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Updated: January 6, 2010 17:57 IST

Hundreds rescued as heavy snow slams Britain

AP
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Snow falls in the Hampstead area of London, in the early hours of Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010. Photo: AP
AP Snow falls in the Hampstead area of London, in the early hours of Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010. Photo: AP

Unusually heavy snowfall stranded hundreds of motorists, disrupted trains and shut down schools and airports across Britain on Wednesday as the country suffered through its longest cold snap in nearly 30 years.

The British military was called in overnight to help rescue motorists when up to 1,000 vehicles were caught in a massive snow-related traffic jam in Hampshire, in southern England. Many people were evacuated to nearby rescue centres but some people slept in their vehicles overnight.

The demands on rescue workers in southern England were so overwhelming that coast guard workers turned their skills from sea to land to help out.

The runway at London’s Gatwick Airport, the second busiest in the country, was closed for snow clearance Wednesday morning while sections of the country’s most important highways -- such as the M1, which links London and Leeds -- were closed.

A dozen flights were canceled at London’s Heathrow airport, Europe’s busiest, with massive lines building at check-in desks. Similar delays and cancelations were reported at regional airports.

Train services were also affected, with lines in southern England reporting reduced services. However London’s transport system, which practically ground to a halt when snow hit the capital in February, only suffered minor disruptions. Most of the capital’s bus and subway lines were running.

Hundreds of schools also closed down.

British winters are typically mild, and cities and towns are generally ill-equipped to deal with heavy snowfall. With the worst-hit areas seeing up to 16 inches (40 cm) of snow, officials and road crews were struggling to keep up.

Several local governments were running out of sand and salt -- with some reportedly emptying department stores of supplies. The wintry weather has prompted some police forces to urge drivers to stay off the roads and some trash collectors to suspend their rounds.

The national weather office says Britain is experiencing its longest cold snap since 1981. The unusually cold weather is expected to continue for the next two weeks.

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