Letter: Rear Window: The long, hot summer of drought and hosepipe bans: The heatwave of '76

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EVEN the Meteorological Office, notoriously grudging with its superlatives, is in no doubt: 1976 was the hottest, driest summer of the century.

Remember it? Some highlights: Borg won Wimbledon for the first time; Abba reigned supreme in the charts with 'Mamma Mia', 'Dancing Queen', 'Fernando' and 'Money, Money, Money'; Israel staged the Entebbe raid to free hijack hostages in Uganda; Piggott won the Derby a record seventh time; John Stonehouse defended himself unsuccessfully against charges of fraud; Niki Lauda almost burned to death at the German Grand Prix; James Goldsmith, freshly knighted in Harold Wilson's resignation honours, took Private Eye to court; civil war raged in Lebanon; the USA celebrated its bicentenary; the West Indies pasted England 3-0 after England captain Tony Greig said he would make them 'grovel'; Africa boycotted the Montreal Olympics but Juantorena, Viren, Moses, Wilkie and Comaneci became stars; George Davis (as in 'is innocent OK') was freed; Chairman Mao died; a poisonous dioxin cloud escaped over Seveso in Italy; peace was signed in the Cod War; Southampton beat Manchester United in the FA Cup Final; Jeremy Thorpe resigned the Liberal leadership over allegations of homosexuality; the women's peace movement was founded in Northern Ireland; the Ford Fiesta was launched.

And the sun shone and shone. The spring had been warm, but from mid-June to mid-July the heat was almost unbearable. Crops wilted in the fields, Cheshire ambulancemen were disciplined for taking off their ties, Heathrow flights were cancelled after overheated check-in staff refused to serve bad-tempered passengers, forest fires ravaged North Yorkshire, Inverness-shire and Surrey, British Rail stopped washing trains, workers at Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell began work at 6.30am to beat the heat.

It rained on St Swithin's Day (15 July), but the respite was brief, and serious high temperatures resumed in August.

Besides the heat, there was drought. 1975 had also been hot and the winter between saw little rain, so reservoirs were low before the heatwave started. By July many were dry and cracked as an American desert and emergencies were being declared all over the country. Anglian Water suggested that customers put a brick in their lavatory cistern to conserve water, while Thames Water urged them to brush their teeth from a mug rather than a running tap. In South Wales, a grocery chain imported French bottled water but failed to impress - housewife Molly Rodgers of Cardiff declared: 'Anyone who would pay 27p for a bottle of water must be out of their minds.' Periodically, the shortage would prove too much and supplies for tens of thousands were restricted to stand-pipes in the street.

Most notorious of all were the hosepipe bans, imposed in a record 33 counties. Britain became a nation of furtive waterers, dousing the flowerbeds and lawns under cover of darkness. An exasperated toff in a classic Marc cartoon in the Times remarked to his wife: 'Damn gardener wants overtime for working nights.' Many insisted they would water on while they could see sprinklers at work in broad daylight in parks, cricket grounds, golf courses, racecourses and the like.

James Callaghan's government, still in its first few months, did not shine. No one expected the heatwave to last so a sense of urgency was slow to build, and it did not help that when MPs finally debated the drought the sprinklers were playing on the grass outside in Parliament Square. On 14 July a Drought Bill was introduced to restrain unnecessary water use, but it was too little, too late.

By late August industry was facing a crisis and Len Murray, the TUC chief, coined a characteristic catchphrase: 'Save Water, Save Jobs'. In South Wales, plans were being laid to ship in water from Ireland, while the Central Council for Physical Recreation was hiring tankers to deliver watery effluent from sewage plants to playing fields.

On 24 August Denis Howell was appointed Minister for Drought. This was to prove one of the most effective political appointments ever, for a week later, to universal delight and relief, it finally rained.

(Photographs omitted)

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