Hottest July day as temperatures top 36C to break 1911 record

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The Independent Online

Britain experienced its hottest-ever July day yesterday, as much of the southern half of the country sweltered in blazing sunshine.

The July record, nearly a century old, was breached at a Met Office weather recording station at Charlwood in Surrey, where just after 1.30pm the thermometer reached 36.3C, or 97.3F.

The old record of 36C (96.8F) was set at Epsom, Surrey, on 22 July 1911, and has only once been closely approached in the 95 years since then - when 35.9C (96.6F) was recorded at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 3 July, 1976, in another famously sweltering summer.

Besides the new national record, local records for July were equalled or broken in many places, including Heathrow airport (35.3C) and the London Weather Centre (33.9C), while Wales equalled its July record with 33.6C (92.5F), recorded at RAF Valley on Anglesey.

Scotland, however, was not so blisteringly hot, with a maximum of 31C recorded at Prestwick airport, south-west of Glasgow; the Scottish record for July is 32.8C. North-eastern Scotland was distinctly chilly, with the temperature in Shetland not exceeding 15C - "drizzly and horrid", said the Met Office.

But in southern England the temperatures were higher than in many tropical resorts - British temperatures this week have outstripped holiday destinations including Athens, Bermuda, Rio de Janeiro and Rome - and across the country there was a rush for products designed for keeping cool.

The electrical retailer Comet sold a fan every two seconds - its highest ever rate - while customers snapped up one air-conditioning unit every 30 seconds and a fridge-freezer every 17 seconds. The trend was echoed by Argos, where customers spent nearly £1m on fans and cooling systems yesterday.

Forecasters had indicated that this week there was a 30 per cent chance of exceeding the all-time UK record of 38.5C (101.3F), reached in Kent on 10 August 2003, but yesterday afternoon temperatures in the present heatwave were considered to have peaked. More unsettled weather will gradually approach from the west - it was raining in parts of Cornwall yesterday - but for the next few days, at least in the South-east, it will still feel "pretty hot", said the Met Office.

Scientists have repeated this week that the rising temperatures being experienced around the world - attributed to man-made global warming with increasing confidence - make reaching or exceeding previous maximum temperatures far more likely.

Hot spots

* Keepers at Colchester Zoo in Essex, gave animals specially made ice blocks yesterday. Lions were being given ice blocks flavoured with blood in their enclosures, and monkeys, blocks containing fruit.

* At Edinburgh Zoo, Britain's only captive polar bear, Mercedes, took refuge in her pool. Her keepers freeze food into ice blocks in her enclosure so she has to work to get at her lunch of berries, but the 25-year-old has not had to wait long for it to melt this week. Mercedes is the only polar bear in a British zoo since the death three years ago of Mandy at Flamingo Land Zoo and Theme Park in North Yorkshire.

* Officials at the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire have suspended visitors' rights to veer from footpaths, fearing the hot weather could cause fires in dry woodland areas. It is the first time access to the moorland has been restricted since open access under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2004. Sean Prendergast, the head of access and recreation, said: "People are welcome to walk all over the National Park as long as they stick to public footpaths."

* Central London schools are adopting continental hours this week to try to keep children cool. Ten primary and secondary schools will be closing at 1.30pm, two hours earlier than usual, and others have called off their traditional summer sports days.

* Water was offered to motorists stuck on the A14 trunk road in Cambridgeshire following two accidents. Members from the rescue service Spartan Rescue used quad bikes to get water to drivers.

* In the House of Commons, the Speaker, Michael Martin, relaxed the strict dress code which compels reporters to wear jackets in the Press Gallery. Journalists can now attend in shirt-sleeve order.

* The heatwave is starting to cause problems in continental Europe. In France, the heatwave has probably caused the deaths of nine people this week, a Health Ministry official said. Authorities there are on high alert because of soaring temperatures; some 15,000 mostly old people died in the 2003 heatwave that caught health services and politicians by surprise. Most of the nine deaths this week were in the south-west, where the temperature reached almost 40C (104F).