A fierce storm with winds of up to 165mph has battered northern parts of Britain, with people warned to stay indoors, schools forced to close and flights and rail links cancelled.

Localised flooding has also caused major disruptions on roads - and more than 30,000 homes have been left without power.

In North Yorkshire, a RAF helicopter plucked a couple to safety after their car was swept away in floodwaters near Aysgarth. They were flown to hospital with suspected hypothermia.

A third person was also rescued from his car in a separate incident near the village of Gunnerside.

Police have advised against all travel until at least 2am Friday, when winds are expected to ease.

The Met Office earlier issued its strongest warning - a red alert - for winds in Scotland and warned parts of England and Wales to "be aware", as temperatures were expected to drop and snowfall was predicted as far south as Birmingham.

It said the Highland observing station at Glen Ogle reported a gust of 104mph at 11am. The Met Office later tweeted that a gust at the Aonach Mor ski area peaked at 137mph.

Scotland's Icy Storm
© Sky News
A lorry makes its way along the A66 between Yorkshire and Cumbria.
But further north in the Cairngorms, winds topped 165mph - the fastest gust recorded in the UK since 1986 when 173mph was felt, also on the top of the summit.

A Met Office spokeswoman said: "We do not issue red warnings lightly. That is why people need to take heed of it and take appropriate action."

By 2.45pm Scottish Rail confirmed it was suffering severe disruptions on express routes and minor disruptions across Highland, central, southwest and sleeper services.

It later suspended all routes from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee.

Flights to and from Scotland were also affected by the wild weather. Up to 5pm, Glasgow Airport had cancelled 37 flights and Edinburgh Airport said it was forced to cancel 21 flights with a further three also having to be diverted.

Passengers have been advised to check the status of their flight before going to the airport.

Scotland's Icy Storm_1
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Police blocked a country road in Scotland after a tree toppled onto a house during the wild and windy weather battering the area.
Flood warnings were issued for parts of northern England, with train speed restrictions in place between Carlisle, Leeds and Skipton.

In the Republic of Ireland, Malin Head was hit by steady winds of 58mph and gusts of 80mph, while ferry crossings to Cairnryan were cancelled.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Environment Agency warned of strong winds, with heavy rain expected for both mid and north Wales.

Scottish Hydro reported thousands of customers left without electricity in Argyll and the Western Isles.

While ScottishPower said that, as of 3.30pm, as many as 12,000 homes in the Perthshire area were without power. Wind also disrupted power supplies in Dumfries, Central Scotland and the Clyde coast, it said.

The electricity company added that engineers have been prevented from fixing the problem as roads are blocked by fallen trees and the high winds have made it too dangerous to climb up poles.

The Forth Bridge was closed at around 10am, five hours ahead of an expected precautionary closure.

Scotland's Icy Storm_2
© Stuart McMahon
The fierce wind was too much for the turbines at Ardrossan Wind Farm in North Ayrshire, Scotland.
Council-run schools and nurseries in the Borders, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire and Stirling council areas closed at lunchtime, while North Ayrshire recommended that parents keep children at home.

All classes at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities were cancelled, while Glasgow Caledonian university remained opened but asked students to take travel advice.

The Government said travel conditions could be "dangerous" and that road users may experience severe delays of several hours or more.

In particular, high-sided vehicles, HGVs and buses were advised not to travel during the onslaught.

Scotland's Icy Storm_3
© Sky News
Strong wind blasts have hit wide areas across Northern Ireland.
Central Scotland Police assistant Chief Constable Allan Moffat extended the warning to motorists in northern and eastern areas of Scotland on Thursday night, as the severe weather spreads from the central belt.

"This decision is based on the continued monitoring of weather activity which now predicts that the extreme winds will travel northwards and have a similar impact across the Northern, Grampian and Orkney Regions as has been occurring throughout the day in the central belt," he said.

"We are advised that this weather will impact from about 7pm and continue until about 2am, in addition to storm force winds there will also be snow especially in inland areas giving blizzard conditions at times.

"The wind will abate slightly after 2am with a possibility of ice thereafter.

"There are clear indications that the high winds will affect wide areas of those regions both inland and in coastal regions and in the Northern Isles."