What do you think makes a good summer? That is what we have tried to find out over the past few days. After last week's presentation of the most outrageous spells of hot, wet, stormy or sunny weather, today we give what we think are the 10 best and 10 worst summers in the past 200 years.
Some selected themselves. No one could possibly ignore the claims of, say, the atrocious summers of 1912 and 1954, or the golden years of 1933 and 1959. But how do you rank them? What criteria do you use to choose your ideal summer? If you're a cricketer or golfer, you'll prefer the season with a minimum of rain. Gardeners would disagree, hoping for heat and rain to alternate for maximum growth. Yet sun lovers, looking to save on bills at the tanning salon, want unrelenting sunshine and baking temperatures. The over-75s don't, not only because such weather is uncomfortable, but also because, in the case of years like 2003, it can be fatally so.
My preference is for a mild, sunny but not hot, rather British kind of summer, where trees and grass remain green, and ponds and rivers still have enough water. My answer to those who favour pitiless heat and dawn-to-dusk sun (and for- ever bemoan any lack of it) is this: if that's what you want, then go and live in some place where, come July, all unirrigated vegetation is the colour of ageing straw.
Yet, in the cause of a sort of faux democracy, we have laid aside our own preferences and included in our list of good summers all types, even the lethally hot. There are 10 remarkably fine summers, and we'd love to hear your views of what's the best one. Just write to or email the editor in the normal way. If you have any particular summer memories to go along with your opinion, so much the better.
As far as the bad summers go, we all know what makes for one of those: a surfeit of rain, and a dearth of sun. But some are worse than others, and, from the many contenders, we have chosen 10 real delinquents. We give them first, the better to appreciate the sunlit uplands of the best 10. Finally, to round off this summer special, we have chosen a dozen or so items of seasonal weather weirdness. May the sun shine on you as you read them.
The 10 worst summers
Often called "the year without a summer", 1816 delivered four months of such abjectly low temperatures that they almost defy modern belief. June averaged 12.8C (55F), July 13.4C (56F), August 13.9C (57F), and September 11.8C (53F). In Ireland, between May and September, it rained on 142 of the 153 days. Many crops either froze in May, or simply failed to ripen. There were food riots in places like Dundee (where a crowd of 2,000 smashed their way into scores of shops), and famine was rife. The same was true across Europe, China, and north America, hence the verdict of one historian that the summer of 1816 was "the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world". The cause was historically low solar activity combining with a run of major volcanic eruptions that climaxed in 1815 with that of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. This killed 50,000 people and sent such vast amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere that the climate of much of the world was damaged for many months to come.
If you ever wondered how the Victorians could stand being at the seaside in August dressed in heavy serge jackets, waistcoats, and trousers, the explanation may be that it was not just fashion but a habit formed by the wretched summer of 1879. Every month from May to September had significantly lower temperatures than normal, making it one of the four coldest summers in 160 years of such records. The best it ever got was 26.8C (80F) at Hillington, Norfolk, on 29 July, the lowest summer maximum in history. The rainfall was well above average (in some places, such as the North-east, the wettest on record until 2007), and, not surprisingly, the wheat harvest was a disaster, barely half the expected crop. And yet, in keeping with the British tradition of making the best of things despite the weather, on 18 September, the Blackpool Illuminations were turned on for the first time.
This was the coldest June for more than 230 years. No sunshine at all in London for days on end, Bath and Oxford unable to register anything warmer than 10C (50F) on the 6th, and plenty of other dismal data. Epsom in Surrey only crept past 18.3C (65F) on six days of the month, and Mill Hill in London only had 10 hours of sunshine more than it had in February. July was not much warmer, and there was not a single day between 23 May and 6 August when the temperature reached 27C (81F) anywhere in the country. But, after a brief warmish spell, the summer reverted to type, and finally petered out in a cool September that also managed to deliver floods in South Wales. All in all, the summer was a severe trial for seasiding Edwardians, one of whose postcards, from Bognor, revealed: "Coming home tomorrow. Too blooming cold here. Love Ada."
The swinging pendulum of Edwardian summers invariably lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous in a 12 month, and, after the golden year of 1911, it duly sent down an absolute shocker. June was chilly, dripping wet, and sun-starved, with enough thunderstorms to disprove the common idea that they are always the product of steaming hot weather. Clitheroe, Lancashire, had storms on no fewer than 14 days that month. July cheered up considerably for a while; but, after the third week, the rains began again and would barely stop for a month or more. August was the coldest, dullest, and wettest of the century. Sunshine across Britain averaged 94 hours – not even half that managed in a decent August. Many places had much more than twice their average rainfall. At Manchester and Birmingham, the thermometer did not rise above 19C (66F) all month. And, after all that, September was the second coldest of the century.
The Twenties had two rank summers in the first three years, and this, by a short head, was the worst of them. In 1922 came the coldest July of the 20th century, followed by one of the wettest August Bank Holidays on record. But overall, on our misery meter, the opening year of the Twenties takes the palm. It was simply the coldest summer of the entire 20th century, and one of the dullest. A measure of how pitifully it played the role of a summer is its maximum temperature – a mere 27.8C (8F) on 17 June. July had not even this saving grace, and after mid-June there was nothing better than the 70s Fahrenheit. More than twice the average rains came down, and, although August was not quite as wet, there was still enough to bring floods to both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
On 30 June of this year, visible from all over Britain, there was a near-total eclipse of the sun. The skies darkened, and the sun disappeared. As an event it was largely superfluous since the clouds had been blotting out the sun nearly all month, and would continue doing so for the rest of the summer – easily the most depressing one of the second half of the century. There was rain, especially in August, but mostly this summer was drab and grey. At Tynemouth in August, there was no sun whatsoever between the 16th and 24th. After all this, it was no surprise that September couldn't rouse itself to any sustained fine weather, and so Britain slipped seamlessly into the chill of autumn. Indeed, the only cheering thing about this summer was that on 4 July rationing came to an end in Britain after 14 very long years.
Two years after 1954's gloom came perhaps the stormiest summer in modern British history. June started cold – West Wittering in Sussex could only manage 9C (48F) on the 7th – and then got wet, with floods in West Yorkshire. Not content with being merely wet and cool, July turned into a bad-tempered affair with hail bad enough to disrupt flights in and out of Heathrow on the 18th. Floods followed in Kent, south-west London, Huntingdon, and Blackpool, and then on 29-30 came fierce gales. They left trees down all over the country, campsites wrecked, and 11 dead. Then came the wettest, and second coldest, August of the century. On the Bank Holiday, London's best temperature was 13C (55F), and Tunbridge Wells had such a bad hailstorm that buses were stuck in four-foot drifts. Heavy rains fell in the West Country, North-west, and Scotland, and it was no great surprise that the month ended with a widespread ground frost. It remains the only August of the century to be cooler than September.
The Sixties had only marginally better summers than the Fifties, a pair of decades which ensures that baby boomers could never bore their children with stories of how good the seasons of their youth were. This year was the worst of the decade. It began with notable cold, and remains one of the coolest summers on record. There was an air frost at Rustington, West Sussex, on the first full night of June and a day later even colder frosts were recorded with -1.7C (29F) at Mickleham, Surrey, and -5.6C (2F) at Santon Downham, Norfolk. July continued cool and dull with 27.8C (8F) at Writtle, Essex, on the 3rd, being the warmest day the whole summer could rustle up. It was, with 1920, the lowest maximum of any year for the entire 20th century. August brought not only the death of Marilyn Monroe, but also chilly winds, and floods from Dorset to the north Midlands.
Summers in years ending with a two had a very poor record in the 20th century. Only 1932 and 1942 were half-way decent, the rest being uniformly depressing, with several being absolute shockers. This was the case in 1972. June was, at 11.8C (53F), the coldest of the century, and it wasn't until mid-July that many places had their first taste of the dizzying heights of 21C (70F). This brief interlude of seasonal temperatures was immediately followed by some major thunderstorms, especially in Kent, where hail was vicious enough to kill sheep on Romney Marsh. Heavy rains were then almost ubiquitous, and Exeter, Nottingham, Staffordshire, Essex, Manchester, and Norwich all caught some severe falls. The country, having endured all this, was then rewarded with a cool August and September. Scotland, although never warm, did at least have its driest September of the entire century.
On the east coast, especially in Scotland, the summer opened in very gloomy fashion. Aberdeen, for instance, had more sun in the previous December than it did throughout this June. But this was the first of two years in which summer rains came as they had not done for 100 years. June was cool, with Prestatyn's 27.C (81F) being the peak temperature, and then, in the last week, arrived the floods for which this summer will always be remembered. Yorkshire took the brunt with large parts of Sheffield, Rotherham, and Doncaster inundated. July was then, over the country as a whole, the wettest for 70 years. This time it was the turn of the western heart of England to suffer. Around one-sixth of the annual average rainfall came down in 48 hours over a large area of Oxfordshire, Hereford, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire. The latter two counties had serious floods with Pershore, in Worcestershire, terribly stricken. August was much drier, although temperatures never really got going – as Okehampton in Devon could testify, being no warmer on the 19th than 10.6C (51F). September provided some calm, although never warm, respite.
The 10 best summers
Ah, the summer of '68. The young men in their stove-pipe hats, the girls with their bustles, and everyone singing along with the band in the park. And the weather, of course – the best summer of the long Victorian age, and not exceeded for heat and lack of rain until 1976. June was warm and dry, but July was the peak, with weather buff Dr Hunsley Fielding recording 38.1C (100F) at Tonbridge, Kent, on the 22nd. Long regarded as the British record, it was dismissed more than 100 years later, on the grounds that his thermometer was insufficiently sealed against heat reflected from the ground. But reports from around the country make plain this was a special summer: "On four days it was above 90F" (Camden Town); "an extraordinary month for heat, yet breezy and cool nights; the intense sun and cloudless sky account for burnt pastures" (Cirencester); "a month of unusually high temperatures, cloudless skies, and almost no rain. Pastures burnt and bare, and great hardships both for man and beast owing to the want of water in the Fen Districts" (Boston); and "River Doon normally 104ft wide is reduced to a stream of just 6ft and 2ft deep" (Auchendrane, Ayrshire). And, after all that, it was the warmest winter on record.
The defining Edwardian summer, whose heat was incessant, and whose sunshine records may never be beaten. June was good, but then things warmed up considerably. In the south, July was without a blemish, being hot – a mark of 36C (97F) was recorded at Epsom – and unremittingly sunny (Eastbourne and Hastings had 384 hours, still a UK best). August was then the second warmest ever (a record since beaten), with the highest temperature 36.7C (98F) at Raunds, Northamptonshire, on the 9th, followed by 33.9C (93F) at Camden on the 11th. Raunds was still having 34.6C (94F) on 8 September. It was Coronation year, and there were loyal subjects who were inclined to think this summer really was a case of the sun shining on the righteous. It was not, for if you look closer at these sunny months, there are deep shadows. Deaths from heat, especially among London's children, were such that the mortality rate leapt and made the world's richest metropolis one of its unhealthiest. Strikes, and the response to them, brought riots, the worst of which saw two workers killed at Llanelli, and widespread shortages. Manchester nearly exhausted its food reserves.
The only consistently clement summer of the inter-war years. The word "benign" perfectly describes this most English of good summers. A warm, blue-skies start to June gave way to a back half which was unsettled everywhere, and so wet on Merseyside that there were serious floods. But then came two-and-a-half months of uninterrupted fine weather. It was hot at times – 3C (89F) was quite common – and dry enough to see grass and woodland fires in the Peak District, on Surrey and Berkshire heaths, in Epping Forest and the New Forest. Only when September was half way through did the rains and cooler temperatures set in. The season even inspired a Dr J Glasspoole to read a paper to the Christmas meeting of the Royal Meteorological Society entitled "The Exceptional Summer of 1933".
By June of this year, Britons could be excused for thinking there was a conspiracy against them. They had won the Second World War, but then had to endure increased rationing, heavy taxes, queue after queue, the worst winter of the century, and then, when the snows melted, March floods. Their reward was that summer – a thing of consistent beauty, with just the odd thunderstorm for variety. It began early, with temperatures topping 30C at the end of May. They peaked at 34.4C (94F) in London on 3 June. Thereafter, June and July were warm, bordering on hot, before the arrival of a peach of an August. In Scotland, it was the hottest summer of the century, and elsewhere it set records for its sun and lack of rain. The theme was continued with a generally fine, and warm, September.
Some of the great rainfall, flood, and hailstorm cataclysms of the century had occurred in the previous few years, but now came a summer straight out of a children's picture book: warm, sunny, and dry, without any silly extremes. To those of us still at the bucket and spade age, it was so Enid Blyton-perfect that we half expected to bump into The Famous Five on the beach. June was warmer than normal and then came a sunlit July and August that was hot enough to be interrupted at odd intervals by some entertaining thunder and lightning. The 30C (86F) mark was easily exceeded several times, but never enough for discomfort. And then, to cap it all, we had the driest September on record with many areas barely able to scrape together 10 per cent of normal rainfall. In parts of Essex and Suffolk there was no rain at all from 14 August to 9 October.
A summer immortalised by pictures of empty river beds, shrunken ponds, blazing heaths, and dessicated mud where reservoirs full of water should have been. June began promisingly enough, with some temperatures in the 80s (26.6C), wobbled a bit for a week-and-a-half, and then, starting in the third week, began the hottest summer on reliable record. From 23 June to 7 July there were 15 consecutive days of 3C (90F), three times the previous best. On five of them, 35C (95F) was reached or bettered. Heathrow had 52 days that summer above 25C (77F). And, instead of dissipating, as such heatwaves normally do, it just kept on going with no rain to speak of over most of the country. Cromer, in Norfolk, had 318 hours of sunshine in July; in August, Ilfracombe, Devon, had 333 – both an average of more than 10 hours a day. But, as children played in garden paddling pools day after baking day (at least until hosepipe bans came in at the end of July), rivers and reservoirs ran dry, forest and grassland fires without number broke out, nature reserves were burnt to a black crisp, the government drew up a Drought Bill with emergency measures, and Britain had its first ozone pollution alert. Employees in factory and offices wilted. Some firms started the day at 6am, and ended it at 2pm; others, like Martonair, in Farnham, Surrey, issued staff with salt tablets. There were few regrets when, at the end of August, the rains arrived that would continue through September.
A summer that began with Margaret Thatcher's second, and most emphatic election victory, was searingly hot at times. June was a bit wayward, with hail and thunder, but then came what was, until 2006, the hottest July since modern records began. It averaged 19.5C (67F) – for comparison, 1978's chilly July averaged 14.8C (58F) – more by consistently breaking 27C (80F), than by remarkable highs. Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland all saw temperatures in excess of 30C (86F). Heat-related deaths, according to Philip Eden's Great British Weather Disasters, numbered about 500, many of them over-75s, and many areas had sharp falls of rain, especially the north Pennines, where there were floods. Yet, throughout that July and August, the sun reasserted itself and made this summer one of the warmest five in the past 110 years.
The middle – and best – of a trio of fine mid-1990s summers, which, the year before, had included the sunniest, warmest and, especially in the South-east, driest August to date. The attempt of 1996 to carry on the good work began with a heatwave in the first week of June, and then calmed down to be solidly pleasant well into September. London was favoured with one of the earliest recordings of a temperature in the 90s, when St James's Park, central London, had a reading of 33.1C (91F) on 7 June. This reverie was broken in the south by a chain of thunder, hail, and lightning that flashed, crashed, and hammered down from Weymouth to Norfolk. Storms continued to break out, but never for long; and July, August, and September continued generally dry, sunny, and free of any stiflingly extreme heat. A very gentlemanly kind of summer.
The summer that included the hottest day in British history – Sunday 10 August. A reading of 38.5C (101.3F) was made at Faversham, Kent, but this is disputed, and so the mark of 38.1C (100.5F) at Kew Gardens is now the record-holder. June had been magnificent, July even hotter, and so, as August opened, the heat began to build – 36.4C (97.5F) at Wisley, Surrey, on the 6th, 36.9C (98.4F) at Enfield on the 9th, 37.9C (100.F) at Heathrow on the 10th, and then that Kew record. Finally, there was the sunniest September for nearly 40 years. And yet there was a high price to be paid – an estimated 2,000 heat-related deaths.
A great summer, providing you went abroad at the beginning of August and stayed away until the exceptional September. June was much warmer than normal, and, across the UK, was a third sunnier than is average for the month. July was even better, with 50 per cent more sunshine – Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, for instance, had 343 hours – and such good temperatures that it was, in England and Scotland, the hottest month ever. Then August. Not a disaster compared with 2007 and 2008, but rather dull, coolish, and uninspiring. September, however, saw a return to form, and, at an average for central England of 16.8C (6F), was the warmest we have ever had.
Waterspouts are the ocean-going equivalents of tornadoes. They are probably more frequent than we know, for there is not always someone to observe, as would be the case on land. A large one was spotted off Beachy Head, East Sussex, on 19 July 1935; a 1,000ft specimen off the Isle of Sheppey on 18 August 1960; and several others off the Sussex coast on the same date in 1974. A sailor estimated them to be about 300ft high. Britain's biggest was seen off Ryde, Isle of Wight, on 21 August 1878, and reckoned by a sextant user to be about a mile tall.
We've all heard of rain stopping play at cricket, but on 1 September 1906, heat nearly stopped a football match. Manchester City were playing Woolwich Arsenal in temperatures estimated at more than 90F (3C). Players were not then as fit as they are now. City's Jimmy Conlin appeared with a knotted hankie on his head, and three of the home team succumbed before half-time. Two more later flopped to the ground, and Manchester City ended the match with just six players on the field. It was said that only the sporting instincts of Arsenal confined the score to 4-1.
A memorable St Swithin's Day (15 July), gave the country a memorable soaking, with 15 hours of continuous rain in some places. Yet, in the next 40 days, in London, there were 31 completely dry days. In 1924, the famous date performed the trick in reverse – being brilliantly sunny and hot, followed by rain on 30 of the next 40 days. These two years are rare exceptions to the saying that St Swithin's Day will set the weather for the next 40. The pattern of high summer weather often does become rather fixed from the middle of July, and so there is method and sense in the old saying.
Septembers are often surprisingly good – the surprise being occasioned more by our ignorance of its capabilities, than a study of the record. We are currently in a run of 14 warmer-than-average ones, and there has been some outstanding weather in the ninth month. September 1898 was the sunniest month of the year (the only time this has occurred), with temperatures of 3C or above on the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 17th. Two years later, 35.6C (96F) was recorded near Doncaster, South Yorkshire, still a September record; in 1919, the hottest day of the year fell on 11 September, with 32.C (90F) at Raunds, Northamptonshire; both 1929 and 1949 saw 32.3C (90F) reached; and 1999's was the second warmest of the century. But the prize for best Indian summer goes to 1926, when Camden, north London, saw 32.C (90F) on the 19th – the best temperature of the year, and the latest date on which this has been achieved.
A summer record was established at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, on 29 August. The overnight minimum temperature in this well-known frost hollow was 1.1C (34F), but by mid-afternoon, the mercury had shot up to 29.4C (85F), the most extraordinary turnaround in modern summers. This temperature range of 28.3C was beaten on 9 May 1978 when, at Pitlochry, an overnight minimum of -7C (19F) zoomed up to 2C (71F) – fully 29C degrees warmer.
It is a widespread superstition in America that beech trees are not struck by lightning and so are a safe haven. This appeared to get some scientific credence in 1938 when a study by the Thunderstorm Census Organisation in Britain reported: "Of the 164 trees struck by lightning in the past four years, 51 were oak, 32 elm, 27 ash, 13 poplar, and nine firs. No beech trees were struck." Beeches are struck, but far less often than other tall species. A study in Germany found that oaks, because of their high water content, are hit 60 times more often than oily beeches. The shallow root system of oaks, with many roots partially above ground, is another reason never to shelter under them during a storm.
The year an inaccurate weather forecast helped to save Western civilisation. It was late May, and the invasion of Europe was in the offing. A little more than a week before the projected D-Day dates, the weather had been glorious. Britain's hottest ever day in May was recorded at Horsham in Sussex, with 32.8C (91F). But then there was a sharp deterioration. Britain had its lowest ever June depression on the 5th, and there were high winds and rain. The seaborne invasion was put back, and General Eisenhower was desperate for a better forecast for the 6th. The meteorologists gave it to him, and the invasion went ahead. Weather expert Philip Eden has written: "Their prediction for the 6th was far too optimistic, and, had they got it right, the invasion would have been postponed for two weeks. Very strong north-easterly winds between 18 and 22 June would have meant either a disastrous second attempt, or, more likely, another postponement."
Of all the years since 1880 when Test cricket has been held, this was the worst for rain washing out entire days' play. It happened seven times that summer, a very poor record considering only four matches, against Pakistan, were played. The worst ground for losing a whole day's play is Old Trafford in Manchester, where 29 days have been lost in the 1880-2006 period. Lords is next, with 18, then The Oval with 14, Headingley with 12, Trent Bridge with 10, and Edgbaston with a very creditable two. Typically, it then delivered another one this year.
The hailstorm that hit Arundel, West Sussex, on 6 August 1956 was unusual not just for its ferocity, but for what happened afterwards. At the height of the storm, hail blocked the A27. The Sussex Weather Book – by Ian Currie, Bob Ogley and Mark Davison – takes up the story: "Several days later, a visitor to Arundel wondered what the black substance was that lined the grass verge by the castle boating lake. It was hail which had been swept off the road. It was black and had been shaded by trees. It had, however, survived several days in high summer in the south of England."
Two of the best summers in succeeding years that we have ever had began with June 1975. Yet, at the very start of that month the latest snow in modern history fell on Britain. It lay as far south as Surrey, and melted very speedily but not before the historic words "snow stops play" were recorded at the Derbyshire vs Lancashire cricket match at Buxton, where it was an inch deep. Thereafter, the month became hot and dry.
The year of the longest ever summer rainbow. It appeared over north Wales on 14 August, and lasted three hours. This is not the overall UK record, which is held by Wetherby, in Yorkshire, where, on 14 March 1994, one shimmered for six hours between 9am and 3pm. The most famous upside down rainbow of recent times was over Cambridge on 16 September 2008.
The cumulonimbus clouds that bring thunderstorms can reach a height of 16 kilometres (almost 10 miles). If they are one of the thicker variety they can block out most, and occasionally all, of the sun's light. On 6 August 1981, one that was eight miles high filled the sky over east Surrey and transformed a summer's day into pitch-black darkness. Street lights came on automatically, and, when the storm burst, there were extensive floods with 16 buildings struck by lightning. This degree of darkness in the middle of the day is very rare, but not unprecedented. The same thing happened for the same reason in central London on 27 June 1947.
This was the year, along with 1896 and 1948, when one of the more unusual curiosities of the British summer came closest to being ended. Meteorologists talk of the "June 13 Anomaly" because this date is the only one in the three summer months on which 30C (86F) has never been reached. The best is 28.3C (83F) in 1994.
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