NINETEEN SIXTY TWO
Michael L. Roach
The Blizzard of December 1962
It is 175 years since the South Devon Railway opened its railway line into Plymouth from the east. To the best of my knowledge, in all that time there have only been two occasions when the railway lines approaching Plymouth around the edge of Dartmoor have been struck by blizzards so severe that the resulting snow drifts were deep enough to stop all train movements and trap trains for several days. However if you know of any other occasions please write in to the web master. The first occasion was in March 1891 and on that occasion there were drifts and problems right across Southern England. The details of that event as it affected Devon and Cornwall may appear in a subsequent part of this series. In this part the blizzard of 29 December 1962 will be recalled through my photographs. This blizzard also seriously affected Exmoor and resulted in the decision to use helicopters for the first time to drop food, water and other essentials to isolated properties on Dartmoor and Exmoor and not just for humans but also for farm animals. There have been numerous other snow events in other parts of Britain, including Dartmoor in 1947, but what marked out the December 1962 event were the gale-force easterly winds and the resulting depths of the snow drifts which were up to 20 feet (6 metres) deep on Dartmoor and Exmoor. The cold spell of winter 1962-63 lasted some twelve weeks.
The blizzard of 29 December 1962 coincided with the last day of passenger services on the Plymouth – Tavistock South – Launceston ex-GWR branchline, and the complete closure of much of the route. I was there on the branch that day, all day for some 14 hours. Because of what I chose to do that day, the date became a landmark date in my life. If I had chosen instead to make a couple of return trips on the branch and stay home after tea due to the apalling weather conditions I might have felt differently about the date. The full story of what I did on 29 December 1962 has been recounted once before twelve months ago and the words that follow will be a repeat of that story with different photographs from the same day.
On the 28 December1962 there had been a dusting of snow in many places after a week of intensely cold weather. On the following day we woke to some 3 inches (75mm) of snow in Plymouth. It was a sad day for someone who had come to love this line in the preceeding three years and who would miss the atmosphere of a line that was in many ways still as it was pre-nationalisation in 1947 or even pre-war in 1938. It was still worked by the same classes of engines (the 4500s and the 6400s) that had worked the line in the nineteen thirties. I had taken hundreds of photos of the Launceston Branch trains and made many trips along the line and knew that with the crowds expected for a “last day” that I had little chance of getting my favourite position on the train which was the first window in the first coach. So instead I opted to travel out to one of my favourite stations, Yelverton, and spend several daylight hours there watching the last trains calling at the station. Later I planned to make an evening return trip to Launceston and back. I travelled out to Yelverton on the 10.40am off Plymouth which was a very popular choice for enthusiasts. The train was strengthened from the normal two coaches to four coaches hauled by Laira's small priarie 5564 which had arrived there earlier in the year. At the start of the day the snow was just a bonus and few of us travelling out on the 10.40am train could have realised the severity of the weather that was approaching the area. (to be continued)
Dennis Clarke & Mick House
The Late John Cornelius