Winter Memories from Bronwen Tyler

The recent prediction by scientists that snow in most parts of Britain may become a thing of the past, prompted some thoughts about winters in years gone by. We do not have a lot of written evidence of winter in long ago Thompson, other than an entry in the parish registers, until the late 19th century.

The parish register for 1776 shows that the weather was really cold with a lot of snow from January at least. On January 19th young Thomas Jonas aged only 12, was sent by his master to help drive cattle from Themelthorpe towards London via Thompson. Thomas was badly clothed and not equipped for such weather. As the weather worsened some five miles from Thetford Thomas was instructed to turn back and head for the Bull in Watton. Due to his inadequate clothing and the sharp temperatures Thomas froze to death on the old Thompson Common near Cherry Row. This was the side of the common nearer to Pockthorpe and Peddars Way. The snow covered his body so that he was not found until February 6th. The verdict was that he had perished due to the carelessness of his master’s brother, who had been with him driving the cattle, for not ensuring he was decently clothed and cared for. Even after he was found there was no one to bury the poor little lad for ten days.

The school logs show that winter in Thompson could be a miserable time. Children often did not get to school because it was too wet or snowy. Children in the late 1800s and early 1900s often did not have suitable footwear and certainly not waterproof coats. Some of the children came a long way on foot from outlying cottages on muddy tracks. The incidence of absence through heavy colds and other winter illnesses was high. The school room must have been a very unpleasant place in winter. There was a coal fired stove in the schoolroom but the head often complained about lack of fuel for it.

There are also mentions of poor ventilation in the school so one can imagine the atmosphere of damp and body odour. People didn’t have daily baths and the children were probably often fairly unwashed, while keeping their clothes clean would have been quite a task. There are lots of stories of children being sewn into their under clothes for the winter, sometimes with layers of paper and even goose fat to ward off the cold. No wonder the head often records head lice and other conditions, or says she has sent children home to wash. In 1947 we had one of the coldest winters on record.

The worst of the weather began on January 23rd and lasted through until March. Roads and railways were blocked and domestic electricity had to be reduced to 19 hours a day because coal couldn’t be transported to power stations. Domestic coal was also hard to come by. Even when the ice and snow did start to melt, the thaw was fairly rapid and resulted in widespread flooding. We have a series of letters from this time from two elderly ladies, the Baldwin sisters, living in Meadow Cottages off Pockthorpe Lane. They describe spending much of the day in bed to conserve their coal and to keep warm. They also express a lot of gratitude to neighbours for warm food. In 1963 we had another harsh winter with a lot of snow blocking main roads.

The big freeze began in December 1962 and most of Britain was covered in snow and ice which lasted until early March. It is the coldest recorded winter in England since at least 1895 and in central England the only colder winters were 1683–84 and 1739–40. Santon Downham recorded –19 on January 3rd 1963. I wasn’t living in Norfolk but I remember being allowed to wear ordinary jumpers and warm clothing to school instead of our uniform. The school was a six mile bus ride away and there were many days when the buses couldn’t run and we all tramped home again. It was a tradition to pair those of us who lived in the outlying villages with girls living in town.

Normally this was for the big annual carol concert which took place over three nights. To avoid us travelling back and forth we went to our partner’s home for tea and to change from our day clothes. During the freeze there were contingency plans with our partners should we be unable to get home at the end of the school day, but these were never necessary. My husband recalls that he had just started working at Heathrow. His transport was a motorbike which he rode to work all through that winter. He can’t remember falling off but only how cold his hands were by the time he got there, and defrosting them on the large heaters in the hangar.

In the winter of 1981 –82 the snow and low temperatures began in early December and lasted to mid January. It was recorded as one of the coldest Decembers on record in the UK. After our move to Thompson, we have had a few occasions when snow made life a little difficult but the winter of 1987 was the most severe. We were cut off for a few days, though some villagers managed to collect milk supplies for us all from an arranged point. We had a village shop then so food supplies were not a problem. With an enforced holiday, a lot of people also gathered at the pub. The children, of course, thought it was great. The snow had drifted in the lane in ridges and was deep enough for them to carve out little snow dwellings.

The temperatures dropped low enough for them to experiment with cutting blocks too and they made quite a good construction of an igloo in the garden. The house seemed to be permanently filled with drying gloves and coats. To bring us up to date, we then had the Beast from the East. I was at Barnham Broom leading a churches tour holiday break and got stuck there for five days so missed the effects on Thompson. We were in self-catering apartments so food started to get low.

We had booked lunches out at all the places on the tour so no one had catered for being cut off. The hotel on the site was on a skeleton staff and when the snow was at its worst they did a 24 hour shift. Needless to say, no churches were visited, until the last day but one, when the coach company phoned to say they were finally able to get out of the depot and could take us somewhere provided it was on a main road. We had abandoned all hope of the programme by now so elected to go to Norwich where they could visit the cathedral and where they could at least get a warm drink somewhere.

A lot of shops and attractions remained closed because of lack of staff but we managed quite a good day. The next day they took us to Hingham but the guide we had booked went down with flu. We headed to the church where one of the clergy gave us a very good impromptu tour. This was meant to be followed by a guided tour of the historical aspects of the village. I had only had the previous evening to bone up on it on the computer but managed to remember enough to get by. Due to the cold the café had more appeal anyway, and we were very well looked after there, with a good choice of hot food. It wasn’t a total disaster but I have not been in any hurry to repeat it. Meanwhile, at home, the village was cut off and the pipes just outside the house had frozen.

Dave had to resort to using the water from our well, which is always amazingly clear. He had some bottled water but when that ran out he risked boiling and filtering the well water and suffered no ill effects. Not sure he was too impressed with me being in a cosy apartment while he suffered! Let’s hope that, as I write, what remains of 2020 doesn’t have any weather surprises and that 2021 starts well.  Though it is the unusual which makes history!

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