One year on from the Beast from the East’s wintry grip
PUBLISHED: 09:52 26 February 2019 | UPDATED: 10:20 26 February 2019
Archant Norfolk 2018
This time last year saw the arrival of a rare and devastating weather phenomenon, the likes of which have seldom been seen on British shores in recent history.
The warnings had begun weeks before, with experts predicting widespread heavy snowfall and unusually low temperatures brought about by cold air transported from Siberia to Europe.
Dubbed the ‘Beast from the East’ by media outlets but officially named Anticyclone Hartmut, no one really knew just how severely Norfolk and Waveney would feel the effects of this freak occurrence.
Amid bitter, sub-zero temperatures the first flakes of snow began falling on February 26, prompting alerts from health bosses for people to take extra care of their loved ones.
Moderate showers of the white stuff soon transcended into a deluge and another rare marvel reared its head as thundersnow hit Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
A day later the sheer scale and power of the conditions became clear when more than 400 schools were shut across the region after 20cm of snow swept in overnight.
Residents, business-owners, delivery drivers and emergency services tried their utmost to tame the beast - some enjoying success - but public transport, flights and local services remained firmly in its grip.
Perhaps the grimmest reality to hit home for those in more rural areas was the frightening speed at which they became completely cut off from the rest of civilisation.
As villages ran out of essential supplies their susceptibility to isolation was clearer than ever before, especially when police warned motorists to only drive on the treacherous roads if absolutely necessary.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as communities came together to clear roads plagued by snowdrifts and nurses defied the elements in a desperate attempt to make it to work.
Ambulance crews embarked on heroic attempts to rescue stranded patients, thrill-seekers brought their skis out of hibernation and youngsters enjoyed sledging down freezing slopes.
‘Like an Arctic expedition’
If there was a Beast from the East tale of heroism that stood out from the rest, this incredible rescue mission in the remote village of Chedgrave must surely be a contender.
Battling through drifting snow and treacherous roads, a 20-minute job for an East of England Ambulance team turned into a nine-hour “Arctic expedition” as they trekked three miles over fields with equipment tied to sledges.
Called to a patient in his 40s with breathing difficulty, paramedics found their ambulance stranded - cut off by gales and sweeping snow drifts.
By 3am on Friday, March 2 - four hours after the initial call - they had been repeatedly hit with dead ends and impassable roads. Routes they had used half an hour before were closing behind them with shifting snow.
Rob Adams, duty locality manager for central Norfolk and bronze commander that night, was called to assist towards the end of an 18.5 hour shift.
“We realised all avenues had been tried and there was no way of getting to the patient. The gravity set in we couldn’t get there by road.
“We thought lets ditch the vehicles as close as we can to the property. We got to within about three miles before we had to abandon the vehicles and deferred to the simplest and most realistic option, which is your own legs.”
A fire engine, ambulance and all-terrain ambulance vehicle were abandoned close to Langley School. Equipment was tied to sledges and the teams set off across fields for three miles.
“For the first mile and a half we were following roads which weren’t roads,” said Mr Adams. “It was almost like an Arctic expedition.
“While doing that we realised we would have to come back the same way. We tasked a second HART crew from Cambridge who followed our tracks through the snow.”
Fortunately the patient was found, given medication and packaged onto a stretcher, before a farmer took the group a short distance in a 4x4. They were then forced to continue the 45-minute hike back to the vehicles.
“At the same time there were probably four or five similar jobs going on in Norfolk,” added Mr Adams. “In 13 years I have never experienced anything like it.
“We never considered what would happen if we don’t get there. We had to find a way. Every single person achieved exactly what they were asked to do.”
How did the region’s livestock cope?
With the region overwhelmed by some of the harshest conditions in living memory, farmers faced a tough task to keep their chilly animals safe.
As well as lending a helping hand by rescuing stranded drivers and clearing huge snowdrifts, Norfolk and Waveney’s farming community battled to get food and water to their livestock.
Andrew Foulds, whose sheep herds span Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, described the unfamiliar conditions as “character-forming”.
“These are some of the worst conditions I have had in 50 years of doing this job,” he said. “But we have got a superb team of good, young shepherds who go out in all weathers and get the job done.”
There were also struggles for animal sanctuaries.
Chris Rockingham, co-founder and trustee of PACT Animal Sanctuary, predicted the effects of the Beast from the East would be felt for a long time.
“It is having a big impact,” she said in early March last year. “Most of our charity shops have had to close and they supply half our income which means our income is going to be badly hit.”
PACT has 11 shops and Mrs Rockingham estimated that, for every snow day, the charity would stand to lose around £11,000.
Despite the presence of dangerous conditions around almost every corner, many saw it as their duty to go the extra mile in order to help friends, family and even strangers.
Community spirit shone through across Norfolk and Waveney, going some way towards tempering the misery felt by thousands who found themselves snowed in, cut off, or too scared to venture outside.
One pair of intrepid farmers saved the day in Lound after a huge build-up of snow left them unable to receive crucial deliveries of medication.
Residents and staff at Lound Hall had found themselves stranded following 48 hours of torrential snowfall - leaving the driveway in a treacherous state and preventing delivery vehicles from reaching the home.
Vinay Patel - managing director at KRG Healthcare, which owns the home - said: “Lound Hall has a really long driveway and it was covered in snow that almost came up to our knees - we’d never seen anything like it.
“Nobody could get to us because the conditions were so dangerous.”
With emergency services already waylaid with countless call-outs, staff members made contact with two Blundeston farmers, Sam Perks and DJ Jermy, who soon arrived in their diggers and set about clearing the snow.
“We were so grateful to the farmers, but they just said ‘that’s what neighbours are for’,” added Mr Patel. “With all the chaos going on in the world, there are still plenty of good people out there.”
In Rollesby, Nick Smith - duty locality officer with the East of England Ambulance Trust (EEAST) - was called to a van which had ended up in a ditch, but soon found himself blocked by snow drifts.
It wasn’t long before he was freed, however, after a pair of diggers appeared suddenly and came to the rescue.
“You couldn’t push through them with an ambulance or a car,” said Mr Smith, who was in a 4x4.
“But two JCBs came out of nowhere and pushed their way through. It took 15 to 20 minutes, just stopping and shovelling it on to the side of the road.”
Things were no different in Swanton Morley as butcher David Smith braved the elements to ensure elderly residents were able to collect their food.
Mr Smith, 63, has been the village’s butcher for 13 years and was not about to be deterred by the grim conditions.
Despite the usual 20-minute walk taking three hours, he said it was crucial to make it to work.
He said: “There’s a lot of old people here and I thought if there’s something they need I should be here. We dug three or four cars out on the way.”
Snow? What snow?
Fast forward 12 months and the forecast could hardly differ more.
East Anglia has seen highs of 17C over the past few days, while parts of the UK are experiencing some of their hottest February days on record.
The very thought of another Beast from the East is enough to send shivers down the spine, so let’s make the most of these sunnier spells - however short-lived they may be.