Created on: September 23, 2012 Last Updated: September 24, 2012
The UK is famous for damp summers, mostly due to it being an island beside the Atlantic Ocean. A compensation for this is that winters are usually mild, as the same Atlantic influence that keeps temperatures down in summer tends to keep them up in winter. The Gulf Stream delivers a constant flow of warm water and winds blowing in off the ocean moderate the chill.
It doesn't always work that way, though. Sometimes the wind changes direction and blows straight from Siberia. When this happens it can get very cold, very quickly.
Winter in the UK is from December to February, and the average temperature throughout this period is 38.6°F (3.7°C.) The British have been keeping track of the weather for a long time - temperature records go back to 1659 - and they didn't have to wait long for a hard winter. Thermometers were experimental back then, and the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales didn't even exist, but it's possible to estimate temperature from diary records and from comparing the readings of early thermometers to modern ones. This suggests that the average temperature in the winter of 1683/4 was 29.9°F (-1.17°C.) Although the River Thames flowed more slowly then and froze regularly, that winter the thickness of the ice was widely commented on. A street of temporary shops was built from Southwark to the Temple, and carriages drove on the ice. An extremely hard frost began on 20 December and lasted until 6 February. It's still officially the coldest winter ever recorded in Britain.
Thermometers improved over the next century and the Fahrenheit scale was developed in 1724, so people were able to put a number to just how cold they were in the winter of 1790/1. The average was a brisk 30.5°F (-0.8°C.)
The winter of 1894 had a mild start, with south-westerly winds keeping temperatures up. In the last week of December, though, the wind swung to the northwest and brought cold air from Greenland and the Arctic. Norfolk was under seven inches of snow by New Year. Snow continued in January and temperatures fell to just below zero Fahrenheit (-18°C) in some places. There was a brief thaw in mid-January but the north-westerly winds returned on the 21st, bringing more snow with them. In February the wind swung again and came straight out of the east. Temperatures reached extreme lows; the lowest UK temperature ever recorded came on the 11th, when Braemar dropped to -17°F (-27.2°C.) For much of the month the Thames Estuary was closed
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