We are now in the fourth week of what may well be the warmest April on record. The days have been almost continuously sunny since 6 April; temperatures have, in southern parts, reached 26.5 C; and our gardens and countryside look more like mid-May than late April. Around London, south-facing wisteria has already peaked and the cherry blossom fallen, but bluebells are blooming weeks early, and the first white flower buds of may trees have begun to show.
Plants are not the only things perking up. In the parks, sunning lunch-timers loll on grass that should, according to the date, be too damp. On the high street, the clothes shop rails rattle to the sound of young women searching for a cooling top just about decent enough for the office. Men of a certain age have dug out the Baden-Powell shorts and been silly enough to wear them. Thirsty plants in dry gardens are relieved by water from as yet unbanned hosepipes. And a summer sun shines down on us all, the righteous and unrighteous, the AV-ers and No-to-AV-ers, and probably even the superinjunction seekers, too. Blessed be the British in the spring of 2011, for we are warmer than Los Angeles, drier than Madrid, and cosier than Corfu.
This will, for many of us, be nothing less than the defining spring of our lives. And its memory will linger long after the mobile phone pictures of that day on the beach or picnic by the river have been erased or digitally superseded; for spring always seems the most British of seasons.
I have a theory about why this should be. It isn't because of the vivid, varied greenness that grows daily in treetops and hedgerows or the gradual advent of the long, light north European evenings. Nor is it, like some natural annual replay of our wartime legend, the seizing of sap-rising victory after the months of backs-against-the-wall winter. It is the mildness, the very British lack of extreme. In our corner of the Atlantic system, handily placed to avoid hurricanes, typhoons or tropical storms, spring is the mildest of times in the mildest of climes.
Search the history of our weather, and March, April and May are the benign, friendly months, conspicuous only for their reluctance to provide record floods, heat, cold, wind, snow – or, indeed, record anything. On the Met Office website, there are 39 extreme weather records for Britain. None is for March or April, and only two for May – one for the highest two-hour rainfall (West Yorkshire, 1989), the other for Scotland's sunniest month (Tiree, 1975). Nothing more damaging, you might say, than an extended refreshing shower, and a month of balmy days in the Inner Hebrides.
In the history of our recorded weather, springs do not, like other seasons, jostle and elbow each other out of the way to provide our wettest, hottest, stormiest incidents. They stand out only in relation to each other. The memorable ones are remarkable not so much for what occurs, but for doing so at this time of year at all – springs into which bits of other, more aggressive seasons have briefly intruded: the blizzards of April 1917, Devon snowdrifts of May 1935, and gales of April 1973. These, and others like them (see panel), are like a mild-mannered friend who shocks with an uncharacteristic outburst.
In the annals of kindly springs, 2011 is very special. History will remember it for statistics – by 13 April (the latest available official data), our average maximum temperature was 3.7 C above the norm, and the South-east's rainfall a mere 4 per cent of the long-term average. But we who have lived it, especially those of us who spend much of our time out of doors, will know it for things better than data: evenings sitting in the garden, weekend after weekend of reliable warmth, paddling pools filled with happy splashers – a summer come early, a windfall, like the winnings from a lucky flutter, something we had no right to expect.
Everyone will have their own slideshow they can play in their heads. Mine has infant lambs tottering around after their mothers across warm Sussex fields; an early April sunset over Pagham Harbour, its last rays still warm on the face; the plump green undergrowth more like mid-May than April; a round of golf remarkable for seeing, in as many holes, six species of butterfly (large white, peacock, orange-tip, brimstone, holly, and clouded yellow); and, on the shimmering waters of a south coast nature reserve, behaviour that was anything but reserved.
The two swans looked as if they were working up to something, and I barely had time to raise my camera before he swam behind her, applied his full weight, held her head under water with his beak, fully mounted her, and mated in less than a minute. She resurfaced, their chests met, both necks stretched up, and then, bending in symmetrical shapes, they formed a momentary heart shape, and swam apart. It was the essence of sex between lifelong partners – an exercise in tenderness and practised selfishness.
The recurring theme of those who care for our wildlife has, in the last decade, not been the sensuous joys of spring; rather the propensity for doom contained within its globally warmed and much earlier arrival. It comes more than two weeks sooner than 30-odd years ago, say repeated studies of flowerings, spawnings, and egg-laying; and possibly three weeks earlier than the 1950s. But never mind the longer growing season, say the pressure groups, that is a fools' premature paradise. Think instead, they insist, of earlier springs throwing our ecologies out of kilter: summer resident birds arriving as per their routine schedule, only to find the food their young depend on has already bred/pupated/hatched/or gone to ground; and plants flowering before their pollinators are on the wing. The whole finely balanced evolved timetable thrown into disarray.
It is a disturbing prospect, and journalists, including myself, have duly peddled it. But the evidence for it happening, several decades after the warming process began, has proved scant. Last year, a study led by Dr Stephen Thackeray and Professor Sarah Wanless of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology was published. It looked at 726 species of plants and animals, and found that 80 per cent of them experienced earlier events, the pace of change was accelerating, and predators were often slower to respond. But it found no direct evidence of species suffering as a result, and added: "The seasonal timing of reproduction is often matched to the time of year when food supply increases, so that offspring receive enough food to survive." Thus, although the threat remains, wildlife seems smarter and more adaptable than fretting campaigners would have us believe.
We, it seems, are less so. Repeated warnings about the environmental damage caused by cars and excessive energy consumption have fallen on ears made deaf by convenience and habit, and the result is all too palpable, especially if you are asthmatic. Polluting particles love long periods of warm, sunny weather as much as we do, and the result, on Tuesday afternoon, was all too apparent. A friend and I stood on the North Downs looking towards London and saw, hanging over the capital, a vast smoking room fug. Sure enough, two days later, the Government issued a smog alert, and urged the vulnerable, who are many, to avoid afternoons out of doors and car rides.
The other matter, just to complete the tour of possible downsides to this most glorious of springs, is water, or the lack of it. March was the driest in England and Wales for 50 years – and April has been drier still. Up to the 13th of the month, England has had only 16 per cent of its long-term average rainfall, and it is probable that river levels will be very low by the end of this month. Already, the likes of the Daily Express and broadcasters wearing concerned faces have started to warn of possible shortages, and speculate on the chances of dessicated woodlands and heaths spontaneously combusting. All, of course, in the public interest.
To that, there is only one response, and that is to remind ourselves what happened after the warmest April ever, that of 2007. The average maximum for the UK was 15.2C (16.3C for England), and temperature records were widely set as the pitiless April sun beat down. Newspapers reached for the D-word: drought, they warned, was the inevitable price we would have to pay for our month of pleasure. And then came the rains of May, followed by those of June, which were, in due and damp course, succeeded by the wretched floods of July. They were the wettest such months in the record, and some areas had three times as much rain as normal. It is a comfort to know that, whatever else is up in the sky above Britain, caprice is always there with it.
That is what makes this extraordinarily settled hors d'ouevre of summer so delicious. I think this weekend we should simply savour it. The main course may be rather different.
But, occasionally, it can be outrageous, too...
1893 A prolonged drought across the South-east of England (some parts had no rain for 60 days) was most keenly felt in east London. At Mile End, not a single drop fell between 4 March and 15 May.
1917 Blizzards over much of the British Isles in early April. In parts of Ireland, snow fell for two days non-stop, and there were reports of drifts three metres deep.
1935 One of the worst May snowfalls ever. Mid-month, it was lying three inches deep at Cambridge, and there were piles of the stuff as far south as Tiverton in Devon.
1949 In the middle of April, on the 16th, Britain recorded its hottest ever Easter Saturday temperature when the mercury reached 29.4C in Camden Square. It is still an all-time record for the month.
1955 On 17 May snow fell for nearly three hours in the London area, with the added frisson of severe gales. Elsewhere, roads were blocked in Derbyshire and Wales.
1973 Winds reaching Force 10 and in some parts 11 swept much of Britain, causing extensive damage, especially to trees, roofs and caravans. And, where winds did not blow, there was snow.
1989 The sunniest May on record. Some places in the South had at least 340 hours of sun in the month – an average of more than 10 hours a day. The average maximum temperature in London was the highest for any May in 150 years, and probably helped tempers fray at the FA Cup final.
2000 A soaking April (the wettest on record), followed by a truly soggy May. There were widespread floods, and some memorable thunderstorms.