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Winters of yesteryear

Herbert Bennett
The recent wintry conditions have come as rather a shock to many people, with transport disrupted, schools closed, and many working days lost to industry.

So goodness knows how the country managed when harsh winters were the norm, rather than the exception.

My own memory stretches back to struggling into school for weeks on end in 1963, when any attempt not to do so was met with suitable admonishment. And there could certainly be no excuse for temerity in 1939/1940, for with the country fighting for its very survival a few feet of snow was the least of the worries. At 30, Windsor Street, Bletchley, one of those then resident in the town was Herbert Bennett, the chief rose grower for Ramsbotham’s Nursery, and throughout the war he kept a diary which included many local events.

By the kind permission of his grandson, David Higgs, and his cousins, I have recently been privileged to access these pages, and the following quotes reveal just how severe the weather was.

Regarding December 29th 1939 the entry includes; “Saturday morning opened with the roads and pavements like glass. A proper silver thaw and there were several minor accidents to people slipping up.”

As for January 1st; “--- severe frost and the roads like ice, making travelling very treacherous.”

Then for January 22nd 1940; “The first thing I must mention is the weather. It has been bitterly cold with 24-30 degrees of frost all the time. It started snowing yesterday afternoon and has been snowing all day today.” As for a week later; “The weather has been the worst in living memory.”

After the war severe winters remained a seasonal feature, and no doubt that of 1947 is remembered as the most notorious. Yet despite a blizzard, a small and distinguished company braved the elements at Bletchley on Monday, January 6th 1947 for the opening of Tompkins and Moss new showrooms - opposite their garage premises at Fenny Stratford - and in fact the weather had been very icy for several weeks, as indicated by the thermometer outside the Council Offices, which on Tuesday, January 28th recorded 23 degrees of frost.

Not surprisingly the conditions made driving extremely hazardous, and road users on the Watling Street had been inconvenienced on the afternoon of Thursday, January 23rd when, of a combined weight of about 80 tons, a fully laden tractor and trailer encountered difficulties on the icy surface near the Repeater Station. As the driver tried to pull up he collided with a lorry passing the other way, and by blocking the road broadside on caused a 12 mile tailback.

Nevertheless, despite the weather volunteer ‘taxi’ drivers were needed to ferry disabled guests to the Old Peoples Party at the Community Centre, in George Street, where on Saturday, February 1st the festivities were greatly enjoyed between 4.30p.m. and 8p.m.

The wintry conditions had even caused large ice floes to form on the canal, and a canal ice breaker had to be used to clear a passage, not least because several ice bound barges were laden with prefabricated parts for local house building. Then on the first Tuesday and Wednesday in March heavy snowfalls caused the biggest hold up of transport in living memory, and, with many villages isolated in North Bucks, a farmer’s wife drove a tractor from Swanbourne all the way to Bletchley, to fetch the shopping for herself and the villagers. As equally enterprising was a Wavendon man, who wearing an Alpine outfit reached Bletchley on skis. As for Winslow, there was a huge cheer at the market place when the Co-op bread van got through.

Thus when people nowadays complain about the inconvenience of a few days’ of ice and snow, don’t be surprised if amongst a certain generation this meets with an icy smile, and a somewhat chilly response.