Saturday morning: I was going to write this at Cobb’s, the local farm shop near Hungerford, but with one thing and another it is 09.30am and I’ve just got up. Foregoing therefore the writer’s indulgence of sitting in the farm shop with my laptop writing this, whilst munching my way through a Farmhouse Breakfast (sausages to die for), drinking gallons of coffee and observing the good folk of Berkshire, I am at home. Hot fresh granary toast from the village bakery at Great Bedwyn, smothered in thick Seville marmalade and a mug of Taylor’s coffee beside me. All is calm here as I look out of the window at the weather outside. A bit breezy maybe but enough blue sky to make a sailor’s breeches, as the old saying goes.
It is hard therefore to appreciate the news this morning. As I write this, Northern England, Ireland and Scotland are being battered once again by 2012’s unseasonably wet and stormy weather. To date over 70 severe flood warnings are in place and yet again the horror of being flooded out is being re-enacted by people, with predictions of 4 inches of rain in 24 hours in some areas. Being flooded out must be one of the worst things that can happen to any household. Within seconds a lifetime’s memories can be washed away or contaminated by thick oozing floodwater. Pictures of the devastation that befell Boscastle in Cornwall in August 2004 are still vivid in my memory. Boscastle of course rebuilt itself, but it is not the same place. The atmosphere changed forever in just a few small hours.
In July 2007 Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire was badly flooded as the River Severn in full spate met the River Avon and the incoming tide from the Bristol Channel 20 miles downstream. Having nowhere for this massive volume of water to go, severe flooding took place. TV images of the 12th Century Abbey, built on high ground and remaining dry but surrounded by water beamed around the world. That flood was caused by 5 inches of rain falling in the hills beyond Tewkesbury in as many days. In March 2008 I went to a concert at the Roses Theatre in the town and what shocked me as I drove into the town from the M5 motorway was the number of caravans parked on people’s driveways. A full 8 months after the floodwaters had receded, the lives of individual people were still being adversely affected.
But flooding in summer, no matter how dreadful it is to those affected, is something which happens regularly. A quick look back through some weather records show severe floods in July 1968 affecting much of the South East, and of course the Wimbledon tennis championships are prone to disruption by rain, the worst affected year being 1922 when it took 3 weeks to finish the tournament due to rain. The Boscastle floods themselves were not exceptional, with the severe and more widespread floods of 1847 causing more, but less reported, damage in that area.
In this country we like to think that summers are long and hot, lazy days sipping iced tea while snoozing in the warm sunshine ostensibly watching a game of village cricket. Actually this is far from the case and actually more of the exception than the rule. Being at the edge of Europe, Britain is wet. Our weather is officially classified as ‘temperate maritime climate’. In simple terms we have a lot of wet sea to our west, a lot of dry land to our east and we sit on the boundary. This is what makes our weather unpredictable and annoying for lovers of hot sunshine in the summer or deep, crisp and even snow in midwinter. Daily there is a battle going on between the dominant moist Atlantic air arriving over us from the South West winds and the dry air from the East. Coupled with this at this latitude we should have a climate similar to Canada, hot summers, very cold winters and 2 weeks of spring or autumn in between. The Gulf Stream of course stops this happening by continuously flowing warm air over our shores from the Caribbean.
There is of course the North American, Atlantic Hurricane season, which begins in June and lasts until November, although this year Tropical Storm Beryl hit landfall in late May. Many of these hurricanes never make it across the Atlantic, but a fair number do. They may have lost some of their intensity on the 3,000 mile journey but they reach Britain laden with moist air between 3-5 days after leaving the east coast of America. Not all of these low pressure systems bring rain or flooding, in fact most just bring turbulent unsettled air over our shores. But again Britain being positioned where it is, we are on the roller-coaster of weather patterns.
Much has been said already about this cold and wet season and its effects on wildlife at the height of the breeding season. Certainly there have been disasters. The Ouse Washes were flooded, as were the Somerset Levels at peak ground nesting bird season. High winds in May did blow rook chicks out of the nests causing breeding failure for this year. Up on the Farne Islands huge waves battered the south cliffs where many seabirds were nesting. Butterfly and moth numbers are also down on a normal year.
But this is the point. In Britain we never have a normal year, despite what the media and product advertisers will tell you. Wildlife by and large is well adapted to our unpredictable climate and will recover. We will have long hot summers, we will have wet cold winters, and we will have everything in-between. What we cannot predict is the weather and this is what makes Britain a unique place to live in. Although I may have left the house on a hot sunny morning, by afternoon I could be enjoy the sound of raindrops quietly tapping their beat onto the leaves of trees.
But what clothing I should wear for a typical summer’s day, is a bit of a Lucky Dip.