UP to 200 people were rescued from their vehicles yesterday after they became stranded in blizzard conditions.

A rescue operation was mounted after driving snow and jack-knifed lorries made the A66 trans-Pennine route impassable.

Among those rescued from the most exposed section of the route - between Bowes, in County Durham, and Brough, in Cumbria - was a coachload of 45 pensioners.

Motorists were evacuated to the village hall and The Ancient Unicorn pub in Bowes, while others were taken to The Castle Hotel, Brough.

Conditions were made more treacherous by freezing temperatures and strong winds, which caused the snow to drift.

Evacuee Andrew Eadon-Jones, from Shrewsbury, said: "I saw a truck sliding and then a car behind it slammed on the brakes and it slid into the hard shoulder, even though there was only about an inch of snow at the time. I put my own brakes on and felt myself slide. It wasn't the snow, it was because the temperature suddenly dropped and the snow froze. It was like an ice rink."

Highways chiefs said the route across Stainmore had been gritted earlier and said many motorists were driving too quickly for the conditions.

Police and 30 members of three search and rescue teams recovered people, including families with children, from 130 cars by 7pm. Many of the stranded lorry drivers opted to remain in their heated cabs and wait for the A66 - closed between Scotch Corner and Brough - to reopen.

Simon Wilson, 49, who owns The Castle Hotel, said: "We had a coachload of pensioners brought to the hotel.

"There were 45 of them and their coach had been stranded in

the snow. They were travelling back from Blackpool to the North-East.

The police ferried them in small groups using 4x4s. Some of them were really scared and disorientated when they came in.

They congregated in the bar, and once they had all had a cup of tea or a whisky they settled down.

After a couple of hours of warming up, another bus came for them and took them on their journey.

All our rooms have filled up with stranded motorists, though.

Joanne Foster, landlady of The Ancient Unicorn, said: There was a lot of snow in a short space of time.

I have lived in the village for 12 years and this is the worst I have seen it.

Sue Henley, secretary of Bowes village hall committee, said: There were about 40 people there who were stranded. The police brought some drinks and the local pub stayed open so people could get a meal.

Teesdale and Weardale, Swaledale and Kirkby Stephen search and mountain rescue teams walked or used 4x4 vehicles to reach the stranded cars and trucks.

Once the evacuation was complete, they began checking minor roads leading off the A66 for any other motorists in difficulty.

Paul Denning, rescue co-ordinator for Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team, said: The road conditions deteriorated and the police did the right thing to get people out of their cars early, rather than leaving it too late and risk the weather deteriorating further.

It is typical of the A66. This is what happens. We get big snow drifts.

Teesdale district councillor Phil Hughes, who lives near Bowes, said delays closing the route had made the situation worse.

The snow gate, which stops people using the road in these conditions, just wasnt closed early enough C which is obviously how these cars get stuck.

Meanwhile, a group of 30 year six children from St Francis CE Junior School, in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, were stranded overnight at an adventure centre near Alston, Cumbria.

A single-decker bus, owned by K and J Travel of Aycliffe and Chilton, skidded in snow and crashed into a garage wall at St Johns Chapel, Weardale, while on its way to pick them up. The driver was unhurt.

ö Speaking shortly before 10pm last night, a Durham Police spokeswoman said snowploughs had been working continuously and that the vast majority of the 130 stranded vehicles had been removed.

She said that those taken to the reception centre at Bowes village hall, or the pub, had either been able to leave in their cars or were staying in guest houses in the area.

Durham Police will this morning make a decision whether to re-open the A66.