LONDON (NEWS 1130) – Britain’s military was deployed to central and western England on Friday to help get hospital employees to work and to assist police in rescuing people from snowbound vehicles as unusually cold weather gripped Europe.
The big freeze caused travel chaos throughout the country with hundreds of flights cancelled at Heathrow Airport, Europe’s largest air hub. Trains broke down, stranding some passengers in frosty conditions for hours.
“This is particularly unusual weather,” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said. “It’s something that happens very rarely in this country.”
Another thing that happens very rarely these days is the canals freezing over in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam.
But by Friday ice on the historic Prinsengracht canal was thick enough for residents to lace up their skates and glide across its frozen surface. Water authorities banned boats from the canal and closed locks and sluices this week to help the ice thicken.
One police force in Scotland tweeted a picture of a patrol car beside a snowdrift almost as high as the vehicle to show drivers why they should stay home. “PLEASE AVOID THIS AREA,” the post said.
The army sent 20 troops and 10 four-wheel drive vehicles to Shropshire, the county south of Liverpool, and the Royal Marines sent resources to Devon and Cornwall on the southwest coast after police asked for help. More troops were at the ready.
“There are three U.K. standby battalions held at high readiness to respond to U.K. contingencies and emergencies, including support to local authorities,” the Ministry of Defence said in a statement. “We have the right people with the right training to respond to a range of contingencies.”
One train travelling from London’s Waterloo Station to Weymouth ground to a halt outside New Milton, stranding motorists for hours. Thousands of homes are without electricity as temperatures remain below freezing, with bitter winds.
Heathrow Airport tweeted Friday that it was working with airlines to consolidate the flight schedule “to provide more certainty around departing flights,” as extreme winter conditions were expected across the U.K. and Europe. More than 350 flights were cancelled. Gatwick, London City, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports also reported cancellations.
Other European airports closed down entirely. Authorities at Geneva’s airport suspended air traffic for a second straight day amid heavy snowfall. By early afternoon, flights had resumed.
Around 340 flights were cancelled at Ireland’s Dublin Airport, which posted images of swirling snow together with the hashtag “BeastFromTheEast.” It doesn’t plan to open until Saturday.
Up to a meter (three feet) of snow was reported on the high ground in eastern Ireland, and travellers were stranded south and west of the capital.
“Large amounts of snow on many roads and conditions vary significantly,” police in Ireland said. “Cars abandoned on many roads due to snow.”
In central England, volunteers brought hot drinks and blankets to stranded drivers as they waited for help. Eleanor Kelly, 19, said those stranded in the Milnrow suburb of Rochdale included a father with a baby and toddler in his car.
“We’ve been trying to get to as many people as we can in about a mile radius from where we can get to the carriageway,” she said.
Trains also reported disruptions. One commuter, Philip Brown, endured more than 15 hours on a train travelling from London Waterloo to Bournemouth, Dorset. The average time for the journey is about two hours.
“I didn’t have any food or water. There were no buffet facilities on board. The train lost power and we lost heating and lights,” said Brown, 49. “I couldn’t tell you how cold it was, but it was cold enough to prevent you from sleeping. People were taking it in their stride although one guy was quite agitated. People were wrapping jumpers round their legs trying to keep warm.”
In Amsterdam, nobody was complaining about the cold. Residents on skates glided past tourists who slithered across the ice to take selfies. One woman took her dog for a walk along the frozen canal.
“It’s just cool. You can go fast and you see the world from a slightly different perspective,” skater Noldus Reijnders said as he sat on a boat to catch his breath.
Despite the measures to help ice develop, there were still some holes and parts of the canal weren’t frozen at all.
Reijnders was wearing a special red ice pick around his neck, just in case.
“If you sink through the ice — and there are still a few dangerous places — you can pull yourself out,” he said.
Jamey Keaten in Geneva, and Mike Corder in Amsterdam, contributed to this report.