A hunt through the archives to help the Millings care home with an exhibition about the winter of 1947 provided a fascinating insight into the hardship of rural life at the time.

IT seems incongruous this week to be writing of the deep freeze which struck 74 years ago, coming after a glorious weekend of spring sunshine, with the daffodils starting to bloom, and lambs already skipping through lowland fields. But perhaps it is better to look back on a period of such harsh weather when you can hear the garden birds in full voice outside, than when the region was blanketed in snow as it was just three weeks or so ago.

The D&S Times of February 8, 1947 gave a comprehensive round-up of what was unfolding, reporting drifts of up to 14 feet deep in upper Wensleydale, where residents had to walk on the wall tops to the shops in Hawes. "After two days with no milk collected, the Wensleydale Dairy Co., Hawes, are now collecting a portion and in some cases the farmers are bringing the milk in on sledges. Only about 40 children out of 200 have been attending Hawes Council School," said one article. "Thousands of gallons of milk remained uncollected in the Bowes area. This, for the first time since the war, has been turned into butter and cheese." Coal was already in high demand, with bread shortages reported in some areas.

J. Fairfax Blakeborough, in his country diary, wrote that the buses "have been as uncertain as the milk lorries on many moorland roads". "In one I travelled on during the February snows, someone asked 'What's gitten Mrs. –– ? She nivver misses coming t'market wi' this bus? A friend volunteered the information that 'Mrs. –– telled me this morning that she'd ez soon gan up in a hairyplane, as be skated and slithered, and maybe upskelled in a bus, when t'roads is in the state they is."

The snowfall in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale was said to be the worst since the memorable storm of February 1933. "Heavy snow fell on Sunday, but the blizzard of Tuesday, when the gale and snow raged all day, was of exceptional intensity," the D&S reported. "Telephone communications between Barnard Castle and Teesdale villages ceased on Tuesday morning, and Barningham was also cut off. Frozen wires was the cause."

A party of 28 children and four women returning to Whitby from a pantomime in Leeds were stranded at Lockton, near Pickering, and had to bed down for the night with villagers. There were said to be "walls of snow" in the Hambletons east of Thirsk, while Sutton Bank was "ice-bound".

Headlines from the winter of 1947

Headlines from the winter of 1947

Despite the storm, people still battled through. "Mr. Charles Wiggan, postman for the Preston-under-Scar district, who usually does his round on a bicycle, covered 15 miles on horseback. Mr Frank Dowson, on the Barden round, walked 22 miles through great drifts to isolated farms." One shopper from Bagby got to Thirsk on skis. "Complete with Alpine kit and a rucksack, she slid smoothly over the market place cobblestones, did her shopping and went home by the same means."

By March 1, the situation was becoming increasingly serious. "The position of remote farmsteads in part of the Hambleton is somewhat obscure, as many have lost their only link with the outside world since the telephone went out of order," reported the D&S. "The overall picture is one of intense cold and severe hardship, not so much through dwindling food supplies as shortage of paraffin for lamps. Groceries were delivered a week ago to the less inaccessible farms, but many people have been without meat for three weeks. Hill farmers fear considerable sheep losses, but an estimate is impossible because many have not seen their flocks for a month."

L. M. Paterson, who was attempting to make contact with farmer F. W. Furness at Murton Grange, Hawnby, described his journey as an "almost Arctic experience", having got through on foot from the bottom of Sneck Yat.

One article included a plea for more effective ways of tackling snow drifts, although acknowledging the "superhuman efforts of snow clearance workers". "In an age which has been remarkable for man's inventive genius, it is surprising that no swift and effective of melting snow barriers has been discovered. The idea of using flame throwers seemed productive only of failure from the start, and it was. Bulldozers have superseded ploughs as the most rapid means of tackling snow blocks, but there should be some less complicated and more convenient way of combatting the drifts."

In this picture from W. D. Hodgson of Northallerton, a binder is being unloaded at Finghall Station – a timely reminder that seed time and harvest must not fail

In this picture from W. D. Hodgson of Northallerton, a binder is being unloaded at Finghall Station – 'a timely reminder that seed time and harvest must not fail'

Happier news was reported on March 8, as a Coverdale bride "defied the snow" to get married after three previous attempts were thwarted by the weather. Muriel Helmsley and Charles James tied the knot at St Botolph's Church, Horsehouse. The bride "had to have a road cut from Braidley, where there was six feet of snow" and was brought in a car with two shovels tied to the doors.

The road between Thirsk and Helmsley was reopened, with a snow plough and crew making a "slow and ticklish descent through the drifts of Sutton Bank". A county highways official told the D&S: "Not one of the crew spoke a word from the top of the Bank to the bottom."

On March 15, the D&S reported "26 degrees of frost at Spennithorne" had been recorded in one 24-hour period by Mr F. M. Curtis, who said it was the hardest frost in March since records began 17 years earlier.

"One hardy dalesman summed up the position in early March thus," wrote J. Fairfax Blakeborough in that week's edition, "when someone remarked on the beauty of the hills glistening in their wintry mantle: 'Aye they leeak grand, but they's leeak a lot better if there wasn't so mich of that white stuff on 'em.'"

The Ministry of Agriculture was arranging extra fodder for hill farms ahead of lambing. Villages and farms around Semerwater had been cut off for five weeks "and it was only by a fine spirit of co-operation and mutual help that the inhabitants have survived," said the D&S. "One farmer lent coal to another farmer who had illness in his family, and another parted with so much of his paraffin and potatoes that last weekend he had none for himself. Mr John Outwaite, aged 73, who lives at Bainbridge, carried two gallons of paraffin in a tin on his back through miles of deep snow into Raydale during the worst part of the storm. Hay, bags of meal, loaves of bread and other food have been shared freely." Milk was brought across Semerwater by horse-drawn sledges to get it out of the dale.

Headlines from the winter of 1947

Headlines from the winter of 1947

Thankfully, by the time the March 22 edition of the D&S Times was published, the thaw had started – but it was far from plain sailing. "'When the thow came snow what had been driven unner our tiles melted and we had buckets and basins in every room to catch the drips and outside it was all blash, blather, slush and muck,' said one farmer's wife to another on the market bus," wrote J. Fairfax Blakeborough. "'We had just the same carry-on,' came the reply – 'water plop-plop-plopping on the bedroom ceiling down the walls and in at the doors. Awd Noah couldn't have a warse or wetter going-on in the Hark.'"

Surviving a crisis with neighbourly support and a touch of humour sounds very familiar, looking back at 1947 through the context of the last 12 months. Now let's just hope March 2021 doesn't have a sting in the tail – either from the weather, or anything else.