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Remembering the big freeze and snowstorm of 1987


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For many in Kent the year 1987 is remembered for the Great Storm, when winds of up to 110mph left a trail of destruction across the county and four people dead.

Its long-standing infamy is why fewer recall the weather phenomenon that struck nine months earlier during one of the coldest winters on record.

Huge icicles hanging from a Sheerness house. Picture: Liz Wilson
Huge icicles hanging from a Sheerness house. Picture: Liz Wilson

The snow started to fall on January 11 and didn't let up for four days, with temperatures plummeting to a staggering -20C.

Cars were buried, roads became impassable and hundreds of schools were forced to shut as the blizzard left the county at a standstill.

Supermarkets ran low on food amid delivery delays and panic buying and petrol stations were left without fuel as the supply chain ground to a halt.

Hospitals were forced to cancel non-urgent operations and a number of elderly people were admitted suffering the effects of hypothermia.

The temperature dropped so low that even the sea froze in Herne Bay for the first time since 1963.

Cars were buried under a mass of snow
Cars were buried under a mass of snow
A whiteout in the aptly named White Road
A whiteout in the aptly named White Road

Several towns were cut off and practically all train services were cancelled – one journey from Charing Cross to Ashford took an incredible 13 hours.

The extreme weather came as a shock to many as it followed what had been a relatively mild start to winter.

But harsh winds from Siberia moistening over the North Sea created the conditions for a snowstorm like few before it.

Angela Maybourne, of Staplehurst Road, Sittingbourne, has more reason than most to remember the early hours of January 13.

At 3am, the mum-to-be’s waters broke and she was faced with the daunting task of making it from Hartlip to Maidstone Hospital.

People enjoying real snow on the slopes of the Alpine Ski Centre in Chatham
People enjoying real snow on the slopes of the Alpine Ski Centre in Chatham
It was knee-deep in a lot areas, including Chatham
It was knee-deep in a lot areas, including Chatham

“We rang the hospital and they told us to call the police," she recalls.

"They arranged for a snow plough to meet us at Key Street traffic lights, as it was then.”

Wrapped up in a hat, coat and blankets, off they went with Angela’s parents in tow.

“The snow plough took us up and over Detling Hill and then a police car met us at the bottom, and we had a police escort to the hospital," Angela remembers.

“We had to phone the police station later to say whether it was a boy or a girl.”

Birds enjoy a small opening of water in Herne Bay
Birds enjoy a small opening of water in Herne Bay
George Poule took this shot of a snow-covered Sheerness. The traffic lights were working but there were no cars to be seen, except those covered in snow
George Poule took this shot of a snow-covered Sheerness. The traffic lights were working but there were no cars to be seen, except those covered in snow
The community spirit came out in force
The community spirit came out in force
Getting on horseback was a method to make your way to the shops
Getting on horseback was a method to make your way to the shops
The Isle of Grain was cut off and the only means of access was by water. Here, a police boat is loaded with a portable gas heater for the Kent Oil Refinery which was desperately in need of warmth to stop essential equipment from freezing solid. Picture: Brian Weeden
The Isle of Grain was cut off and the only means of access was by water. Here, a police boat is loaded with a portable gas heater for the Kent Oil Refinery which was desperately in need of warmth to stop essential equipment from freezing solid. Picture: Brian Weeden

Holly was born at 1.15pm that day but the drama did not end there.

As he drove home from the hospital, new dad Simon Baker came off the road and had to be dug out by Gurkhas.

The late Tom Castle, who farmed at Petham all his life and kept weather records for more than 50 years, described January 1987 as a particularly savage cold snap.

The roads were treacherous across the county, including in Ditton
The roads were treacherous across the county, including in Ditton
For soldiers trained in the Arctic, the heavy snow falls across Kent proved no problem
For soldiers trained in the Arctic, the heavy snow falls across Kent proved no problem

During the big freeze he recorded a bone-chilling -19C, with the mercury not rising above -9C, even during the day, on January 12.

Speaking 15 years ago, Mr Castle said: “It barely lasted two weeks but it was savage while it was here.

“All the local farmers turned out to clear the roads with diggers and the Army even had to drop in hay by helicopter to sheep that could not be reached.”

As much as 30cm fell in areas of Canterbury
As much as 30cm fell in areas of Canterbury
Roads were at a standstill in Gillingham
Roads were at a standstill in Gillingham
The road outside The Plough at Langley looking more like a Swedish rally stage
The road outside The Plough at Langley looking more like a Swedish rally stage
Enjoying the snow in Rochester
Enjoying the snow in Rochester

The Isle of Sheppey, which at the time was accessed by the Kingsferry Bridge, became almost completely cut off.

Sheerness residents remember seeing a broken-down car, a broken-down AA van and a broken-down AA tow truck all on one snow-covered road.

There were thousands of call-outs to recover stricken vehicles, yet many had to remain abandoned for days.

Ian Read, a senior reporter for the Evening Post at the time, recalls covering the snowstorm on Sheppey.

There's a car under there somewhere
There's a car under there somewhere
Queueing for milk and bread as supplies become short in Minster Road
Queueing for milk and bread as supplies become short in Minster Road
A wintry Northfleet in 1987. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
A wintry Northfleet in 1987. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
Boys celebrate as they make their way home with a bottle of milk from the local shop. Picture: Barry Hollis
Boys celebrate as they make their way home with a bottle of milk from the local shop. Picture: Barry Hollis
It looks like the Antarctic but this was the scene along the Halfway Road A250 towards Sheerness. Picture: Barry Hollis
It looks like the Antarctic but this was the scene along the Halfway Road A250 towards Sheerness. Picture: Barry Hollis

"They were sending RAF helicopters up like taxis," he recalls.

"They were flying out from the Isle of Grain and dropping supplies to villagers. I was out with the RSPCA as they tried to save a woman's cat.

"I haven't seen weather as bad as that since."

The icy temperatures saw bodies of water and sections of the sea freeze
The icy temperatures saw bodies of water and sections of the sea freeze
Cars going absolutely nowhere in Shurland Avenue on Sheppey
Cars going absolutely nowhere in Shurland Avenue on Sheppey

Strong easterly winds combined with heavy snowfall caused drifts of up to 6ft deep in places.

Ray Morris was a field engineer working to restore electricity across the county when he became lost in a blizzard.

Speaking in 2017, aged 67, he said: "The linesmen managed to get me up the top of Detling Hill in the Land Rover.

"The snow was almost as high as the windscreen. It was terrible, I’d never known anything like it.

Snowy Wingham in January 1987
Snowy Wingham in January 1987
The avenue of snow would have taken days to melt. Picture: Mary Smith
The avenue of snow would have taken days to melt. Picture: Mary Smith
Pupils in Ashford built an igloo
Pupils in Ashford built an igloo

“The equipment I needed to reach was within walking distance, but the snow was 4ft deep in places.

“I started walking but the snow was blowing all around me, my tracks were covered and I became disorientated. I was lost for about an hour-and-a-half, which was frightening, but I eventually found my way back by recognising the shape of the trees I noticed when I left the Land Rover.”

A detective sergeant in Dover at the time, Ashley Clark, recalls working through the bitter temperatures.

"I remember going out and arresting someone and because it was so blimmin' cold, I had a Davy Crockett hat on," he said.

"I think I scared the living daylights out of him, thinking a wild man was on his doorstep.

A wintry, picture-postcard setting of Cranbrook in January 1987
A wintry, picture-postcard setting of Cranbrook in January 1987
A novel way of getting about in Sheerness
A novel way of getting about in Sheerness
Gillingham as a winter wonderland after three days of consecutive snow
Gillingham as a winter wonderland after three days of consecutive snow
The snow hit all areas in the county
The snow hit all areas in the county

"Life went on during the snow. As detectives, we just did a lot more on foot – when you're working all the time you just get on with your job.

"I remember it was very cold and there was lots of snow, but it was nothing like the winter of 1962/63.

"That one was for real men and real women – '87 was a freeze for snowflakes.

Trying to keep farms up and running proved a hard task, with helicopters having to drop in animal feed
Trying to keep farms up and running proved a hard task, with helicopters having to drop in animal feed
Kent Messenger reporters John Nurden and John Hammond covering the freak weather
Kent Messenger reporters John Nurden and John Hammond covering the freak weather

"If we had something like that now, I think society would come to an utter halt. We're totally reliant on shopping out of town and relying on mail order.

"We've made ourselves more fragile as a society."

While the snow finally relented on January 14, Kent was gripped by the big freeze for about 10 days.

Onboard the Medway Rhino taking vital medicines from Sheerness Docks. Picture: Derek Collins
Onboard the Medway Rhino taking vital medicines from Sheerness Docks. Picture: Derek Collins
Traffic chaos at Blue Bell Hill
Traffic chaos at Blue Bell Hill
The East Kent Mercury front page covered the impact the snow was having on Deal
The East Kent Mercury front page covered the impact the snow was having on Deal

The snow only began to properly thaw on January 18, paving the way, literally, for the county to return to some sense of normality.

But for some the impact was longer-lasting.

Herne Bay Junior School was forced to shut for almost a month because its toilets remained frozen.

The village of Allhallows under thick snow
The village of Allhallows under thick snow
People making their way along Canterbury high street in the January blizzard
People making their way along Canterbury high street in the January blizzard

Lower temperatures have not been recorded in Kent since, but the January of 1987 was not as cold as the winters of 1947 and 1963.

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