© PAA woman struggles to walk on the ice and battles against gale force winds
The mercury is set to plunge below -10C (14F) in parts with wintry showers poised to hit huge swathes of the UK.

Forecasters warned that a mass of bitterly cold air from the Arctic is set to smother the country.

Up to four inches of snow will carpet parts of the North while the first flurries are expected in central and southern regions.

The bleak news comes as long-range forecasters warn that Britain could be crippled by a "record-breaking and historical" big freeze this winter. Prolonged cold weather and relentless heavy snowfall threaten to grind the country to a halt until the beginning of spring.

Remote parts of the North - including the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland - could see the mercury plummet as low as -15C next Tuesday.

Jonathan Powell, forecaster for Vantage Weather Services, said the worst weather is due to hit during the middle of next week.

He warned that a ferocious "Polar plunge" of bitterly cold winds could see overnight temperatures dive to -10C with windchill in the North while the South will shiver in lows of -5C.

© GETTYA man shovels snow away from his buried car
He said: "The end of this week is going to turn chilly, but it is from next week that the whole of the country will be hit by the first real taste of winter. The pivotal point of this Arctic blast seems to be Tuesday to Thursday as a huge bank of freezing air moves over the UK from the North Pole."

James Madden, forecaster for Exacta Weather, said: "There will be colder air from the Arctic regions over the coming days."

He said Britain is braced for "copious" snowfalls this winter with extreme cold expected to last into the spring.

He said: "This period of snow and cold is likely to result in an incomparable scenario to anything we have experienced.

"A situation similar to December 2010 is likely to develop - but on a more prolonged scale in terms of overall duration."

He said January is likely to bring the worst of the weather although Britain will shiver in below-average temperatures for the next three months.

© JONATHAN BUCKMASTERA woman walking to work in the snow
The Environment Agency warned parts of the country not blighted by snow face floods with heavy rain and strong winds expected throughout winter.

It said gale-force gusts today could trigger flooding along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast.

A spokesman said: "There is an elevated risk of flooding from rivers, the sea and from surface water. Persistent rainfall in the second half of October made the ground very wet - making rainfall more likely to lead to flooding."

The Met Office said temperatures are expected to sink below average over the next 30 days with snow on the way.

Its 30-day outlook states: "Conditions are not expected to be as mild as recent weeks, instead, temperatures are thought more likely to be just below average than above."

Bookmakers Coral yesterday slashed the odds on Britain's lowest temperature of -27.2C in Scotland being broken this winter from 20-1 to 10-1.