The blizzards of 1963

In recent years Brentor has been spared deep snow.  Even in 2018 the ‘beast from the east’ caused only a few snowdrifts.  But in 1963 it was quite a different story………..

South Brentor Lane, probably 1963, photo by Mike Whitfield

These reminiscences are from articles in  Brentor News in December 2001 and January 2002 by Denis Young, who lived in Burn Lane House and who took a great interest in the history of Brentor.

‘The following article is taken from my extensive notes written so many years ago.

Saturday 29 December 1962.  Snow had been falling since the previous night with a biting east wind.  We spent the coming night huddled downstairs with just one fire, trying to keep warm. The electricity had failed many hours ago and we had only oil lamps. Since late afternoon blizzard conditions had prevailed, but it was now at its maximum.  The whole area becoming engulfed in the still developing deep snowdrifts, these were to increase in the coming night.  Visibility outside was nil.  The driving snow was like a thick fog.  The temperature was below zero degrees centigrade and was to stay that way for many days.

By now the G.W.R. and S.R. railway lines were completely blocked between Brentor and Lydford.  By then two snow ploughs and a freight train were buried at Lydford.  In Brentor we could only huddle together, with no contact with the outside world, just the scream of the wind and the deepening drifts.

As dawn broke the wind had eased, as had the falling snow.  We had to shovel our way out of the house.  We were lucky as others were under deep snow.  Silence now, just the sounds of voices and shovelling as people tried to free their doors and cut narrow tracks through the deep snow.  We were all well and truly cut off.  No power and with just the food we had and oil for our lamps.  The cottages below us, at line level, had the snow up to their roofs.  Even the bedroom windows could not be seen.  An amazing sight and not one to be forgotten.

Burn Lane was just an enormous snowdrift, with the snow many feet deep and reaching up to the tops of the hedges.  Nothing was moving. We could only wait.

A third snow plough and a train bringing troops to help clear the lines became stuck and frozen at Mary Tavy.  We all kept digging our way out.  Why we all bothered I don’t know.  Nobody was going anywhere, they couldn’t.  Our geese and chickens had all survived, after digging them out of their buried house.  They all spent the next few nights in our pump room tucked up inside sacks.  They all seemed happy, once we have got them all in the sacks each night that is.

At that time many men living in Brentor worked on the railway, it was the lifeblood of the area, that and farming (plus me in engineering).  Many of them were out there on the line digging, helped by the many troops in the bitter cold.

The remainder of Sunday the 30th December and Monday the 31st December 1962 was spent digging out.  Single line working had then been achieved on the railway.  More men and troops arrived.  Still bitterly cold.  On Thursday 3rd January 1963 the snow returned.  By afternoon the wind rose and with it the second blizzard.  In Burn Lane we remained huddled inside the house.  I cannot remember if power had returned.  The now-released snow ploughs were kept busy running up down the single opened line to keep it open.  In the night the wind dropped.  Between Friday 4th January and Tuesday 8th January, calm conditions but colder with more snow on the way.

Wednesday 9th January saw another severe blizzard arrive suddenly.  The lines again became blocked with the two snow ploughs plus two other trains part derailed buried.  In Burn Lane we were still cut off from the outside world.

Thursday 10th January and the blizzard, the third, had gone, but some more very heavy drifting during the night.  Colder still.  We could hear the many men and troops down on the line.  By evening even they had stopped, still falling temperatures and moving deep drifts had brought them to a halt.  Next day they carried on, we could hear them as they kept striking the line.  Calm conditions came to stay, possibly even colder, still way below freezing in the day.  Colder at night.

With the railway partly open, we could move at last.  As I recall I travelled to Plymouth each day (no snow there) for about three weeks, then driving there in my A35, by way of Bowden Down and Westcott, the road past Brentor being blocked for some time.  The three weeks travelling by train I remember clearly, also driving my A35 with no chains proved interesting, if a little hairy when I kept sliding on the ice.  Happily there were not many other vehicles out.

Lack of space prevents me from doing anything more than outline the fourth blizzard, which struck on Tuesday 5th Febmary 1963, together with a force 9 gale causing enormous drifts even deeper than before. The lines were again blocked for days. Trains were buried under the drifts and troops returned once more.

Slowly life returned to normal, thanks to the railway and the many men and troops who worked so hard out in the wind, cold and snow, often badly protected.  Somebody told me many years ago that it had cost many millions of pounds to keep the line clear between Mary Tavy and Meldon.  If the blizzards come back, God knows what we will do!’

Brentor Living Archive has very few photographs of the 1963 blizzards in Brentor.    If you have any please email them to the editor at editor@brentorvillage.org