Weather of December 1981

Snowiest of 20th century
by Philip Eden

Twenty years ago Britain had one of the coldest and snowiest months of the last century. Severe weather is rarer in December than it is in January and February, but December 1981 was a truly exceptional month. The night of the 12th-13th was a record-breaker as the mercury plunged below minus 18C widely, while a large part of the country was snowbound for more than three weeks.

There was little sign of what was to come as the month opened. The early days were very mild and a maximum of 15C was reported from Aberdeen on the 3rd. Changes began the next day as the wind veered N'ly bringing snow showers to Scotland, but the very cold weather did not reach central and southern parts of the UK until the night of the 7th-8th when the temperature fell below freezing and heavy snow fell widely. Some 15cm fell in Wiltshire, Berkshire and the northern Home Counties, and with inadequate warnings road and rail transport was seriously dislocated, airports were closed, and electricity and telephone services were disr upted for thousands of customers.

Most exceptionally cold winters are characterised by long spells of dry and sunny weather punctuated by occasional snowfalls; December 1981 was different, with widespread and heavy snow occurring at regular intervals throughout the month. The second snowstorm on the 11th also hit southern England worst, paralysing roads and railways, and leaving 25-30cm of snow in total in some of the London suburbs. Just two days later a fierce blizzard swept England, Wales and Northern Ireland on the 13th, persisting over much of Scotland and northern England on the 14th where the Yorkshire Dales were buried under a metre of snow. Even the Queen did not escape - she was stranded for several hours in a Cotswold pub. Two ships foundered in the English Channel, sea-defences were breached along the Bristol Channel, and some homes in Somerset were without electricity for five days after.

Further snow affected high ground in the West Country on the16th, northern Scotland on the 17th, and much of central and eastern England on the 20th-21st. After this fall snow lay 33cm deep in and around Lincoln and 10 inches deep in north London. High winds again caused havoc in our coastal waters, and on the 19th the Penlee lifeboat capsized as it went to the aid of a crippled cargo ship off the Cornish coast with a total of 16 lives lost. After a fine, frosty Christmas Day another belt of snow travelled eastwards across the country on the 27th, but thereafter a general thaw set in.

In the brief interlude between the snowstorms of the 11th and 13th much of England was gripped by a frost of unprecedented intensity. At RAF Shawbury in Shropshire the temperature sank to minus 22.6C at daybreak on the 12th, climbed only to minus 12.1C that afternoon, then plummeted to minus 25.2C during the early hours of the 13th.