Batten down the hatches

The UK boasts a unique and stunning landscape defined in part by its shifting seasons and changing weather. Below this beauty lies a savage nature which can sometimes hit with little or no warning.

The result can be devastating: Arctic-like winters, unimaginable floods, hurricane-force winds, baking heat and severe droughts. Like it or not, Britain can be susceptible to some deadly weather events – even if they only occur once in a while.

1947

The big snow

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1947: Emanuel Shinwell, Minister for Power, warns that Britain faces complete disaster. Nationwide (BBC One 1973).

Transcript (PDF 233k)

With record amounts of snow, one of the cruellest winters in living memory couldn't have come at a worse time for war weary Britain.

Victorious but nearly bankrupt from defeating the Nazis, the country was still experiencing food rationing when 10ft snow drifts paralysed the country. Roads and railways were blocked, miners couldn’t get to work and London had only six days' worth of coal left. Meanwhile, in the countryside the snow was so deep that farmers couldn't reach their livestock and animals starved to death in frozen fields across Britain.

Weather memories of winter 1947

I remember the snow was as high as the telegraph poles.

Bill Anderson, Upper Teesdale

1952

London's great smog

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London's Great Smog  - December 1952: a woman and her dog both wear masks

A woman and her dog both wear masks in London's deadly smog, December 1952.

Smog in 1950s London was common, but the toxic mix of smoke and fog that descended on 5 December 1952 was unlike anything the city had seen before.

Domestic coal was low-grade and thousands of tons of stinking soot were being pumped into the city's skies daily. High pressure caused a temperature inversion, where the air is warmer aloft than at the surface, preventing the smoke from escaping upwards. With little wind to disperse the polluted air, the killer smog remained for five long days, leading to the premature deaths of over 4,000 people. As a result the government introduced the Clean Air Act in Britain.

Met Office: Birth of the Clean Air Act

The government passed legislation to phase out coal fires. I was quite pleased because as a boy it was my job to clean the fire out in the morning.

Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London

1953

Storm of the century

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Witness the devastation caused by one of Britain's worst storms in living memory. Britain Under Threat, Matt Allwright (BBC One, 2007).

Transcript (PDF 221k)

The great storm of 1953 was Britain's worse peacetime disaster on record claiming the lives of 326 people.

With no severe flood warnings in place and phone lines down, people were completely unaware of the devastation which was about to hit them. The storm surge – a combination of gale-force winds, low pressure and high tides – brought havoc to over 1,000 miles of coastline and 32,000 people were displaced because of flooding. The event led to an official service for the forecast of coastal flooding and eventually the creation of the Thames Barrier.

Met Office: Birth of National Severe Weather Warnings

The first thing we encountered was a large bush with two bodies hooked up in it.

John Lawrence, rescue boat skipper

1963

The big freeze

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Weatherman Paul Hudson looks back to the winter of 1962-63. Wild Weather North West (BBC One, 2012)

Transcript (PDF 216k)

The coldest winter in living memory seemed relentless, lasting for three long months. It was so cold that rivers, lakes and even the sea froze over.

On 25 February 1963 a record low of -21C was recorded and BBC News reported: "By the time this blizzard had finally blown itself out, 200 main roads were impassable and 95,000 miles of road were snowbound."

14 ways to keep your house warmMet Office winter chills of 1946 and 1963

After five days battling, milkmen had to take the day off with exhaustion and 15,000 London housewives went without milk.

BBC News report, February 1963

1976

When Britain was left bone dry

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Archive clip featuring BBC weatherman Jack Scott reporting on the heatwave in the summer of 1976. Hurricanes & Heatwaves (BBC Four, 2013).

Transcript (PDF 213k)

It was the warmest three months in living memory with milk blue skies and sunshine that seemed to never end.

It should have been the perfect summer, but with the continued sunshine came the worst drought in 150 years. Rivers dried up, soil began to crack and water supplies were on the verge of running out in Britain’s most dramatic heatwave of the 20th Century. The drought was so rare, Britain appointed its first ever minister for drought, Denis Howell. He was nicknamed the minister for rain as the day after they installed him the heavens opened for the next two months!

How can our blue planet be running out of fresh water? Met Office maximum temperatures

Save water, bath with a friend

The most popular slogan on T-shirts, car stickers and badges across the UK during the summer of '76.

1979

Fastnet race of death

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Matthew Sheahan's harrowing account of the 1979 Fastnet yacht race. Wild Weather (BBC Two, 2002).

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The greatest disaster in the history of modern sailing resulted in one of the biggest air and sea rescue operations in peacetime Britain.

The deadly storm claimed the lives of 15 people. The race from Cowes to the Fastnet Rock and then to Plymouth via the Scillies started in fine weather, but terror awaited those competing. One of them was John Rousmaniere. In his book he describes the event: "On day two a force 10, 60-knot storm swept across the north Atlantic with a speed that confounded forecasters, scattering yachts in the treacherous waters. For 20 hours, 2,500 men and women were smashed by 40-foot breaking waves."

Royal Ocean Racing Club

It was like standing at the bottom of the White Cliffs of Dover and looking up to the top - that was the height of the waves.

Matthew Sheahan, rescued from the 1979 Fastnet disaster which claimed his father's life

1987

Britain's first sting jet

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Despite warnings on French news BBC weatherman, Michael Fish, failed to warn Britain of a devastating storm on the 15 October 1987.

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The storm of 1987 left an indelible mark on our national conscience. Weatherman Michael Fish, like other forecasters, didn't see it coming.

Douglas Hurd, the Home Secretary at the time, referred to it as "the worst night since the Blitz". Eighteen people died and over 15 million trees were lost when hurricane-force winds blasted through south-east England. Meteorological research revealed a completely new weather phenomenon called the sting jet. This powerful 100mph wind can literally smash anything in its path. It was the first ‘sting jet’ to be documented in Britain.

What is a sting jet?

Apparently a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way... well if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't!

Michael Fish

1990

Burns Day storm

PA

A scene in Wales after the Burns Day storm ripped through Britain

A scene in Wales after the Burns Day storm ripped through Britain.

Tragedy has walked hand in hand with the storms of Britain and the one that raged on 25 January 1990 was no exception.

The storm proved even more deadly than the one in 1987 because it hit during the day. It caused chaos – killing some children in their schools when the roof collapsed and throwing cars off the road. Forty-seven people lost their lives and at least half a million homes were without electricity. The total estimated damage was over £2bn. Unlike 1987, the Met Office had predicted the storm’s progress and had issued warnings.

BBC News: Children killed in devastating storm

Cars and overturned lorries blocked motorways, buildings collapsed and power and telecommunications lines were blown down.

BBC News

2003

Hottest day in history

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Kate Humble on the human cost of deadly heatwaves. Climate Change: Britain Under Threat (BBC One 2007).

Transcript (PDF 265k)

On Sunday 10 August 2003 a new record was set when temperatures reached 37.9C (101.3F).

Heat like this can kill. By the end of the summer of 2003 it had claimed the lives of over 2,000 people in Britain, mostly through heat stroke or dehydration. The death toll across Europe was much worse, exceeding 30,000. Since then the government Heat-Health Watch system warns if the forecast for daytime temperatures is 30C or above and 15C at night.

NHS Direct: Heat-Health Watch

Though heatwaves are rarely given adequate attention, they claim more lives each year than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined.

Earth Policy Institute, New Scientist

2004

Boscastle: A village upended

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Residents are airlifted to safety in heartbreaking scenes of an entire village submerged by flooding. Duncan Kennedy reports for BBC News.

Transcript (PDF 218k)

Few parts of Britain have escaped serious flooding, but what happened to Boscastle in 2004 truly shocked the UK.

August in Cornwall is one of its busiest holiday periods, but this was when unimaginable flash flooding completely submerged this picturesque Cornish village. Around 100 people had to be plucked to safety by emergency teams; some on rooftops which they had climbed to escape the rising waters when the river burst its banks. Close to 150 cars were swept out to sea and over 50 properties were either flooded or completely destroyed. Miraculously no one died.

Risk from extreme weather to rise Met Office on Boscastle floods

I counted 60 cars floating down the river: upside down, lights on, beepers going, wipers going – you didn’t know if there was anybody in them.

Carole Talboys, Boscastle resident