Another non-white Christmas has been and gone. Snow is far from a frequent occurrence in East Anglia, yet it plays a significant part in local culture and history.
As the nation’s driest region, East Anglia is particularly devoid of the white stuff, making our fond relationship with snow perhaps all the more surprising.
According to this interactive map, based on Met Office data, Cambridge has an average of five days of snow a year, Norwich six, and Bury St Edmunds seven – a far cry from the Cairngorms national park, which leads the way on 86 (although not quite as low as the Isles of Scilly, with less than one).
Even if snow is a relative rarity in East Anglia, it still features heavily in the cultural life of the region – whether it’s the Fen Skating, a tradition thought to date back to the middle ages, or the many postcards or photos displaying famous landmarks such as King’s College or Norwich Cathedral with a magical white dusting.
As with many cultural phenomena, the desperate pining for those white fluffy flakes is in part spurred on by the media. Thousands of column inches (including those of this article) are expended on speculation as to exactly when and where snow might fall, and, on Christmas Day, it rarely does. In the 56 years between 1960 and 2016, there were only 13.
But there are also those with long memories or with a keen ear for local history, who remember some of the coldest, harshest winters the region’s seen in recent centuries.
Christmas snow in East Anglia – a potted history
Some still remember the brutal winter of 1947. A resident of Welwyn at the time remembers it as the worst winter of her lifetime, with snow coming to the tops of the hedgerows. The Met Office confirms that this was the ‘snowiest winter of the twentieth century’, and not just in the East:‘Between 22 January and 17 March, snow fell every day somewhere in the country.’
Going further back, thanks to the wonderful work of local historian David Lindley, we have records of many mentions of extreme weather in East Anglia over the centuries, recorded on the website of the Foxearth and District Local History Society.
In the winter of 1657-58, under Cromwell, East Anglians lived through a bleak winter, and not only because of the Christmas ban in place at the time (although Cromwell had little to do with it). The region endured a ‘long lying snow, lasting from December through until March!’.
1683-84 was recorded as ‘a particularly bitter winter with an average temperature of minus 1.2 degrees Centigrade for December, January and February’. ‘The snow cover lasted for over a hundred and twelve days, when the average at that time was seventy five days.’
While on Christmas Day 1836, one diary entry recalls: ‘roads impassable, snow depths reached 5-15 feet in many places, and most astonishingly, drifts of 20-50 feet. Christmas Day was ushered in with snowstorms and hailstorms, thunder, and lightning.’
No white Christmas, but a chance later
While warmer winters mean that the days when rivers would regularly freeze solid are long gone, a wintery dusting still makes an appearance at some point most years, bringing joy to children given a day off and the chance for some sledging, and misery to those trying to walk down the road without slipping.
Christmas is actually not the most likely time for snow to fall in East Anglia – it’s more common in the colder months of January and February. So, who knows, we might yet see some snow in the East this winter.