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Kent's most extreme winters: From snow in 1947 to frozen seas in 1963 and the Beast from the East in 2018

Do you remember the time the seas around Kent froze? Chris Britcher looks back at some of the county's most extreme weather.

While 2019 was something of a damp squib for those of us who appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a snow-blanketed landscape or the thrill of a downhill hurtle on a sledge, recent years have seen plenty of blizzard-like conditions in Kent.

Chatham in 1947 after heavy snow blanketed the county
Chatham in 1947 after heavy snow blanketed the county

While many look to the skies at this time of year in the hope of spotting a heavy cloud ready to release snowflakes by the proverbial truckload over the county, we take a look back at some of the most notable white-outs to remind you that when it does happen in the county it can fulfil all your snowy dreams.

1819/20

If the Beast from the East and the winter of 1819/20 decided to lock horns in a snowy scrap, I suspect this 19th century period would have triumphed.

After 1819 bowed out with heavy snow towards the end of December, it just kept on coming as January emerged.

Not only were large parts of the Thames frozen over, but in the Thames Estuary ice floes were spotted - something which played havoc with the then essential shipping industry.

Kent has experienced its fair share of heavy winters over the years
Kent has experienced its fair share of heavy winters over the years

In Tunbridge Wells, a bone-chilling temperature of -23C was recorded.

1836/37

Think of a Victorian Christmas, and scenes created by Medway's Charles Dickens tend to come to mind. So it was perhaps fitting that the turn of the year which would signal the dawn of the Victorian era in 1837 saw some of the most dramatic snowfalls.

From Christmas Eve 1836 the snow started to fall in the south east - following on from an exceptionally chilly couple of months - and continued throughout the festive period.

Just to give you an indication of the scale of the snow, in Lewes, just 25 miles south of Tunbridge Wells in East Sussex the UK's deadliest avalanche on record occurred.

Snow falls on Halfway, on Sheppey, leaving roads completely blocked in 1987. Picture: George Poule
Snow falls on Halfway, on Sheppey, leaving roads completely blocked in 1987. Picture: George Poule

On December 27 after relentless snow on the East Sussex town, a huge build-up on an overlooking hill collapsed onto the homes below. It wiped out a row of cottages and claimed eight lives.

The following year, 1837, the temperatures plunged again. Beckenham, then still part of Kent, recorded temperatures of -26C while nearby Greenwich could only manage -11C... at noon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was so parky the Thames froze over.

1849

Normally by April, you're looking at the proverbial rain showers as spring sparks into life. Not so in 1849. A huge snowstorm blew in on April 19 and left the south of England under a blanket of snow.

In Westerham, coaches, then the main form of transport, were buried in monstrous snow drifts while many towns and villages were cut off as telegraph lines collapsed under the weight of the snow.

Whitstable after the heavy snow falls across Kent in 1947 - the Neptune pub is in the background
Whitstable after the heavy snow falls across Kent in 1947 - the Neptune pub is in the background

1947

Now this is what I call a winter. After an unseasonally mild start to January (sound familiar?) the cold snap began on January 23 as Kent felt the impact of heavy snow showers.

And it did not ease up until well into March. Kent joined the rest of the UK in experiencing almost constant sub-zero temperatures with snow falling, somewhere in the UK, every day for 55 days in a row. And it was so cold the snow kept laying and building up.

In February, the ferry service between Dover and Ostend had to be suspended after pack ice formed off the Belgian coast.

For post war Britain, the cold weather caused fuel shortages too.

A seaman skies across the frozen River Medway at Rochester from his ship to visit the shops on January 25, 1963, after his boat was trapped in ice
A seaman skies across the frozen River Medway at Rochester from his ship to visit the shops on January 25, 1963, after his boat was trapped in ice

Of course, when the milder weather finally swept in by mid-March, most of the ground remained frozen and as the snow melted there was widespread flooding too.

There was little respite in April either - it was the wettest month in 80 years.

1962-63

The coldest winter for 200 years; the snow began at Christmas 1962 and didn't relent for three months.

Kent saw the River Medway freeze, leaving boats and barges stranded.

The frozen River Medway in Maidstone during the winter of 1962. Picture: Andrew Clarke
The frozen River Medway in Maidstone during the winter of 1962. Picture: Andrew Clarke

Around the coast, the sea started to freeze over with remarkable sights along the north Kent coast from Gravesend - where inland snow drifts as high as 8ft were reported as a remarkable 18in of snow fell from the skies - all the way along through to Herne Bay where waters were frozen for a mile out to sea.

The Navy had to use an ice breaker to keep the dockyard at Chatham open.

Meanwhile, in Maidstone's Mote Park the lake froze over providing an ice rink for the brave.

Average temperatures for January were zero - and not much more for February. The thaw began in early March.

1987

Travel disruption at Gillingham train station after heavy snowfall in January 1987
Travel disruption at Gillingham train station after heavy snowfall in January 1987

While heavy snow tended not to be confined to Kent, 1987 saw the county bear the brunt of relentless snow which fell during January to make it the worst winter in the county since that of 1962-63.

A remarkable 50cm of snow fell in East Malling, while Sheppey saw the addition of strong winds result in snow drifts more than six metres deep.

Reliant then on only the Kingsferry Bridge, the island became almost completely cut off as temperatures dropped as low as -18C. Gurkhas were called in to help and supplies dropped in by air. The Isle of Grain was cut off for 12 days.

Many roads became impassable across the county and where exposed fields allowed the winds to whip snow into drifts, motorists found themselves driving along corridors of thick, banked snow.

To the surprise of no-one, trains ground to a halt.

Swans find a gap in the ice as Singleton Lakes in Ashford freeze over in 2010
Swans find a gap in the ice as Singleton Lakes in Ashford freeze over in 2010

Parts of the North Down saw 30inches of the white stuff.

2010

It seems if the weather front comes in from the east then you can expect 'winter whiteout' headlines to follow.

So it was the case in 2010 when the county saw heavy snow arrive earlier than normal. On December 1 heavy snow fell causing the predictable havoc to transport networks.

The M25 saw 400 lorries stranded overnight. Gillingham had to cancel a league match after a foot of snow fell on its Priestfield pitch.

South East 4x4 Response team were out in force towing people out of snow and getting nurses and doctors to work at Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham during 2018's Beast from the East
South East 4x4 Response team were out in force towing people out of snow and getting nurses and doctors to work at Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham during 2018's Beast from the East

The west of the county was particularly badly hit with many roads grinding to a halt. More than 100 schools were forced to shut their doors.

Further heavy snow fell the week before Christmas, forcing Eurostar services to be cancelled.

2018

Ah, the Beast from the East - we all remember it well. The year 2018 was a bit of a fine vintage for those who dream of snowy winters and scorching summers.

With cold air blowing in from Siberia, which knows a thing or two about chilly weather, it hit the county at the end of February and held us in its icy grasp for several weeks into March.

KMTV report as the Beast from the East struck Kent

Hundreds of schools shut and even the Chatham Ski Centre was forced to close its doors as the real stuff coated its slopes.

Many parts of the county, including Canterbury, also experienced the relatively rare weather phenomenon of freezing rain - which upon contact with surfaces immediately turned to ice.

Beach huts in the snow in Herne Bay in 2018
Beach huts in the snow in Herne Bay in 2018

It resulted in dozens of car crashes and left many having difficulty simply getting into their vehicles as they became encased in an icy cocoon.

As the final snow melted at the end of March, just two months later one of the hottest and longest summers on record took its place.

Swings and roundabouts, I think the phrase is.

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