Welcome to two weeks of storms, sun, floods, heatwaves, rainbows, hail, clear blue skies, drought, cloudbursts, tornadoes, and falls of anything from hay to sand from the distant Sahara. That is not the hastily amended medium-range forecast from a chastened Met Office, but a totally accurate summary of the content of this special section for the next fortnight. We will be presenting all the extraordinary things that summers have thrown at us down the years.
Each week there will be three sections. This week it is storms, sun and heat (or the lack of it), and rain, floods, and drought. Next week, we will present some of the freakiest weather, and also list the best summers of the past 200 years, plus, of course, the worst. The competition for the latter was especially intense.
Our motives are not entirely gratuitous. Britons are said to be obsessed with the weather, a view of us as a nation that we have never found convincing. Obsessions normally involve the obsessee in studying the matter in hand, or at least accumulating a head full of information about it. While this may prevent the obsessee from having any sense of perspective about life in general, they often have a highly developed one about their pet subject.
This is not a hallmark of Britons and the weather – most of us have, at best, a selective (and often false) memory of our own adult experience; or, in the case of that well-known character, the weather whinger (found at bus stop, saloon bar, or checkout queue), a recall that extends only back a day or so. Hence, people who, at the end of a glorious April, May, and June (such as we have had this year) will, at the first sign of some July dullness, tell you what an awful summer it has been. These pages should provide a little context to any summer's weather. They are also, we hope, entertaining – in a "thank God we didn't go to Cornwall that year" sort of way, if nothing else.
Finally, if you have any special memories, thoughts, recriminations, and outrage connected with our weather, please let us know, so we can provide the therapy of sharing them with everyone else. This feature's online presence has a message board, and you can also write or email the editor in the normal way, marking your communication "The Weather Lists".
Right, umbrellas and sun hats at the ready, here we go.
There is nothing that gets the blood so happily racing as a good summer storm. Despite the judgements of the more extreme global warming polemicists, there is no evidence that thunder, lightning, hail or tornadoes are getting more severe or frequent in Britain. What there is, however, is statistical proof that lightning kills fewer people. In Victorian times, the risk of lightning killing you was 1.6 million to one. By 1960, it had become one in four million, and today it is about one in 13 million. The reason is far fewer now work outdoors. So, for all of us sedentary types, here are the most interesting storms of the past two centuries
On St Swithin's Day (15 July), a fireball shot through Gloucester Cathedral and destroyed a pinnacle at the west end. A sign from above? Possibly, but more likely it was part of a ferocious storm whose hail pulverized crops from Bristol to Bath.
On 9 August, one of the most ruinous summer storms in recorded British history occurred. Eastern and central England bore the brunt as it swept in from the North Sea, bringing hailstones up to the alleged size of pigeons' eggs which fell in such profusion that, in places, drifts of more than a metre formed. Crops were flattened, windows and roofs broken, and trees uprooted by localised but violent tornadoes. The Rev H R Yorke, rector of Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, wrote: "The land before it was as the Garden of Eden, behind it a barren and desolate wilderness... what the hail and lightning did not utterly destroy, the rain which fell in torrents finished." The storm led to the founding of the General Hail Insurance Company, later Norwich Union, but now Aviva – which sadly sounds more like a Bolivian guerrilla movement.
A storm that very nearly achieved what Guy Fawkes failed to do, and wreck the House of Commons. Hail gave central London such a pounding that 7,000 panes of glass in Parliament were smashed. It also reduced to shattered fragments the glass arcade covering Regent's Street.
Edwardian summers conjure up visions of chaps boatered and blazered, and girls in white muslin dresses, as the sun beats down. This is not entirely so. The summers of 1903 and 1909 were lamentable, 1900 and 1910 saw widespread and serious storms, and, in 1906, came a tempest that shows what destruction can be wreaked in a small area at the end of a heatwave. The place was Guildford, Surrey, the date 2 August, and the time mid-evening. First, gigantic black clouds closed in, then lightning that became almost continuous, and, finally, a great rushing wind. Huge elm and pine trees were brought down, one gouging a hole in the town's bridge, another cutting a row of terraced houses in two. Chimneys were knocked over, tiles flew, and shop fronts were wrecked. At Guildford station, seats were blown on to the tracks, glass awnings smashed, and goods trucks derailed. In places, whole roofs were lifted off, including that of the rehearsal room of the Mousehill Brass Band – mid-practice. At the storm's height, 1.46 inches of rain fell at Haslemere in just 15 minutes. It was a wonder that only two people were killed.
On 9 July, a storm gave probably the most vivid lightshow ever seen in Britain. Its epicentre was London, and it came at night, all the better to appreciate it. At Chelsea, in six hours, 6,294 flashes of lightning were recorded – an average of 18 a minute. In the hour up to midnight, there were 1,540, coming, at one point, at a rate of 47 flashes a minute. Lightning hit the chapel at Eton, which was gutted in the resulting fire.
Tornadoes happen on about two dozen days a year in Britain, and, for some reason, Birmingham has had more than its fair share of the nastier ones. One of the worst was on 14 June, when, just after Sunday lunch, a tornado hit the Sparkhill district of the city. J R Sayers of Hall Green, recorded: "About 4pm, a curious lull in the great black thunderstorm then raging caused me instinctively to run to the window and I was just in time to see some 20ft high trees shudder and then all bow to the ground." Other witnesses compared its sound to that of "six aeroplanes", and one, Neville Hall, wrote: "Immediately the air was full of twigs, leaves, and small branches. Four little girls coming home from Sunday school were blown flat and shot along the wet pavement like bits of paper." A grocer's shop was flattened and whole rows of houses were unroofed. Although there was only one fatality, the whirlwind was good enough by UK standards to make the pages of the New York Times the following morning. On 28 July 2005, Birmingham again suffered a tornado, causing widespread damage to homes and cars in the Kings Heath, Small Heath, Moseley, and Balsall Heath areas.
The longest swathe of damage caused by hail was on 22 September, the affected countryside extending 210 miles, from Monmouthshire to Norfolk. But the hardest hit area gave it a name, the Great Northamptonshire Hailstorm. Starting at 4am, very large hailstones – said with the usual hyperbole to be as big as a man's fist – began rattling down on the village of Great Billing. Asbestos roofs were pierced, crops flattened, and windows broken across an area 10 miles wide and 40 miles long. Some bits of ice were so large they had not melted by 7am the following day.
Modern London's most deadly thunderstorm came on 21 August. At Ilford, a large group of people took cover in a corrugated iron hut in Valentines Park. It was hit by lightning, and seven were killed, 19 injured – equalling the number of deaths of those under a tree on Wandsworth Common in 1914.
In 1930, lightning killed a bookmaker at Ascot racecourse. Twenty-five years on, far worse was to happen. A train strike had delayed Royal Ascot until July. On the third day of the race meeting, 14 July, torrential rain sent crowds in all their finery scuttling for shelter to a tea tent. Then lightning struck iron railings. The vast voltage ran along its length, knocked hundreds of people to the ground, killing two (including a pregnant woman), and injuring 48. Across the south of England that day, five more people were killed by lightning strikes.
On the August bank holiday of an atrocious summer, pictures were taken of scenes in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, that look more like those expected in an especially wintry January. A bus is seen trapped up to its wheel arches in what seems like snow. But it is hail, which fell in such quantity that drifts of more than four feet were formed. Slight melting congealed it into what the local paper called "a rice pudding of unimaginable scale", and snow ploughs had to be called out to shift it.
When it comes to hail, Horsham on 5 September is The Big One. It wasn't so much the breadth of the storm, sweeping from the West Sussex coast in late afternoon to Colchester, Essex, by 9pm; or even its accompanying winds, reaching a gust of 85mph that damaged a hangar at Gatwick Airport. It was its hail, particularly in the Horsham area. At nearby Kirdford, apples growing in a 50-acre orchard were pulverized to worthless bits; a petrol pump was uprooted and blown into the road; and in Horsham itself, the biggest hailstone ever recorded in Britain plummeted to earth. It weighed nearly five ounces, was 10 centimetres across, and left a crater of 60mm. Its smaller brethren knocked out power lines, hundreds of trees were felled, phone lines all over the South were down, homes lost their roofs, and, in Kent, two oil storage tanks were set on fire by a lightning strike. At one point a large sheet of corrugated iron roofing was seen sailing along, 60ft up in the air.
The coolest August of the 1970s, and the worst-ever summer gales. Winds of nearly 60mph were recorded in London, and 85mph on the Devon coast. But the real furies were out to sea, and they turned that year's Fastnet Race into the biggest disaster in British sailing history. With gusts up to Force 11 (up to 74 mph and just short of hurricane force), a quarter of the race's 303 boats capsized, and 24 crews abandoned ship. Helicopters rescued 74 sailors, and 62 more were picked up by other boats. In total, 15 died.
A bit of a day. At Lerwick, in Shetland, it never got warmer than 8.6C (47F), and, on the evening of 7 June, the elements threw a sort of stormy pick'n'mix at the country. There was ball lightning in Tewkesbury (it blew up a factory's switchboard); tornadoes in Sherborne and Basingstoke; lightning that caused widespread power outages; hail the size (and consistency) of golf balls; wind squalls; ruinous downpours, especially in Oxfordshire; and no fewer than eight swathes of hail that broke windows and battered down crops.
Rain, floods & drought
Summers should be drier than winters, right? Hmm, up to a point. It is a fact that the list of rainless months is led by February. March is second, April third, and only then, sagging along out of the medals, is August. The strength of summer downpours is responsible. In the following, rainfall is given in millimetres, or mm per hour, data which means little to most of us. So, some context. London's mid-20th century annual fall was about 600mm, Plymouth's 1,100mm, and Birmingham's 750mm. Worthing's June-August average per month was about 53mm. To better appreciate the statistics that follow, rain at 25mm an hour is deemed 'torrential', and if it went on for more than 30 minutes, would give local flooding. Drought is less a matter of days without rain than many months of below-average rainfall.
A July where it seemed to rain continuously, and so produced the wettest on record, with more than twice as much rain as normally falls. Nowhere escaped, but the east of the country, normally the driest, had constant deluges, and so floods. The Derwent, Trent, Ouse and Humber overflowed, and the Hull Advertiser reported: "From all parts accounts pour in of the disastrous effects produced by late uncommonly heavy rains. From Ganstead and Witherwick, in Holderness, to beyond Driffield, a distance from 25 to 30 miles, the country presents an almost unbroken sheet of water. The quantity of hay, corn and potatoes destroyed and likely to be so is beyond all calculation; thousands of acres of the latter are literally rotting in the ground." Even London had 156mm – nearly three times its mid-20th century average for the month.
The driest year, and best documented drought, of the 19th century. Many dryish months climaxed in a hot June that had, in England and Wales, only a quarter of the average rainfall, and, in some parts of Devon and Cornwall, none at all. By July, crops were suffering badly, fish were dying in streams for want of water and oxygen, and water companies were unable to cope. In Barry, south Wales, water sold in the street at a halfpenny a bucket, and at Langho, Lancashire, water had to be brought in by train in milk churns and rationed to families at a bucket a day.
The record run of consecutive days without rain did not happen in a summer. It was in the spring of this year when, in Mile End, east London, not a drop fell between 4 March and 15 May – 73 days without any rain.
An unenviable record for Maidenhead, Berkshire, where a new 60-minute rain record was set on 12 July. In just one hour, the town had 92.2mm – nearly twice the amount it should receive in a month at this time of year. The record still stands.
June was the wettest month London has ever had. There were no spectacular cloudbursts, just constant heavy rain. The result was that, in the middle fortnight alone, Kew recorded 183mm, more than three times its average for Junes, and not much less than a third of its entire annual rainfall. Carshalton, near Sutton, had 226mm. At Camden Square, rain fell continuously from 1pm on the 13th to 11.30pm on the 15th – 58 hours and 30 minutes, a record which has never, thankfully, been beaten. Weather expert Philip Eden has written that the rainfall that month over modern Greater London worked out at more than 10,000 gallons per person. Meanwhile, the East Midlands and large parts of Scotland were dry.
In August, the most devastating summer floods of the century came to Norfolk. Over the 25th and 26th, a wide area around Norwich had 185mm-205mm – more than a quarter of the entire annual amount in a single day. The result was floods of such height that the city's previous high water, marked on a wall, was exceeded by 15 inches. Luckily, only three people were drowned, but some 8,000 were made homeless, as houses collapsed or were made uninhabitable for months by the rising waters. More than 80 bridges across East Anglia were washed away, and thousands of canaries, the breeding of which was a Norwich speciality, were drowned.
In the midst of a sunny June came the record for a day's rain in that month: 243mm at Bruton, Somerset, on the 28th. This is a rate per hour of 10mm, which is ranked as a "downpour" with drains unable to cope, and normally lasts just minutes. It has been estimated that the rains of 28-29 June 1917 dumped on to southern England 525,022,000,000 gallons of water.
The driest year in British history, with an accompanying drought that lasted into 1922. Southminster, Essex, had just 253mm for the whole 12 months – less than half its usual total, and a record low.
This June was the driest summer month ever, with just 4.3mm of rain for England and Wales – not much more than an hour's steady precipitation. Ventnor on the Isle of Wight was one of several places to have no rain at all in the month. Some estimates say that 6,410 square miles of the country were rainless. The only month that was drier in the UK was February 1891. Cornwall had record sunshine, with 375 hours at Falmouth.
The worst flash flood occurred in mid-August at Lynmouth in Devon. The resort is at the mouth of the Lyn gorge, where, in steep and rocky valleys, the East and West Lyn converge at Watersmeet. Both rivers are fed by the enormous rains that can fall on Exmoor, and this month they fell as they only can once every 200 years. Torrential downpours up on the moors lasted for nearly a day on the 15th and 16th. Some 229mm was recorded at Longstone Barrow, and an estimated 300mm fell on high ground north of Simonsbath. This is about half of London's entire annual rainfall. The waters surged down the narrow gorges, and picked up huge boulders which became unstoppable battering rams. A wall of water and rock cascaded down, killing 34 people, demolishing 28 bridges, hopelessly damaging more than 100 buildings, leaving 420 people homeless, and sweeping no fewer than 38 cars into the Bristol Channel. The morning after, it looked as if the Dambusters had been at work.
A pretty fine July across Britain until, on the 18th, came a sustained deluge without equal in British weather records. At Martinstown, Dorset, there fell 279mm in 24 hours, still a record for a day's rain in Britain. Some 190mm of it fell in just four-and-a-half hours. Weymouth, Dorchester, Bridport, and other towns were flooded. Only two people were killed, a tribute to the absorbent qualities of the area's underlying chalk. Meanwhile Wales had its sunniest-ever month, with 354 hours at Dale Fort.
A summer of floods, starting with Devon in early July, and continuing with Peterborough, Bristol, and Bath. Somerset was especially badly hit with scores of homes in Chew Magna under eight feet of water, and Cheddar Caves flooded for the first time in generations. Altogether, more than 1,000 bridges were ruined, from Lincolnshire to Devon. Then, mid-month, it was Montgomery's turn, followed by a merciful lull in August. Flooding resumed again in mid-September, with the South-east now the victim. In 48 hours, large parts of the region received about 400 tons of water per acre, and the ground could not absorb it. Roads in Surrey and Sussex became impassable, 150 passengers were trapped for 12 hours in a train at Edenbridge, Kent, and, at Guildford, Surrey, the new Yvonne Arnaud Theatre was flooded to a depth of a metre. At Lewisham, south London, the River Quaggy rose from its normal six inches to more than 15ft, and many other parts of the region had flooded homes and streets.
The heat, the dust, the parched landscape... and the statistics. At the end of five dry years came an outstandingly hot summer and this, the worst drought in modern British history. From June to August, most of the country had only a third of its normal rainfall. Chichester Harbour in West Sussex had 44 days without rain, and parts of Devon had 45. By mid-July the Labour government had to act. A Drought Bill restricted water use, and Denis Howell MP was put in charge. He was popularly, though never officially, known as the minister for drought. Within a week of his appointment, there was heavy rain, and soon, in September, floods.
A rainstorm of unusual strength delivered 200.4mm on to the moors above Boscastle, Cornwall, in just four hours on 16 August. The steep valley running through the village acted, as did the Lyn Gorge in 1952, as a funnel for these huge amounts of water. Around 70 homes were damaged, 50 cars were swept into the harbour, and several dozen people had to be rescued. Unlike Lynmouth, however, not a single person died.
The soggiest June since 1914 across Britain, and an atrociously wet July brought serious floods to, first, Yorkshire, and then a wide area of the heart of England – with Gloucestershire suffering the most. Some people are still, two years on, trying to deal with the consequences of having their homes flooded. England had twice its normal rainfall in July. Altogether, 13 people died, and 48,000 homes flooded.
Sun & heat (or lack of...)
Someone such as myself (born in 1951) has experienced a transformation in our summers. The ones of the Fifties and Sixties were, save for 1957 and 1959, dreary and cool. In 15 of the 25 years between 1950 and 1974, the maximum temperature failed to reach 3C (90F) anywhere in Britain. But, starting in 1975, we have had the best heat and nearly the most frequent sunshine since reliable records began. After the several fine summers we have had in recent decades, a certain complacency has set in, which, of course, was duly confounded in 2007 with summer floods, and last year, when England and Wales had their dullest August since 1912. Here follows the most interesting instances of heat and sun (or lack of them). Note that, to prevent these pages looking like a meteorological textbook, Fahrenheit readings have been rounded up or down to the nearest whole number
Late 17th century old-timers were not liable to bore their children about the quality and length of their summers. The Little Ice Age saw to that, and the June of this year averaged a mere 11.5C (53F). Twenty years later, in 1695, the July could only manage an average of 13.5C (56F). For comparison, July 2006 averaged 19.7C (67F).
The highest temperature ever experienced in Britain may well have occurred on 13 July. Known as "Hot Wednesday", it was so roasting that workers dropped dead in the fields, and in East Anglia it may well have risen to 40C (105F). Since there was no reliable recording equipment around at the time, we shall never know.
The two hottest September days of the 20th century occurred in a remarkable late heatwave this year. Starting on 30 August, when 30C (86F) was reached at Maidenhead, there were four more days when 34C (93F) was exceeded. They included the 35C (95F) at New Malden, Colly Weston in Northamptonshire, and Maidenhead on 1 September; and the 35.6C (96F) at Bawtry, near Doncaster, on the 2nd. These are the warmest September days ever. It even hit 3C (90F) in Elgin in the north of Scotland on the 2nd.
The most miserable June on record. It was dull, wet, and exceptionally cold, the coolest, in fact, since 1675. In London, the sunshine averaged only three hours a day, a mere third of May's total. Parts of the capital, like Mill Hill, had only fractionally more sun than in February. On the 6th, Bath and Oxford's maximum temperature was just 10C (50F), and, at Bolton, the hottest it got all month was 20C (68F).
Some striking temperatures in July – 36.1C (97F) at Epsom, and 34.4C (94F) in Northamptonshire – which were bettered in August with 36.7C (98F) at Canterbury and 36.6C (98F) at Epsom (again) and Beddington, Surrey. But this July's principal weather feature was the endless days of cloudless skies, especially on the south coast. At Hastings and Eastbourne, the month saw 384 hours of sunshine – an average of more than 12 hours a day – and records that still stand. Even a polluted London had 334 hours. The heat affected industry. Quarries in Lancashire decided it was too hot to work beyond midday. The workers' joy was immediately cut short by the news that their working day would instead start at 4.30am. And The Times began a daily column: "Deaths From Heat". There were plenty to report. London's mortality rate rose to 19 in 1,000, making this, the richest city in the world, the second most unhealthy. The fine weather lasted into early September, but, this being Britain, the following year two new records were set for a lack of sunshine: for June, with a mere 60.9 hours at Crathes, Grampian; and for August, just 43.9 hours at Eskdalemuir in the Scottish lowlands.
The previous year, England had the coldest July of the century. This July made some amends, with a hot spell in the first half of the month that saw a run of temperatures above 3C (90F), culminating with 35.6C (96F) in Camden on the 13th. There were 16 heat-related deaths reported that week, and people shunned stuffy theatres – with the result that many productions shut down for good.
In June, London had a remarkable spell of solid sunshine, prompting the New York Times to carry a story headlined: "London Marvels at 22 Days of Sunshine". The intention, presumably, was to get Manhattan chortling at what was a normal occurrence in Gotham.
An August of rollicking heat, crowned by 36.1C (97F) at Camden on the 19th. East Anglia was not much cooler, at 96F. The New York Times, its weather eye always on the old country, reported the sweltering details in a story headed: "Girls Shop In Swimsuits. Many Appear on Streets in Beach Pyjamas – 150 Persons Overcome at Shrewsbury Flower Show". The press in an even warmer country was also intrigued by Londoners' reactions to what they judged to be uncharacteristic sunshine. The Melbourne Argus reported: "Wandering into West End clubs, old-fashioned folk have been astonished to find fellow clubmen in their shirtsleeves. In the West End theatres, too, men have been seen without coats and waistcoats." The paper went on: "In the tea shops, 'Orangeade' is enjoying a vogue as a drink. The heatwave has produced a slump in business at the cinemas. One curious exception is a German film called Back To Nature, a study in the nudist cult... The German original is understood to have been freely cut." It was also remarkably humid, especially at night. At Lympne, Kent, on the night of 19-20, the temperature never went below 22.7C (73F), a mark that stood as a record until broken in 1948, with 23C (73.4F) in London on 28 July.
August was a cool and wet month in a summer that seemed to specialise in such weather. But the real star was Tynemouth, where not a single ray of sunshine was recorded between the 16th and 24th. Newcastle did its best to beat this mark in 1982, when from 17-26 June there was a mere 20 minutes of sunshine.
At last, in the midst of the frightful Fifties, a decent summer. This June was warm – plenty of days above 27C (80F), with the best being 35.6C (96F) at Camden Square on the 29th. At Sandown on the Isle of Wight, the month saw 345 hours of sunshine. August, however, was a complete let-down. At Bognor (one of the sunniest and driest places in Britain, thanks to the protection of the South Downs), the temperature never rose above 2C (7F) all month.
In the entire year, the highest temperature reached anywhere in the UK was a measly 27.8C (8F) at Writtle, Essex, on 3 July. This equals 1920's dismal claim to fame. Its 27.8C was set at Raunds in Northamptonshire on 17 June – so it was downhill all the way that year, even before Midsummer's Day.
A wretchedly cool June. In many places, the maximum temperature never reached 21C (70F). At Stonyhurst, Lancashire, and Gorleston, Norfolk, the maximum could not drag itself past 15C (59F) on 17 days, and even London had seven such days. And, on the 9th, Watnall, Nottinghamshire, could record nothing warmer than 8.5C (48F).
The warmest summer ever. For those who can remember it, it was, at times, almost too much. In great swathes of the South, from Devon to Cambridgeshire, temperatures between June and August were four degrees centigrade better than normal. In late June and early July, Heathrow had 16 days in a row with temperatures above 30C (86F), and Cheltenham had seven consecutive days above 3C (90F).
A steamy August, during which two records were set. First, during the day on the 3rd, a temperature of 35C (95F) was common, and it seemed certain a new hottest day for Britain would be recorded. It duly was, with 37.1C (99F) at Cheltenham. That night, a new highest minimum was reached, at Brighton, where it never fell lower than 23.9C (75F).
A new British temperature record on 10 August of 38.1C (101F) was set at Kew Gardens. At one point, the London Eye closed because the glass pods were too hot. Scotland had a new high, too, of 32.9C (91F), set at Greycrook in the Borders, beating a record set in 1908. Finally, to the great satisfaction of many of us, Britain that early August was hotter than Barbados, where the prime minister, Tony Blair, was on holiday. If anything, it was too hot, with an estimated 11,000 heat-related deaths, mainly of the elderly, in France, and around 2,000 in Britain.
We have made extensive use of the following sources:
The British Weather, a website of historic information run by Dundee University's Professor Trevor Harley (by profession a psychologist) at personal.dundee.ac.uk/~taharley/britweather.htm
Two books: Robin Stirling's The Weather of Britain (1982), and Philip Eden's Great British Weather Disasters (2008).
The Weather in the Past forum at ukweatherworld.co.uk
The Historic Weather forum at netweather.tv/forum/forum/40-historic-weather/Reuse content