LONDON // Britain slithered to a virtual halt yesterday as snow blanketed the country in the latest weather twist in a December that is already set to be the coldest ever.
Much of continental Europe also experienced snow and sub-zero temperatures, ruining the travel plans of millions as airports in Germany, France, Holland and Denmark reported cancellations or delays.
But it was Britain and Northern Ireland that bore the brunt of a system bringing Arctic temperatures and deep snow to the bulk of the country on a weekend that should have marked the start of the pre-Christmas getaway and the busiest shopping day of the year for stores.
As it was, some shopping centres could not even open and British Airways, along with other airlines, had to cancel all their daytime departures from Heathrow - which accepted incoming flights barring periods when the runways had to cleared of snow - while Gatwick, the country's second largest airport, closed completely.
Many regional airports across the UK were shut and the situation was little better on the roads with hundreds of drivers being trapped on the M6 motorway overnight after the highway became blocked by 25cm of snow in north-west England.
Lindsay Dovey, a forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said temperatures dropped to minus 15.5°C in Aviemore, Scotland, early yesterday morning with the prospect of minus 20°C early today.
"There has been a band of snow that is stretching from north Wales right across to the far south-east of England, pivoting northwards over London," she said.
"It is going to be around for a while, probably for most of the day, but will hopefully die out tonight when conditions are going to improve."
The RAC motoring organisation warned drivers everywhere not to take to the roads unless their journeys were absolutely necessary.
Jon Caudwell, from the government's Highways Agency, told the BBC that snow ploughs and gritters were doing their best to keep major roads in England clear but needed help from motorists.
"We've got more snow coming, so we're really going to have to work very, very hard," he said. "We are asking the public to really seriously consider whether they do need to come out in these conditions and, if they do come out in these conditions, they really must take extra care."
Hundreds of thousands of Britons were due to fly out of the country this weekend at the start of an annual getaway that will see four million head to warmer climes over the festive season.
But the travel organisation ABTA said that, with so many airports closed and flights cancelled, passengers should check with their airline or tour operator if they were due to fly either yesterday or today, when temperatures are expected to remain at or below freezing throughout much of the UK.
"For those due to fly back to the UK from other countries, the airlines and tour companies will ensure they are looked after in terms of day-to-day expenses and will pay for them to stay in a hotel," the ABTA spokesman said.
Many train companies were also able to offer only reduced services, adding to the travel misery.
This December is set to be the coldest on record in Britain with the snowfall the heaviest for the month since 1965.
Sporting fixtures felt the full effect of the weather with race meetings abandoned and dozens of football fixtures cancelled. In many parts of the country, particularly Scotland and north-east England, supplies of domestic heating oil were proving almost impossible to obtain because tankers were unable to take to the roads.
Millions of Christmas gifts ordered online are also piling up in warehouses. In Wales, several hospitals have found themselves short-staffed because doctors and nurses cannot get into work.
The only good news was that, while temperatures were not expected to improve, the snow was expected to ease, with airport operators hopeful they could begin to return to normal services today.
A spokesman for the Met Office said yesterday afternoon that the persistent snow should gradually clear out of south-eastern England overnight but that showers will start to affect north-east England, eastern Scotland and Cornwall.
"On Sunday," he added, "there is a risk of persistent sleet and snow affecting the far south and frequent snow showers in eastern Scotland and northeastern England. Elsewhere, it will be very cold, but mainly dry and bright."