shelter from the blizzard.
When it was over, five feet of snow had fallen
and it was known they were desperately short
of food and blankets and that the power had failed.
Whiddon Down wasn't equipped to take on 100 cold and hungry visitors.
The Marines couldn't get through on the first day
and nor could the snowploughs.
It was learned that most of the castaways
were spending the night in the village school room.
Next day, the snowploughs were at it again.
By the time the clearance squads got through,
100 drivers had had a night to remember.
It was a night when the southwest broke another weather record -
snow on the ground for 45 consecutive days.
But by now the hard-hit Southwesterners
were being warned of another new danger -
a quick thaw with high winds and floods.
The floods came.
The River near Boscastle in Cornwall burst its banks
and a wall of water four feet high smashed through the village.
Flood warnings were out all over Devon and Cornwall.
The blizzard was still raging in Scotland,
and in Boscastle they'd have willingly had it back in exchange for this.
Of course, the freeze has had its lighter moments
as well as it's tragic ones.
In the years to come most of us will have some kind of story to tell
about the great winter of 1963,
but it was left to the wife of the Minister of Power,
Mrs Richard Wood, to supply the bathos of the big freeze.
I refer, of course, to the tail of the black woolly pants.
When her husband was bothering himself with power cuts,
gas rationing and coal shortages, Mrs Wood was quoted as saying,
"English people don't wear enough clothes,"
and she allowed herself to be photographed in black fishnet tights
and black woolly pants with a little bit of white trimming at the knee.
The Big Freeze has happened.
It takes its place in our history, but how did it happen?
What is the explanation that our weather experts offer
as the cause of it all?
Well, stage one. On December 21 this Siberian anticyclone
started to move in our direction, but the westerly Atlantic winds,
which usually keep it at bay, suddenly weakened and...
the Siberian anticyclone moved right across to us.
And by December 22, it had hit us.
It was here and the Big Freeze had begun.
Then stage two, another anticyclone
that usually stays in Greenland, up here,
came down to join the Siberian one.
This brought a lot of freezing air from the North Pole with it.
That was the Boxing Day snow.
Then came stage three.
The weekend after Christmas a belt of warm air
tried to get up from the south, but by now the cold front here
was so dug-in that it beat back the warm air.
The result of this was a clash
and the blizzard which particularly struck the Southwest.
Then came stage four.
On January 4, the warm air tried once again to get up to us.
It got a bit further this time, but the cold air stayed dug in
and the warm air went over the top of cold
so that you've got this curious layer thing
and the freezing rain was the warm front,
raining through the cold underneath it.
On January 14 and 15th came stage five.
Now the two anticyclones, the Siberian one and the one from Greenland,
split and started to go back to where they came from.
Now, what should have happened was that it should have
let in this warm air from here and there should have been a thaw.
Because on the night of January 15th came stage six.
The warm air changed its mind, didn't come down to us at all,
it veered right away from us and went down here towards the Bay of Biscay.
And the Siberian anticyclone, finding everything clear again,
moved into the attack once more,
and the blizzard began all over again, the air got colder
and colder and the really deep freeze was on.
Anyway, that's how it happened, but why did it happen?
Some American weatherman has come forward with a fascinating theory.
If you remember, what started the whole thing off
was those westerly winds.
They should have kept out the Siberian anticyclone
but they didn't. Why didn't they?
Well, the Americans say that the reason is to be found here,
in the Pacific. Of all places, near Hawaii.
There's a patch of the Pacific Ocean,
hundreds and thousands of square miles,
that suddenly last summer got unusually warm
and has stayed like that during the autumn and winter.
As a result, so much moisture has been sent
up into the atmosphere here that it switched all the upper air currents
and exaggerated their north-south swings
so that the cold air has been sent first up the north
and then plunging right down here into the south
where the Gulf of Mexico has had an unusually bad winter,
it's swung up again and then down, descending on Europe.
So they say we can blame the freeze-up on the Hawaiians.
And what does the Big Freeze cost? First, in human life.
The latest unofficial estimates for this country
put the death toll at 120 directly attributable to the very cold spell.
The severe weather filled the nation's hospitals,
and in the London area,
emergency bed services red warning was in operation.
Hospitals refused routine admissions so as to cope with emergencies.
Babies and old people were particularly hit by the intense cold.
But on the other hand, the rest of us have evidently
had fewer common colds and flu this winter.
Insurance claims for snow and ice damage
are expected to top £15 million.
The road clearance bill is expected to come to over £20 million,
it's £3 million at the most on average.
And millions more will have to be spent in repairing the roads
and motorways cracked by the freeze.
Buildings and construction work has been at a standstill.
In all, the interim estimate of the physical cost to the nation
is said to be £150-£200 million.
And many believe this to be an underestimate.
But what the Big Freeze has shown is that the country is simply
not geared to meet an abnormally savage winter.
Techniques of snow clearance don't seem to have advanced much
since the Arc, let alone since 1947, the last major freeze-up.
Many authorities still don't stockpile much rock salt,
although a process has been developed
for storing it in the open without it caking.
Again, most county and borough surveyors are still saying
that the expense of mechanised snow clearance isn't justified
although the cost of the most sophisticated piece of equipment
is tiny compared with the millions this winter has already cost us.
A snowplough and blower, for instance, costs £7,000.
And now that the power cuts are, we hope, behind us
are we going to forget about that gap in our electricity supply?
When pushed to it, at the height of the power crisis,
the electricity people said it would need £90 million -
the price, incidentally, of two Polaris submarines -
to close the gap, and give us a small margin of safety.
Spreading this capital cost over 25 years,
which is the normal accountancy procedure,
it shouldn't add more than sevenpence-ha'penny
in the pound on every electricity bill,
just the price of four candles.
And what good has come out of the Big Freeze?
So far at least one piece of parliamentary legislation is in the offing.
And that is at long-last a compulsory freeze-free domestic water system -
interior plumbing, lagging and so on.
But only for new homes, it won't affect the 14 million old houses.
Apart from that, we can only hope that the public and local authorities
who were caught with their pants down will pull their socks up,
if you see what we mean.
For the rest of us, it's probably cured us
of dreaming of a white Christmas for the next 10 years or so.
And for the history book there's one more spectacularly cold winter
to set beside the famous ones
like AD 764, 1684,
1940 and 1947.
During the day, it's been snowing in most of southern England and Wales.
And we're told it's freezing too.
But at least we've been through the Big Freeze of 1963.
What an extraordinary film. Amazing.
And when you look at it,
it's hard to imagine how we as a nation actually survived that.
And if it happened today, I know one thing,
there'd be a shovel shortage.
But what that film didn't explain is what effect the Big Freeze
had on our British wildlife.
Winter is always a tough time for wildlife.
It's not only the coldest time of year,
but the days are really short and food is scare.
So wild creatures have to battle extra hard just to survive.
Now some, like bats, hedgehogs and dormice, opt out altogether,
they hibernate. Others migrate.
Birds such as swallows and cuckoos leave our shores each autumn
to spend the winter in sunny Africa.
But many wild creatures can't hibernate or migrate,
or they choose not to.
For them, getting through the winter simply becomes a case
of finding enough food to keep their energy levels up.
For small birds like these tits,
that means eating about a third of your body weight every single day.
It means feeding from dawn, all the way through till dusk.
Now, in mild winters, finding food is relatively easy,
but as soon as there's snow and ice on the ground,
then things get really, really tough.
Even during the fairly short cold snap in winter 2010,
many creatures struggled to cope
as a thick layer of snow made it much harder for them to find food.
All of our wildlife suffered, but birds were especially badly hit.
So just imagine what it must have been like for them back in 1963
when it wasn't just incredibly cold,
with snow covering virtually the whole country,
but also, it went on for so long.
Some birds didn't hang around to see how bad things were going to get.
Large flocks of lapwings, starlings and thrushes
were seen heading south almost as soon as the first blizzards hit.
But they were the lucky ones.
Those birds that stayed to wait for the thaw were soon in big trouble.
Imagine being a wren, weighing just a few grams.
Wrens have to eat almost half their body weight a day
just to get through the night alive.
And when the entire landscape is covered with snow and ice,
that's really, really difficult.
Not just wrens, all of those other birds
that were trying to feed on invertebrates were in trouble,
things like goldcrests and long-tailed tits.
These birds didn't die in their tens of thousands, sadly,
they died in their hundreds of thousands.
But it wasn't just the small birds that struggled to survive.
As we saw across the whole of the country,
virtually every stream, pond, lake and river was frozen solid.
The impact on Britain's water birds was absolutely catastrophic,
cutting off their food supply and leaving them with nowhere to go.
Back in 2010, we saw that birds that depended on water could
radically change their behaviour in order to try and survive.
Normally shy birds such as this bittern
became much less elusive
as they searched desperately for something to eat.
And water rails turned into ruthless predators.
This one killed and ate an unfortunate meadow pipit.
But of course, in 2010 we were only cold for a couple of weeks.
Back in '63 the whole of Britain was frozen to a standstill
for two whole months - January and February.
And our water birds really suffered.
When things get cold and nasty,
species like kingfishers normally flee to the south and the west.
But back in 1963 this didn't happen.
Particularly because the south and west, as we've seen, was hardest hit.
But also, because the sea froze.
So kingfishers couldn't even find a refuge there.
And it wasn't just the resident water birds that suffered.
Every winter, Britain's coastal estuaries
and marshes play host to millions of waders and wildfowl -
ducks, geese and swans - that come here from the Arctic in search
of a milder climate and plenty of food.
Most years that strategy certainly pays off.
But how did they cope during the Big Freeze of '63?
Well, these wintering wildfowl
did manage to last longer than many other species of birds.
They are quite tough and they also managed
to find a few patches of open water where they could gather and feed.
But as the winter went on, even they began to struggle.
There's no doubt that for these birds it was a really challenging time.
So did any creatures actually benefit from the Big Freeze?
Well, not surprisingly with all of these birds dying,
scavengers and predators did particularly well.
So foxes, they were OK.
And birds of prey like buzzards and kestrels, crows and magpies.
But perhaps surprisingly, even some of our smaller species
managed to get through by changing their diet.
Starlings and sparrows, which normally eat grain, turned cannibal
and started eating the corpses of their cousins
that had died of starvation.
By the beginning of March, with no sign of the snow melting,
it must have seemed as if the Big Freeze would never end.
But within a week, the thaw had finally begun
and it was time to count the cost.
It was estimated that over half of all Britain's birds had died
as a result of that terrible winter.
Frankly, it's unimaginable, isn't it?
And yet, really surprisingly,
it didn't make that much difference to their numbers in the long-term.
Take the wren, for instance - within five years it had bounced back
to the levels it's population was at before the Big Freeze.
And by the mid-1970s it had even become Britain's commonest bird.
Now it might seem odd
that this Big Freeze didn't have the negative impact
on our bird populations in the long term that we might have suspected.
But many of these birds have evolved to cope with these
sorts of natural disasters.
You see, they can have several broods a year,
and produce quite a lot of young.
So as long as they can breed successfully,
they can soon bounce back.
But what would happen if we had another Big Freeze today?
Which of Britain's birds would be the winners and which the losers?
Our countryside has changed dramatically in the last 50 years.
And as a result, I think that our farmland birds
would be in big trouble.
That's because in our desire to produce cheap food,
farming is now so efficient
that there are virtually no spare seeds or grain left in the fields
for the birds to eat.
On the other hand, birds that visit our gardens
would probably do much better than they did in 1963.
We now provide enough food to give them
a lifeline even in the hardest winter weather.
So in just half a century, the span of my own lifetime,
things have certainly changed for Britain's wildlife.
What an extraordinary story
of how we and our wildlife
lived through the hardest winter in the last two centuries.
Will it ever happen again?
Well, given that we are experiencing more and more extreme weather events,
which scientists are putting down to global climate change,
I wouldn't be at all surprised.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Chris Packham introduces a classic documentary from the BBC's archive, which takes a look at the worst winter of the 20th century in 1963. He also explores what we now know about how this big freeze affected Britain's wildlife, and how it would cope if we experienced another equally bad winter.