Dartmoor Blizzard 1963

By Kristy Turner, Museum Manager and Curator

Christmas Day 1962 saw temperatures plummet and the first snowfall, but it was on the evening of 29th December that the blizzard started. Okehampton station’s  Running Foreman, Arthur Westlake remembers:

‘Well I went down and lit up all these engines (to keep them in light steam to prevent frost damage) and I went in on a Sunday and I ‘ad to stay there ‘till the Thursday, I just couldn’t get ‘ome. We was buried into the depot with about six foot of snow. Anyway we managed to get the snow ploughs workin’ and tried to clear the track between Okehampton and Meldon, which we tried and tried for days and really we was about ten days before we could even get through.’

For six weeks there was very little let up.  The lines would briefly reopen, then more snow would fall, drifting into the railway cuttings, driven by gale force easterly winds. A combination of falling snow, freezing rain and sub-zero temperatures resulted in 20 foot drifts. The snow became as hard as concrete in places, causing the ploughs to derail.

Compacted snow in a cutting had to be cleared by hand. At times up to 100 railwaymen, helped by soldiers, were working to do this. None had specialist extreme weather clothing or safety gear, just flasks of hot soup to help them combat the extreme cold. At Okehampton there were two breakdown vans which were fitted out with eating and sleeping accommodation for the snow plough crews. Points and signals were moved regularly to try and stop them from freezing, but sometimes they became disconnected from the rodding and crowbars were used. Work at Meldon Quarry practically came to a halt so the men could help to clear the line.

The Tavistock Times front page on January 4th 1963 read:

‘The Worst Week In Living Memory.’

‘Marooned villages; food supplies by helicopters, which also took the sick to hospital; thousands of trapped and dying animals and vehicles abandoned; and countless tales of hardship and heroism.’

It was  7th February before the first drips of the thaw began, but with that came the new danger of flooding. The water levels in the local rivers increased, bringing much concern. Luckily, though many roads were flooded, this was an ordeal the railway did not have to face. The first morning without a frost anywhere in Britain, was 6th March 1963.

This and more stories about the railway in Okehampton can be viewed in the exhibition ‘When The Train Came To Town’ at the Museum of Dartmoor Life.