Friday, 6 February 2009

Major snow event in Devon

Back to the weather again on this blog because that subject has provided the major talking point here in the Westcountry today. Precipitation moved up from the south yesterday evening and mixing with the cold air already over the region rain readily turned to snow - lots of it. Not that we had it here although this morning there was some unpleasant sleetiness in the cold wind but it was other parts of the region, notably Haldon Hill and Telegraph Hill, where the snow had some of its greatest effect.

For anyone reading this (someone must be surely!) and not familiar with the local geography I'll try and put the Haldon area into context. Haldon is the ridge of relatively high land just to the south west of Exeter but before you reach the Dartmoor foothills. Its highest point is just over 800 feet above sea level and the A38 Trunk Road almost attains this contour up by the breezy racecourse. Coming off the M5 motorway south of Exeter the road ahead changes to the A38 and in a mile or two reaches the foot of the Haldon massif where it splits. The left fork becomes the A380 and heads up Telegraph Hill on its way to Newton Abbot and Torquay. Get into the right hand lane at the split and the driver follows the A38 up Haldon Hill, down the other side and then on to Plymouth, the Tamar Bridge and Cornwall.

What happened Thursday evening then was a fairly intense snowstorm which brought traffic slithering to a standstill on the aforementioned hills. We are told that some 200 drivers were caught up in this bad weather. Fortunately the police in their 4x4 vehicles were able to ferry the vehicle occupants to some quickly prepared rest centres, one of these was at the racecourse and another in Chudleigh Village Hall reports say. I don't think it was just the police, it seems as if the army and the Dartmoor Rescue Group made their contributions. As is the way with these situations local folk rallied around to assist those who had suffered the snarl up, the warming welcome in the rest centres being in marked contrast to the bitter cold outside. Conditions have been improving during the day and both the police and the Highways Agency were keen for drivers to be reunited with their cars and lorries so that the road could be cleared.

And It wasn't just these 200 or so vehicles but the A30 spine road through my two counties also suffered to the extent that its length from Exeter to Bodmin had to be closed, partly it seems because of a jackknifed lorry near Whiddon Down. Lots of snow at such places as Okehampton, Holsworthy and nearer me the A386 was blocked at Mary Tavy. I'm told that it was quite bad in Callington as well.

Local weather forecaster David Braine had reckoned on some of our region seeing snow but he admitted lunchtime that he hadn't foreseen that it would be quite so much (it was 12 inches of level snow in places) or that it would come so far west. He had thought that it would be East Devon that would take the brunt with the west of the county - apart from Dartmoor - and Cornwall escaping unscathed.

I had commented on an earlier entry about the rapid build up in snow levels and this might be another manifestation of climate change. It seems to me, and I've remarked on this before, that our precipitation is coming in shorter but more intense bursts. Where it is exposed on the moors you would expect to find huge drifts but what we have here is a very rapid increase in depth of level snow. It's difficult to remember sometimes just what some earlier snowstorms were like but I can't recall a foot of snow accumulating so quickly and it seems as if it was the speed of events that caught people on the hop.

Just another comment about those people who helped to feed, water and generally help those in need yesterday. The upside of these happenings is that they seem to bring out the best of the British character - selfishness and insularity go out of the window and we see selflessness, generosity and community spirit. That's a real positive.

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