January 12, 2010

Northumberland tales. The 1947 snow storm

School day memories of the great 1947 winter snowstorm

By Donald Clegg

New Year's Day 2010

It's New Year's Day 2010, and looking out onto a white world and a heavy snowstorm raging around the cottage reminds me of that great winter storm of 1947.

At that time I was living with my mother, father and three sisters in the tiny village of Rochester in Redesdale, Northumberland. I had just turned 14 in the January of that year and was travelling weekly to attend Gosforth Grammar School on the edge of Newcastle upon Tyne.

My two elder sisters, Joan and Freda, had both left school and were working as a shop assistant and a nurse, respectively. Moira, who was 18 months older than me was still at school in Otterburn.

The snow started in earnest in the first week of February while I was at school and lodging with my Grandma and two maiden aunts in Benwell in the west of Newcastle. Although it had snowed in Newcastle, I was not then aware of just how much, or what effect the snow was to have on everything and everyone in the following weeks and months.

I duly went to the Newcastle Haymarket bus station as usual on Friday afternoon after school to catch my bus back to Rochester. The streets were cold, wet and slushy and the old yellow bus, run by Joseph Foster of Otterburn and driven by Alfie Fairhurst, pulled in to the stand almost half an hour late.

The queue by this time was many yards long, and it took quite a struggle to fit everyone aboard. The reason for so many passengers on this trip was that, unknown to me the snow up in Redesdale had so disrupted traffic to and from Newcastle, that many people had been stranded in town for several days.

This bus in fact, was the first that had been able to make the journey since the previous Tuesday, and at this moment, the driver told us anxiously that the road would be drifting in again and if we didn't set off immediately, we may not be able to get through.

This all happened, remember, less than 18 months after the end of WW II. Petrol, food and clothing were still rationed and the bus was a 'utility' model with wooden slatted seats and no heating.

When we pulled out of the Haymarket to start our 35-mile journey, it was already dark. The old bus was jam packed with at least eight people standing, including me, plus a row of six tall milk churns along the aisle. Peering through the steamed up windows it soon became obvious that the snow was getting deeper and deeper the further we ventured out into open country.

Ponteland and Belsay were Christmas cards with the snow clad buildings, clusters of icicles on every gutter and the light from glowing yellow windows illuminating the eerie scene as we slithered and bumped past.

Between Kirkwhelpington and Otterburn came the real test as the road rose steeply to cross the high stretch of bleak moorland known as the Ottercops - an area notorious for its difficult conditions of wind, rain and fog at any time of year, without the added hazard of deep, drifting snow.

By now we were encountering drifts at every gap in the hedge or stone dyke, each one deeper and wider than the last. As we ploughed steadily onwards, the road grew narrower and narrower and the snow on either side grew deeper and deeper. All the while the snow was blasting over the landscape with a strong east wind constantly screaming and howling from right to left threatening to fill in the narrow passage leading us to the highest point on the fell.

The snow level on either side of the bus rose higher and higher so that, before long, it towered over our vehicle and it became as if we were driving through a fog filled tunnel. How the driver could see where he was going I can't imagine, though I suspect that it was only the sides of the cutting which kept him going straight ahead as the bus lurched first to one side and then the other.

All this time the passengers had been strangely silent, peering out into the night and willing the driver to bring us safely through the drifts. The only sound was the steady roar of the little Bedford's engine and the bumping and slithering of the bus over the ups and downs of the snowy road.

Inside the bus the tension was palpable and faces were drawn and anxious at the thought of getting stuck fast in such awful conditions. Gradually though, and very thankfully, the snow walls receded to below window level and a sort of visibility returned as the bus bumped and swayed down from the storm lashed heights towards Raylees, then a last climb to Monkridge Hall before dropping down Cross Bank into the comparative calm of Otterburn village.

The passengers uttered a collective sigh of relief. The bus was suddenly filled with excited conversation as they and the milk churns were disembarked onto the silent pavement outside the Co-op. The only people not relieved to have arrived in Otterburn were the bus driver and me.

Rochester, my final destination was a further five miles up the Rede valley and no snow plough had been through in the last eight hours. Undaunted though, we set off again, skidding, sliding and bouncing along the rutted road but still making steady progress.

Otterburn school, a mile out of the village was passed safely. Elishaw, where the A68 road from Darlington meets the A696 Newcastle to Edinburgh came next. Horsely and the First-and-Last pub slid past in the winter darkness followed by the church, and finally the old school as Rochester emerged from the drift and I was able to step down into the deep snow outside the Post Office.

The time now was 11.30pm and a journey of 35 miles, which normally would have taken 90 minutes, had taken a freezing and nail-biting five and a half hours. Home at last, thanks to the perseverance and determination of the bus driver and the unstoppable, grinding endurance of the old Bedford bus. All that remained was for the driver to turn round and make his lonely way back to his depot at Otterburn.

This, incidentally, was the last bus to make the journey from Newcastle to Rochester for the next three weeks as the snow and frost tightened its grip on the countryside. What and adventure! And what a story to tell my school friends when I eventually returned to Gosforth Grammar.

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