Our fields turned brown as biscuits, and the sheer, sustained heat gave a sense of impending doom. Was the life to be burnt out of everything ?

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How short is our meteorological memory! As I stoke up the wood- burning stoves, it seems inconceivable that for day after day in the summer I went for walks in nothing but swimming trunks and trainers, and still poured with sweat.

Did we really spend hours laboriously watering flowers and vegetables to keep them alive? Were the grass fields really so burnt that they became as bleached as the stubbles? Did the beech trees really look as though they were about to throw up their branches and die?

Yes - all these things happened. The summer of '95 will go down in history as a scorcher; and even if many details have already faded, some will remain etched in my memory.

In June the smell of hay hung over the fields so thick that you felt you could cut down chunks and eat them; but already there was a sense of menace in the air, for the sun was so hot, and the ground so dry, that it seemed impossible the shorn grass would ever shoot again. With growth at a standstill, the price of hay went mad, rising to three times its normal level as farmers began to stockpile. For weeks their alarm appeared justified: there was no second growth of grass, no second cut of hay or silage. So short did fodder become that some people began feeding precious hay to cattle before July was out.

In our area we were lucky. Occasional thunderstorms kept pastures green for longer than elsewhere - and never will I forget the lightning bolt which shattered a tree in our steep churchyard. I described in an earlier column how I was out walking when the deluge began, and how I saw the strike go in. So huge was the stricken cedar that the cost of felling it, cutting it up and restoring the damage came to more thanpounds 1,500.

In the end even our own fields turned brown as biscuits, and the sheer, sustained heat created a sense of impending doom. Was the life to be burnt out of everything?

In August a stay on the Cornish coast only increased my apprehension. The sea was so delicious that we swam before breakfast, lunch and supper, but the beaches were packed solid, and the atmosphere was so hot and thick that one could scarcely breathe. Later that month, as I passed through Birmingham airport on the way to Scotland, an electronic thermometer outside the terminal was hovering between 96 and 97F.

"In the end," we kept telling ourselves, "it must rain properly" - and in the end it did. Unfortunately we were not at home to witness the ensuing miracle, but everyone who saw it said that it was incredibly swift. One day the fields were brown: the next they had gone green again. Incredible secondary growth followed. Somehow plants and earth had stored up their energy through the barren months, and now they let it go in a late orgy. The trees did the same: having looked as though they were on the point of extinction, they surged back to life and held on to their leaves far past the usual term.

And so, after good autumn rains, we congratulated nature on its amazing ability to restore a balance. A trip through Tipperary seemed to confirm our optimism. "A grand soft day, is it not!" exclaimed everyone we met, as mist swept over the sodden landscape, and the drifting tang of peat- smoke filled the sky with melancholy. There at least nothing had changed.

Back home, however, I read yet another official report which says that global warming is not myth but reality. Had the great heat of '95 been a harbinger of things to come?

The reason people hope for, and bet on, a white Christmas, is surely that, deep down, they long for a traditional end to the year. They hanker after the kind of crunching cold recorded by the Rev. Francis Kilvert, who described in his diary how, at midnight on New Year's Eve, 1871, he went outside and listened to church bells ringing faintly "across the snow".

The fact that we have had a dose of cold weather this time is certainly reassuring. Seasonal snow gives the feeling that our climate may not, after all, be changing drastically, and that Santa will have something for his runners to glide over for a few winters yet.

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