A West Sussex Winter Wonderland

By Jennifer Mason, Assistant County Archivist (Collections Management)

It’s definitely feeling wintry in West Sussex as we head towards Christmas. Today’s blog looks back at past West Sussex winters and celebrates a variety of cold weather activities.

Landscape view of a snowy field. A cottage with snow on the roof, and some barren trees, as well as snow covered hillsides, are visible.
View of snow on the Downs at Fittleworth, 1947 (John Smith PH 13/156)

We’ve had quite a mild winter so far this year and it’s certainly not a patch on the winter of 1963 which was characterised by extremely low temperatures and heavy snowfall. Elaine Penwarden vividly conjures up the scene on the Downs in her 1963 diary of life working on a small nursery in Findon Valley.

‘I can see through the window the whale-back of snow drifts, finely chiselled by the east wind blowing unimpeded off the Downs, rising higher and higher against fences, between hedges, as the flakes eddy up in gales and gusts.’

Diary of 1963: The famous cold winter, Elaine Penwarden (Add Mss 55677)

The cold was so intense that the sea at Pagham Harbour froze. The ice was solid enough that it could be walked and skated on, as this photograph from January 1963 shows.

An elderly man in slacks, cardigan, hat, gloves and tie ice-skating. His dog, a springer spaniel, is sitting looking up at him.
Dutton skating on sea, Pagham harbour, Jan 1963 (CPS 1599/1)

The snow and cold weather posed challenges for residents across West Sussex. In their log book entry for 7th-8th January the headteacher at Rudgwick school recorded that the Christmas holidays had to be extended by two days because of severe weather conditions. Even when the school reopened, the entry for 9th-11th January records that  ‘During the first three days of this term children have been confined to school buildings at breaks and dinner times because playgrounds are covered with frozen snow.’ (E/160/12/4)

However, although it brought many difficulties, the cold, snowy weather also offered plenty of scope for enjoyment. The hills near Goodwood provided the perfect opportunity for tobogganing, something which was taken up by local residents with enthusiasm.

For those who may prefer indoor activities on chilly days, the archives provide plenty of inspiration. WSRO holds a number of recipe books which include some lovely festive recipes, such as this one for gingerbread dating from the early 19th century. Written more as an aide-memoire for the cook than as a step-by-step guide, these older recipes can be rather light on details. This one for instance doesn’t suggest a baking time or temperature and the cook has also missed out crucial ingredient (butter!) – either an oversight or perhaps because extensive experience meant that she knew how much butter should be used. For a more accurate and easier to follow recipe, take a look at our YouTube video to find out how to make shortbread from a 1930s recipe.

Handwritten list of a recipe for gingerbread.
Recipe for gingerbread, early 19th century (Cowdray Mss 5178)

In the days before TV and the internet, riddles, card games, and other parlour games would have been popular ways to while away at the dark winter evenings. Abington’s Winters Evenings Entertainments for Young and Old, published in 1860, offers a host of suggested entertainments and there would have been many other similar publications at the time. Some of the activities have aged better than others – let us know if you’ve successfully been able to identify all of the fruits in this brain teaser. We’ve found that they’re very enigmatically expressed indeed!

Front page of Abington's Winter Evenings Entertainments for Old and Young.
Page from Abington's Winter Evenings Entertainments for Old and Young detailing names of fruits, enigmatically expressed. For example, '17. Half of a delicate fish; and a name common to many fruits'.
Abington’s Winter Evenings Entertainments for Old and Young, 1860 (AM 282/22)

Everyone here at West Sussex Record Office wishes you a very happy festive season!


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