Heatwave Britain: What it was like during record-breaking 1976 scorcher

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Martin King recalls the record-breaking drought's effect on his Warwickshire countryside

It started with a massive late-June thunderstorm and ended with another on the August holiday Monday. In between much of the UK endured the longest drought and hottest summer on record.

It had been the first year where fields of oilseed rape became common and they had already brought their yellowness to a new rural palette. But that soon gave way to unrelenting brown as pastures withered and looked as if they would never recover.

Many gardeners had no need of mowers for at least a month. More significantly potatoes would not grow, wheatears would not become plump, and farmers and horse-owners had to use up winter hay stocks over the arid August - and worry about stocks for the winter ahead.

I even found a dead 70cm (28ins) pike in the barely running River Avon on its way to Stratford. Water shortages meant widespread water restrictions with standpipes deployed in the worst-hit areas of the UK as reservoirs emptied.

Meanwhile fire crews grew haggard chasing grass and woodland fires. As a young reporter I followed a Warwickshire crew into a copse outside Coventry. "If I tell you to run," said the fire chief, "then run like hell." I was bemused; it seemed only a small fire. Then the flames reached a 10m (30ft) pine. Wumph! It was fully ablaze in a second, its resin crackling and flaring. Wumph! Its neighbour went up, then another and another and we were all running like hell - the light wind fanned by the draft from the flames and spreading them astoundingly fast..

We'd seen film of Australian and US forest fires. This was on a lesser scale but its deceptive beginnings made it deadly nevertheless.

You become better adjusted to the heat, and to changing your lifestyle to cope - but watching the countryside and its economy shrivel was an enduring shock.

The most amazing memory, however, was the speed of nature's recovery after those late-August storms that broke the heatwave. Apples put on a late spurt, and so did some of the potato crop.  Some canny farmers even hauled in an unprecedented late-September hay crop. None of it was as much as was needed but it was better than anyone feared.

That copse took longer to recover - but that brought an extra benefit: native broad-leaved species grew in place of the interloper pines. It was only natural.

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