As snow blankets UK, Britons ask why they can't seem to plow ahead

As much as 16 inches fell in parts of the UK, causing a 1,000-vehicle backup and canceling school and work. Britain is experiencing its coldest winter in decades, while a similar chill has gripped other parts of Europe.

Nigel Roddis/Reuters
Residents clear snow from a road in Kirby Hill, northern England on Wednesday.

Snow wrought seemingly endless woes across the UK Tuesday, prompting the customary bout of national soul-searching about why a few flakes of the white stuff almost always causes Britain to grind to a virtual standstill.

Typically starved of white Christmases, Britons tend to have special place in their hearts for snow, but after waking up this morning to find much of the country blanketed, a familiar dread set in for many. In some parts of southern England, between 35cm (14 inches) and 40cm (16 inches) of snow are estimated to have fallen.

Thousands of schools were closed. Some airports, including London Gatwick, ceased operations and others, such as Europe’s busiest, London Heathrow, were forced to cancel long lists of flights.

Public services overwhelmed

The inability of public services to cope, meanwhile, led to troops being sent in overnight after hundreds of vehicles were stranded along one stretch of a busy southern English highway.

Coast guards also stepped in to lend the rescue workers a helping hand on dry land. Up to 1,000 vehicles were caught in the blockage on the route near the city of Southampton, and many people had to spend the night in their cars and trucks.

It didn't help that freezing temperatures are breaking records amid forecasts that the UK is facing its coldest winter in more than 30 years.

“I would normally be loath to look beyond five to seven days, but the way the conditions are set at the moment, I think the cold weather is not going to change for some time," the Guardian newspaper was told by Stephen Davenport, a senior meteorologist at MeteoGroup forecasting service.

Warning that the weather was “taking a turn for the worse,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged Britons to look out for neighbors and relatives who could be in need of assistance.

We're staying home

The heavy snowfall was more than enough excuse for millions of workers to stay at home rather than try to battle their way to the office.

Nearly 50 percent of them decided not to travel Tuesday, according to a poll by an employment law firm, Peninsula, suggesting that many had instead decided to work from home.

While the capital was also on the receiving end of snow falls throughout the day, there was relief that London had been spare the conditions that froze its transport network last year.

A similar chill continued to grip other parts of Europe, which has born the brunt of a cold spell for some weeks.

Paris felt the impact of an early morning snowstorm Wednesday, and authorities in parts of Germany warned that they were running out of road grit and salt.

Germany recorded its lowest temperatures overnight at -22 degrees Celsius (-7 degrees Fahrenheit), while gauges in Berlin stayed close to -8 Celsius.

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