A year on, how the Beast from the East gave us a battering

As we bask in temperatures higher than Greece this week, it is scarcely comprehendible that north Northumberland was in the grip of one of the most extraordinary storms in living memory this time a year ago.

By Paul Larkin
Thursday, 28 February, 2019, 08:44
Snowdrifts on the A1 between Alnwick and Berwick caused chaos. Picture by Alan Hughes

This very day – February 28 – just 12 months ago, the east coast had almost come to a standstill with drifts several feet deep calling a halt to road and rail travel, communities trapped for days.

The severe weather began to close in on Tuesday, February 27, and the Met Office upgraded its weather warning for the following day to an amber ‘be prepared’ status, with up to 40cm of the white stuff expected in some areas, particularly in the hills.

What a difference a year makes. Martha, nine, with dog Stan enjoy the sunshine at Bamburgh beach this week. Picture by Jane Coltman

On the Gazette Facebook page, the warnings were met with a mixture of emotions, from excitement and trepidation, to those who brushed them off as an over-reaction.

Northumberland County Council reassured residents that it would be carrying out precautionary gritting on all routes from 7pm Tuesday and again at 1am Wednesday.

Sadly, gritting became the least of its worries in the coming days.

What was about to happen, took everyone by surprise – the forecasts came true – and some!

Snow brought the A1 north of Alnwick to a standstill for 48 hours.

When 21cm of snow was recorded right on the coast at Boulmer on the Wednesday morning, the highest in the country, we started to believe the predictions and the warnings.

This kind of thing just doesn’t happen on the coast!

The Beast from the East was striking with such ferocity that the main route through Northumberland, the A1, was shut after a lorry jack-knifed between Warenford and Ellingham, while a three-vehicle collision blocked the northbound carriageway about three miles north of Alnwick.

Although the road was initially cleared, it was just the start of the nightmare.

Jack and Chloe mountaineering in Hadston. Picture by Nicola Turnbull Embleton

For a 48-hour stretch from Thursday morning, the picture was grim, with the A1 impassable, a convoy of trucks and abandoned cars stranded.

Despite the best efforts of snow-clearance teams, blizzards scurried off the North Sea and battered into Northumberland, forcing drifts higher than lorries that were impossible to clear.

Motorists were trapped for hours and rest centres were set up at the Swan Centre, in Berwick, and Alnwick’s Willowburn Sports and Leisure Centre.

On the A1, the Purdy Lodge near Adderstone, and the Lindisfarne Inn at Beal, opened their doors to offer respite to stranded travellers.

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Snow joke! Jemma and Steve have a laugh in the blizzard at ther wedding in the Treehouse at The Alnwick Garden. Picture by Sean Elliott Photography

Eventually, priority traffic was able to get through, but it was Saturday morning before the stretch between Alnwick and Berwick opened to all traffic.

Alternative routes were also hit, with the A697, A698, A696, A68 and A69 all snowbound. Many minor roads, including the Holy Island causeway, were blocked well into the weekend.

Wind-chill temperatures of -12C were measured at Letham Shank, near Berwick, while some rural areas inland experienced snow drifts above 12 feet.

Emergency services were called out to numerous crashes, some serious and causing life-changing injuries.

There was disruption on the East Coast Mainline, with trains suspended north of Newcastle. Northumberland had come to a standstill.

To compound the misery, the coast had to contend with high storm tides and warnings of flooding.

Drifts the height of a Land Rover near Duddo, by Hugh Barry.

Most tourist attractions shut their doors as staff struggled to get out of their own neighbourhoods.

Most schools were closed from Wednesday to Friday, giving the children a chance to get out and enjoy a bit of snowmageddon fun!

Amid the mayhem, an incredible community spirit shone through, with tales of the emergency services, council staff, contractors, farmers, residents and personnel at RAF Boulmer – all unsung heroes – pulling together and working round the clock to help those in need.

It was a heart-warming scene across the county, with tractors, 4x4s and other farm vehicles heading out in atrocious conditions to dig people out of the snow.

Social media inadvertently created a great platform for owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles to offer help to residents requiring supplies or medication. Kind-hearted neighbours checked up on the elderly or the vulnerable.

After the Beast’s fury had abated and the dust had settled, county council leader Peter Jackson said: “There have been many examples where people have put in extraordinary efforts to help those in need.

“Everyone has played a vital role and I thank each and every one of you.”

No sooner had the storm passed, than temperatures rose steadily, resulting in a rapid thaw that combined with heavy rain to result in widespread flooding, with the A1 once again bearing the brunt and being closed at Belford a week after the Beast had started to bare its teeth.

It had been an incredibly testing few days that proved that when the going gets tough, the people of Northumberland dig really deep to look after each other.