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The blizzard that buried Dorset

The blizzards of February 1978 were the last time that Dorset was completely paralysed by the weather. This month is the thirtieth anniversary of that event, and Dorset weather historian Mark Ching recounts his memories of the blizzard.

My interest in things meteorological and particularly in snowfall began with tales that my great-grandmother used to tell me about the monstrous blizzards of January 1881 and March 1891, when she had to climb out of her first-floor bedroom window in Sherborne because all the downstairs doors and windows were buried under the snow. I had grown up in Bournemouth, where the whole place ground to a halt if just half an inch of the white stuff dared to settle, so tales of seven or eight feet of snow really fired my imagination, and from that moment on I waited throughout the rest my childhood for the ghosts of those great Victorian winters to rattle their chains.

Sadly, for me at least, the early and mid ‘seventies brought mainly mild winters along the south coast. 1978, however, proved to be very different. Towards the end of January, cold Arctic air made its presence felt and on one or two occasions the hilltops of north Dorset turned very briefly white, while a wet sleety mix was the norm further south. It was on one such bleak day in late January that my family moved from the suburbs of Bournemouth to the wilds of Worth Matravers in Purbeck.

A new home, maybe, but the same old winter weather as the winds turned westerly, bringing rain during that first week of February. However, as the second weekend of the month arrived, keen weather chart watchers (myself included) had noticed that something was afoot. To the east and north of the UK large areas of high pressure were beginning to develop and were pushing their bitter easterly winds into southern Britain, with a mixture of night frosts that barely lifted by day and a biting wind carrying the odd snow shower.

As the second week of February wore on, the high pressure intensified, fending off the mild and moist winds from the Atlantic, and the south of England in particular grew colder by the day. Even in balmy Bournemouth, overnight temperatures were dropping below –6°C. By now seasoned weather-watchers could see that a classic cold-versus-mild battle was developing, and wherever the two opposing air masses engaged was likely to be the scene of some heavy snowfall. In Dorset most situations like these see the warm Atlantic air quickly push the cold air back, maybe giving just a fleeting snowfall on higher ground before mild air floods across the region from the west.

In February 1978, however, the cold air proved far more obstinate than usual. On the evening of the 15th the moist Atlantic air made its first attempt to push up across the south-west and engaged with the very cold air. Heavy snow started to fall mid-evening, giving between four and five inches to much of Dorset. Roads around Dorchester, Blandford and Shaftesbury were blocked. The following evening a repeat performance occurred, as the mild air again tried unsuccessfully to move in. The snowfall that ensued was described locally as the worst since the Arctic winter of 1963 and gave about six inches across most of the county. The A35 was blocked by jack-knifed lorries at Yellowham Hill and most roads west of Dorchester were impassable for a time.

Saturday 18th dawned cold and cloudy with a biting easterly wind. A shopping trip to Wareham proved an unpleasant ordeal: with the temperature barely above freezing, the wind chill was severe. Lunch in the Mowlem restaurant in Swanage was an unnerving experience as the ever-increasing south-easterly winds sent the sea crashing into the base of the building with the resultant surge splattering itself across the windows.

By early evening the first crystalline flakes appeared, blowing like loose sand across the dry ground, and by mid-evening the county was fully in the grip of a howling blizzard. As midnight approached and conditions worsened even further, Dorset folk began to realise that this was no ordinary snowfall. Youngsters attending a disco at the town hall in Bournemouth found that they were stranded and had to bed down for the night using coats and old curtains as bedding, while a nearby hotel provided hot soup with help from the WRVS. Outside, conditions had deteriorated so much that even those living as close as Parkstone or Southbourne were unable to get home. A family returning from London to their caravan near Blandford were forced to spend the night in their car when it ran into a drift on the Puddletown road. Thankfully they had a little food and managed to hold out until morning, when they were rescued by local farm workers and the police.

Back at Worth Matravers, my parents had been down into the village to join some friends for a meal. My brother and I made our way down to rescue them at midnight, battling past drifts that were already five feet deep and finding my father’s car completely buried. The four of us made our way home into the teeth of the blizzard and a few minutes later stumbled into our house, crusted with snow. ‘Oh well,’ said my dad, ‘at least the power hasn’t gone off.’ At which point it promptly did and we were plunged into darkness. Lit by candles and an oil lamp, we made our way to bed. When I took a cup of tea in for my parents next morning, they commented that the snow must have melted because there wasn’t any of that nice white light that normally bursts in round the edge of the curtains when it snows. I had to tell them that their ground floor bedroom was so dark because the snow was now halfway up the back of the house – and it was still snowing.

A walk around a now almost unrecognisable neighbourhood brought some staggering sights. When my brother and I climbed onto the top of a drift blocking the road out of the village, my foot caught on something that barely stuck out of the snow a few inches. That something was the top of a telegraph pole.

Exceptionally severe conditions prevailed across the whole of the county, which was in effect cut off from the rest of England. Between Dorchester and Weymouth, a train with about a hundred people on board became stranded when it ran into a snowdrift. It took three additional locomotives to free it, bringing to life memories of the great blizzard of March 1891 when many trains were trapped for days all across the south-west. Near Shaftesbury, a bus was completely buried by a snowdrift. The continuing snow and severe gales brought down powerlines throughout the day, leaving thousands of people without power. Many rural locations were cut off for so long that pumping stations failed, leaving them without water as well.

The snow eventually stopped in the early hours of Monday 20 February, having fallen in some places without a break for over thirty hours. No wonder that even Bournemouth set a new record for a single snowfall with a staggering 15 inches. The rural areas and higher ground would have exceeded this total quite easily and it is likely that between 18 and 24 inches of snow had fallen in the course of the weekend.

It was no surprise that on Monday morning all roads west of Bournemouth were still impassable. A train was sent down the line with supplies for some of the outlying villages en route, but at Upwey station it was impossible to open the doors of the carriage because the snow on the platform was so deep. Throughout the day, military helicopters flew mercy missions to remote rural areas, ferrying supplies and taking those in need of treatment to hospital. Bus services and refuse collections were a non-starter and many schools remained closed. Drifts twenty feet deep isolated villages in all corners of Dorset. One local doctor determined not to let his patients down was taken on his rounds in an armoured personnel carrier from Bovington Camp.

As the week wore on, temperatures slowly recovered to more normal values and Dorset gradually managed to dig itself out from under the thick white blanket. Even so, Bournemouth Echo reporter Jeremy Gunn was still filing his reports from a completely cut-off East Knoyle on Wednesday 22nd, and back at Worth Matravers no vehicles from outside the village made it through the still huge drifts until Friday 25th.

Placing the amazing events of February 1978 into historical context is not easy. That winter was not overall a particularly cold one – it does not even break into the top twenty coldest winters of the 20th century. However, the cold spell between 9 and 20 February was as fierce as anything from the legendary winters of 1947 or 1963 and the snowfall on February 18th matched and in many cases outstripped anything from those winters. The blizzard has more in common with the great Victorian blizzards of 1881 and 1891 and thus can fairly be judged as one of the very worst of the last 130 years.

[Mark Ching is writing a book about the 1978 blizzard. If any readers would care to share their experiences with him, he would be pleased to hear from them at mcweather@tiscali.co.uk]

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