By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 2, 2009 11:51 AM
LONDON, Feb. 2 -- A beautiful yet crippling blanket of snow fell across much of England on Monday, causing transportation nightmares but giving rise to thousands of cheery snowmen in a nation barely equipped for heavy winter weather.
Nearly a foot of snow had landed in London by midday and another solid dump was expected Monday night in what meteorologists called the heaviest snowfall in nearly two decades. Snow also caused transportation disruptions in France and Ireland, as the icy weather blew westward across northern Europe.
It was essentially a national snow day in Britain. Most schools closed, and millions of workers were unable to make their daily commutes. The capital's entire fleet of red public buses, which carry at least 6 million people daily, were off the roads, unable to move from their garages.
London's iconic subway system suffered severe delays all day, and weary-sounding officials blamed the problems on Victorian-era engineers who apparently failed to adequately plan for heavy winter weather when they designed the world's oldest underground system. Major highways were brought to a standstill, with reports of traffic jams of more than 50 miles on the M25, the highway that rings London.
London Mayor Boris Johnson suspended the "congestion charge," an 8 pound (about $11) daily fee for motorists driving into the city center. Travelers reported that people were hopping out of their cars on the jammed highways to toss snowballs at each other to pass the time.
Johnson said the city had "done pretty well in what are absolutely extraordinary circumstances," but he added a plea to Mother Nature.
"My message to the heavens is, you know, 'You've put on a fantastic display of snow power, but that is probably quite enough,' " he said.
Air travel was also a nightmare, with service at most of greater London's five major airports either suspended or severely curtailed. Runways at Heathrow Airport were closed midmorning after the nose wheels of a Cyprus Airways plane slipped off a taxiway shortly after landing. No injuries were reported.
One traveler who landed Monday morning on a flight from New York used his cellphone to call a BBC radio program and complain that he and his fellow passengers had been stuck in the plane on a taxiway for almost four hours.
Sarah Holland, a spokesman for the Met Office, the U.K.'s national weather service, said it was the most severe snow since 1991.
"People aren't used to this; it is rare to see snowfall of this amount," she said.
In North Wales, two climbers were killed in the severe weather on Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales and a popular hiking destination. Emergency services officials said ambulance service would be limited to life-threatening calls only, and hospitals urged people to postpone all non-emergency visits.
But for many people, Monday was a rare chance to play in a country where deep snows are rare, and often disappear as fast as an ice cube on a kitchen counter.
In Green Park, a tree-lined expanse alongside Buckingham Palace, people made a small army of snowmen, and others rushed up to have their photos taken next to such a rare sight in London.
"I love it! This is my first time!" said Louisa Burlamaqui, 25, a Brazilian tourist sipping coffee in a Starbucks next to the park.
An American man in shorts, T-shirt and a woolen cap tossed a Frisbee as the heavy snow fell. Asked whether he was from the United States, he responded with a big laugh, "Who else would be doing this?"
At Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard proceeded as scheduled at 11:30 a.m. But the soldiers in their gray flannel coats were reduced to clomping and trudging in the deep snow, instead of their normal crisp marching steps.
Across from the palace gates, Becky Mayes, 29, said her normal one-hour commute into the city turned into a three-hour ordeal. And it was only when she arrived that she realized her workplace was shut for the day.
But Mayes, who built a small snowman in the park with her boyfriend, Alastair Henderson, 28, said the snow seemed to be bringing out the best in people. She said total strangers were talking and laughing with one another.
"There's a different vibe out here today," she said.
In Hampstead in north London, Josephine Rabinowitz, 16, and her friend Mark Mindel, 16, had the day off from school and were strolling along a busy shopping street when two young men pelted them with snowballs from across the street.
"That normally doesn't happen around here," Rabinowitz said. "Adults and teens are becoming kids again."
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.