1997 turned out to be on average the warmest year ever recorded in the world, and the third warmest in Britain - though the early days of January would not have predicted it.

Britain may still be seen as a cold and rainy island, but the figures for the past two years suggest that it is becoming less so. The average temperature in central England last year was 10.57C - which is warmer than any years other than 1990 and 1949 since records began in 1959. Last year was also drier than normal, with only 94 per cent of the average rainfall, and the time from April 1995 to March 1997 was the driest two- year period ever recorded. The rainfall recorded at Heathrow throughout 1997 was less than 70 per cent of the average figure.

Looking at the storms of the past few days, 1998 already looks very different from last year. January 1997 was the driest since 1779, with only 15.8mm of rain on average over England and Wales compared with an average of more than 85mm.

The first month of 1997 was also the coldest for 10 years, with the temperature not rising above zero in many parts of the country until 6 January. The monthly mean temperatures were below normal in most places in England and Wales, though Dyce (Grampian) recorded a sultry 14.6C on 3 January.