It's cool to be the coldest spot in the land... just ask the folk of Katesbridge
For the residents of the little Co Down village, weather-watching is a serious business. So much so that they give a frosty reception when they don't rank as the chilliest part of the UK, writes Ivan Little
Their teeth may have been chattering and their every breath may have been visible in the freezing air, but the shivering souls braving the winter chills in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of Katesbridge were really warming to the subject of what it's like to live in what is often the coldest place in the United Kingdom.
And even though the name of their Co Down hamlet is now a hot-spot of sub-zero temperatures which appears every other night on the national TV weather charts, few of the population of 135 would swap Kates-brrr-idge for more clement climes.
However, their stoicism suffered a setback during the week as word spread that one of the residents had fallen foul - literally - of the icy conditions, slipping outside his home and ending up in a Belfast hospital with back injuries.
In the last few weeks, Katesbridge witnessed the coldest night of 2014 - minus 8.8 degrees - and the surrounding area, which was colder at times than Alaska, has been battered by gale force winds which ripped down trees.
Not forgetting the snow which caused disruption to a number of school bus services.
And even after the weather loosened its grip, and in the midst of what was, for Katesbridge, a veritable heatwave - with the mercury hovering just above freezing - the village, with its tiny cluster of houses and one filling station, was still something of a winter wonderland on the day I eventually found my way to one of Northern Ireland's hardest-to-find destinations.
On the drive in, a snowman stubbornly stood his ground in a garden and the fields were still blanketed with a covering of frost, even though the thaw had restored much of the greenery to the countryside on the journey along the A1 from Belfast.
Only a handful of cars were on the roads and even the odd flock of sheep huddled together behind hedges, one or two of them trying to shield newborn lambs from the cold.
One of the few things which was moving around Katesbridge - apart from a lone and nervous-looking cyclist - was the temperature gauge in my car going down in Down from what had been a positively balmy three degrees in Banbridge to just one degree, six miles away in Katesbridge, where the well-equipped little play park was still treacherous underfoot. And deserted.
Ironically, at the entrance to Katesbridge Park, a sign erected by Banbridge District Council was warning visitors to be sun-safe.
"Take care in the sun," it trumpeted, advising those of us daft enough to be out and about in the bleak midwinter to take shade between 11am and 3pm and to apply liberal amounts of suntan lotion at all other times.
Personally, I had no regrets about not factoring in the Factor 50 into my expedition and there wasn't a single word of advice about how I should cope with the cold, which was the polar opposite, so to speak, of what the council was worried about.
But proving that Katesbridge is nothing if not unpredictable, a second sign in the park did caution people to beware of another weather hazard. It said "No entry during flood conditions. Do not use during flood conditions."
A delivery man who'd stopped his van to avail of the toilet facilities in the car park didn't want to hang about to chat to me about the heat, or lack of it. And who could blame him?
He was wearing only a light shirt, whereas this wary writer was wearing four layers of clothes up top, a scarf and a hat that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Antarctic. And I was still turning blue.
But across the road, long-time Katesbridge resident Billy Cochrane didn't take cold feet about an interview. "Oh, yes, we know all about the low temperatures here," says the treasurer of the local Presbyterian Church.
"We always get it worse than everywhere else. I always see the numbers falling on the car's dashboard as I make my way from Banbridge to here."
Billy said he and his neighbours were also well aware that Katesbridge was one of the hottest topics of conversation on the national weather bulletins.
"All that talk is the talk of Katesbridge," he laughed. "If we don't feature on the national temperature charts, we will definitely make it near the bottom of the local ones.
"But, still, it's nice to be known for something other than what most places in Northern Ireland are famous for."
Billy's daughters, Coleen Kennedy and Elaine McCann, whose houses are in the same row as their family home, didn't exactly share their father's sunny disposition about the sub-zero temperatures.
Coleen says: "If you could see my oil heating bill, you would realise what it's really like here.
"You have to have the central heating on most of the time to avoid the pipes freezing up and, while the oil is cheaper at the moment, it hasn't been like that for years."
On the brighter side, Coleen said it was amazing just how Katesbridge's name was recognised far and wide.
"I only have to say where I'm from to people in Belfast and they will immediately remark on the fact that it's often the coldest part of the UK."
Coleen said people in Katesbridge were strangely protective of their notoriety. "We listen out in the mornings to the English news to see if we've been the coldest again. We almost get annoyed if we're not mentioned."
Elaine said she knew that some people in the village sometimes had to don coats at home during the day, because they needed to save their heating for the night-time, but she adds: "It has made us famous. I was in France once and people there had heard of Katesbridge."
But why on earth is Katesbridge one of the nippiest places on earth, or at least in the British Isles?
To find out, I went in hot pursuit of Sandy Ferguson, a retired farmer who lives on Laird's Road, just outside Katesbridge.
And, after my cold call, I discovered the answer to the burning question was sitting just a few hundred yards away from Sandy's back door in the distinctive shape of Katesbridge's very own weather station.
The affable and ever-patient Sandy happily explained the meteorological mysteries of just how everything at the bottom of his garden worked and how it has all become a high-tech operation compared to his first weather-watching exploits.
Sandy (81) became hooked in 1963 after going to the Balmoral Show, where the Met Office had a stand.
"They were looking for people to monitor rainfall measurements and they put in a four-inch rain gauge in the garden. And I have been checking that every day since then, apart from holidays," he says. "After a while, the Met Office asked if I would be happy for them to put in a weather station with all the necessary equipment to measure the temperatures and other readings and they even built a driveway leading down to the site."
Initially, Sandy took the readings himself from conventional thermometers, recording maximum and minimum air and grass temperatures, plus humidity.
But the temperatures are now recorded electronically and they are fed back every hour along with wind speeds and wind directions via a telephone connection to officials in a central Met Office HQ in Exeter, though the local sites are maintained by a team based at Aldergrove.
The Met Office have more than 200 automatic stations throughout the UK.
The lowest reading which Sandy can remember is minus 17 degrees, but a winter never passes without Katesbridge recording the sort of temperatures which regularly make headline news as the coolest in the UK.
"It's usually between us and Castlederg," says Sandy.
Some people have claimed that the reason for the record lows is down to the weather stations being situated in low-lying areas, which are called "frost hollows".
But Sandy insisted that the entire area around Katesbridge is prone to the cold snaps - not just Laird's Road.
And the Met Office said their weather station sites were carefully selected to ensure that the measurements they record are representative of the wider area around them and "not unduly influenced by local effects".
Sandy says: "In our case, when you go out and look around here, you will find that a lot of the ground within a quarter of a mile does slope slightly down and cold air sinks.
"And when we get up in the morning, the meadows would all be covered up with mist, maybe up to waist-deep."
Hearing the weathermen and women on the national news highlighting the biting lows from his Katebridge weather station is a bit like water off a duck's back to Sandy.
"I don't care anymore," he says, "because I've been doing it so long."
And Sandy's wife, Hilda, a former teacher who's been married to him for 52 years, doesn't need to listen to the bulletins to appreciate that it can be Baltic out the back.
"We know it's cold," she says, but the family's Aga and oil-fired radiators usually keep the goose bumps at bay.
Shortly afterwards, as I turned up the heating in the car to the max, a tourist sign reminded me that I was leaving the heart of the famous Bronte Homeland, where Patrick Bronte, the father of the celebrated novelist sisters, was born before he went to live in England.
And on the day that I was in it, it wasn't hard to see why he'd sought pastures new - though a quick Google of temperatures in his adopted home of Haworth in Yorkshire during the week weren't much better than in Katesbridge, reaching no real weathering heights, you might say.
The yellow peril and the iceman cometh...
The weather in Northern Ireland began the week with forecasters predicting the coldest temperatures of the year so far, as well as issuing the dreaded yellow warnings for ice and snow on Sunday evening.
Parts of Northern Ireland reached as low as -8C and, by Tuesday, warnings were being issued to asthma sufferers to take care and wrap up in the extreme cold. By the middle of the week, meteorologists reported that temperatures would rise — albeit slightly — but they would bring with them plenty of rain and sleet.
After a clear, but crisp day on Wednesday, a dense fog settled over Northern Ireland in the evening, only to be replaced by steady rain on Thursday and Friday. By then temperatures had risen to a (relatively) balmy 5C.
Forecasters expect further rise of temperatures in the next week, with today’s mercury to peak at 11C with some sun.
It’s likely that next week’s temperatures will sit at around 7–8C, with both wind and rain coming in on Tuesday and staying until Friday.