St Martin Street floods 1946 (Photo: Derek Foxton)
"Grandfather always used to turn around and say as we went up towards Sandy Bay, "don't be up there too long, there's a storm coming."
'Grandfather always used to turn around and say as we went up towards Sandy Bay, "don't be up there too long: theres a storm coming." Nine out of ten times he was right. He used to go by nature. Even now, before I go out, I usually look down the river and if it is all rippled in the middle and glassy on either side that’s a sure sign there’s moisture in the air. So, we mightn’t get rain, but I always take my Pac-a-mac with me.’ Janet Preedy.
The great flood of 1947, the big freeze of 1963, the long drought of 19’76, such extreme weather conditions have seared themselves into our collective consciousness. “Artic conditions”, and “floods of the century” are gifts from the heavens for local news reporters and The Hereford Times squeezed the life out of the opportunity in February 1963 when its headline screamed: ‘Spectacle of the century as Wye ice breaks up!’
It went on to describe, ‘18-inch ice floes breaking up in upper river’. It was dramatic, once in a lifetime stuff and ice fever spread. A householder close to the Victoria Bridge was woken up at 3am, ‘by a noise that sounded like a lorry load of bricks being tipped outside the front door’.
This was the ice crashing into the Victoria Bridge. By daylight, spectators had poured onto the Bridge to see this weather freak.
In the same winter freeze in Ross-on-Wye, the Ross Gazette reported boys playing football on the frozen river in front of the Hope & Anchor.
Victorian and Edwardian photos of a frozen Wye demonstrate it wasn’t such a rare occurrence after all.
A Hereford Journal report in 1917 describes the river as ‘thronging with hundreds of persons attracted by the splendid piece of ice from the boathouse up’. Wednesday was market day and at Hardings the Ironmongers on Bridge Street it was expected to be busy. If there was a frost for three or four days, down would come the rabbit wires and up would go all the skates. At Ross, Brian Dean’s grandmother earnt many a farthing by tying skates on to the gentry’s shoes.
Still in Ross in 1963 the river was frozen from bank to bank for a month at the riverside pub, the Hope and Anchor, it was the least likely of places for a spot of soccer, but sure enough, the local paper reported ‘20 young men playing football with a beach ball on a pitch stretching right across the river. Others circled the “pitch” on bicycles’. This same stretch of river during the same winter proved the perfect skating spot for Howard Copping, 91, of Ross, who happened to have a pair of skates in his cupboard.
1963 and this time in Whitney-on-Wye, where Tom Henderson remembers the ice over the river was 18-inches thick: ‘Me and father took a sledgehammer to the ice and we couldn’t break it. There was a thin layer of snow on it. He said, “Come on Tom, let’s go across for a cup of tea”. We tested the ice and walked from the factory, down the bank and crossed the river, up the other bank, had a cup of tea with a neighbour and then we went back the way we came. No winter like that since. We were defrosting everything.’
Laconic, wise and beady eyed, there aren’t many left who know the river quite as well as him: ‘I am so old I can remember the flood of 1947!’
‘There were sash windows and I got one down and I said, “Is there anything you want from that house?” And my neighbour replied, “There are some nice pictures I wouldn’t want damaged”. I knew the river was still rising, so I canoed through the windows, through the house and it was pitch dark. There was furniture floating around and I couldn’t sit upright under the ceiling because I was crouched down tight. But I got his pictures off the wall, put them in the canoe, and just managed to get through the sash windows because the river was still rising.’
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