On Sunday 23rd December 1962 Bristol Queen was still outside Cosens’ workshops in the Weymouth Backwater with any prospect of her returning to the Bristol Channel before Christmas now gone.
She had arrived in Weymouth from Barry on 13th November so had been there now for more than five weeks which was longer than the work on British Railways’ Sandown had taken in October before her arrival. However there were issues. Part of the work was to re-tube her boiler but unfortunately the railway truck carrying the tubes to her from the factory had somehow become mislaid somewhere in the network and nobody could find where it was.
Then there was the weather. December had started cold and foggy with London experiencing one of its last pea souper smogs. On 12th/13th there was some snow. Then on 22nd December an anti-cyclone formed over Scandinavia drawing in cold air from Russia bringing more snow.
The high over Scandinavia collapsed over Christmas but another formed over Iceland sending freezing northerly winds southwards and bringing with it heavy snow on 26th/27th December. This area of high pressure just didn’t shift and by 29th/30th December England was suffering ferocious blizzards paralysing the whole country.
Even nice sunny Weymouth, which has generally been a stranger to snow falls given the warming effect of sea water around it on nearly all sides, had such heavy snow that the town was cut off from the outside world with all roads in and out blocked. It was the first time that I had ever seen snow on any scale. It was exciting for my eleven-year-old self but goodness was it cold.
The big freeze continued on day after day, week after week. As January turned into February estuaries like the Humber started to freeze over making the working of the Humber paddle steamers really difficult. Even the sea froze close to the shore in many places around the country with the ice extending out over the mudflats at Herne Bay by almost a mile. In February there was yet more snow with drifts in some places reported to be 20ft high. It was not until early March that the thaw started to set in.
This winter in 1962/63 was the coldest recorded since 1895. Although we have had some pretty cold snaps in the ensuing years there has never been a colder winter in England since then. And that is now nearly half a century ago.
All this did not help expedite the work on Bristol Queen. In the end it was not until the 27th April 1963 that she left Weymouth bound for Cardiff.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.
This article was first published on 23rd December 2020.