Much of the UK can expect snow on Saturday, including the South-east
Heavy snow is expected over the next 36 hours as Britain shivers on the coldest March weekend for 50 years.

Up to 16ins will fall over high ground with several inches likely across much of the UK, the Met Office said last night.

Over 1,000 schools were shut and transport was disrupted as any hopes of spring were dashed by yet another onslaught of snow and flooding today as temperatures fell as low as -12C (10F).

Emergency services saw an early surge in weather-related call-outs as some parts of the country were hit by blizzard conditions. Government agencies issued a string of warnings urging the public to take care on the roads.

The South-west, which will escape the worst of the winter blast, faces flooding with up to 100mm of rain - almost two months' worth - over the next 24 hours as yesterday's heavy rain continues.

In total The Environment Agency issued 12 flood warnings tonight across the country and 81 less serious flood alerts.

In east Cornwall emergency services were searching for a missing woman her partially property collapsed during heavy rainfall overnight.

It is believed the severe weather triggered a landslide, and while a dozen residents were evacuated Susan Norman has not been accounted for.

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service said they believed the woman in her 60s is still in the building.

Further north, snow blanketed many parts with up to eight inches expected to hit the worst affected areas of north west England, north Wales and south west Scotland.

Higher areas could even see up to 16 inches, while bitterly cold gale-force winds create blizzard-like conditions and plunge temperatures down to well below freezing.

Over 1,500 homes in Cumbria had to cope without power and road closure was preveting access to some communites to carry out repair work.

Energy firm Electricity North West said they were considering using helicopters to transport engineers to conduct repairs around Cumbria.

Elsewhere, more than 28,000 homes and businesses in Northern Ireland were left freezing and without power today after snow, sleet and storm force winds hit the province.

Thousands of gritters were on standby last night as councils ­prepared for the "worst winter onslaught" of the year.

Officials advised people to avoid all but essential travel and the Met Office issued a level-3 cold weather health alert.

Darron Burness, the AA's head of special operations, said: "It's going to be a real witch's brew of driving wind, rain and snow, which will inevitably cause disruption on the roads.

"Drivers should be well prepared as even short journeys can quickly turn bad."

Forecaster Helen Chivers said: "It is looking absolutely atrocious and people should be prepared for disruption with very heavy snow on the way. It is going to be central and northern regions which will be worst hit to start with, and appalling conditions are likely.

"Very heavy snow will be accompanied by strong winds and virtually everywhere should be prepared for very severe weather.

"The South-west, which may escape the snow, will see heavy rain, with up to 100mm likely."

Jonathan Powell, forecaster for Vantage Weather Services, said despite the official start of spring Britain faces the worst winter weather of the year.

Blizzards driven by 60mph gales will sweep across central and northern regions, bringing chaos to road, rail and air travel.

"Britain is on alert for what is undoubtedly going to be the worst onslaught of the winter," he said.

"From Friday morning virtually the entire country is going to see extreme and severe weather with inches of snow on the way and strong gales driving devastating blizzards.

"This is going to last until Sunday, with the North and parts of central and western England in for an absolute deluge."

The threat of extreme weather last night triggered reports of panic buying with winter essentials flying off supermarket shelves.

A spokesman for Sainsbury's in Matlock, Derbyshire, said: "We're extremely busy. Customers are stocking up and talking about buying more due to the snow."

A Morrisons spokesman said: "It's safe to say we're busier than usual with people buying essentials."

The Local Government Association said gritters and snowplough teams were out in force to keep roads as passable as possible.

Peter Box, chairman of the association's Economy and Transport Board, said: "Council websites will be updated with information on weather, gritting routes, road conditions, school closures and bin collections.

"Leaflets have been sent to homes advising people about council services, driving in the snow, where grit bins are and how to clear their pavements.

"Council staff will be out and about over the next few days checking on the people they know to be vulnerable and delivering hot meals and portable heaters, collecting prescriptions, defrosting pipes, fixing frozen boilers and making sure they have what they need."

While the snowstorm that has hit large parts of Northern Ireland has resulted in their World Cup qualifying match being postponed.

The fixture against Russia was due to take place at Belfast's Windsor Park tonight, but has been pushed forward to tomorrow afternoon.

Stadium staff had been working throughout the day to clear the pitch, but the date of the match was shifted after continued heavy snowfall.

Overnight in Yorkshire, Leeds Bradford International Airport suspended all flights due to "adverse weather conditions".

Gatwick airport said it was as "prepared as we can be" with volunteers on standby to make sure disruption is kept to a minimum. Heathrow said it had a "wellrehearsed" contingency plan in place. Leon Brown, forecaster for The Weather Channel, said Britainfaces the coldest March weekend since 1962 as strong winds whip up snowdrifts in the worst-hit areas.

"Much of the UK can expect to see some snow by Saturday, even the South-east and southern England," he said.

"Heaviest falls will be over Wales and the Pennines with 12ins possible, plus signifi cant drifting over the mountains."

Jim Dale, forecaster for British Weather Services, said: "Be in no doubt, parts of the UK are in for a spell of very severe weather indeed.

People really need to sit up and take notice. This is a very serious situation."

The Environment Agency last night urged people living in the South-west to prepare for flooding and stay away from rivers and areas likely to flood.