As the weather warms up, we had our first uncomfortable night of 2015, with the fan on in the bedroom, to counter the stifling feel of overnight humidity. I was reminded of the summer of 1976. For those of you not old enough to remember, and many of you were not even born, I thought I would use this post to reminisce about that long hot summer.
That spring, I had just moved to Clapham, in south-west London. My Mum had bought a shop, an off-licence, (liquor store) and we were living above it, in the large rooms on three floors that had once been part of the former pub on that site. It took a few weeks to settle in to running a business that was open from eleven in the morning until eleven at night, except for a couple of hours during the afternoon, when we closed due to licencing restrictions. By the end of May, it was beginning to feel quite warm. Weather people on TV predicted the possibility of a hot summer, but we didn’t give that a lot of thought, as they were so often wrong.
At the start of June, temperatures began to climb significantly, and it had not rained for a very long time either. Trade increased; the demand for cold drinks outstripping both supply, and our capacity to keep them cool in our one large chiller cabinet. By the last two weeks of that month, we were seeing regular daily temperatures over 30 C (86 F) and this continued, day after day. The nights were hot too, rarely dropping much below what we would normally have considered to be daytime highs. Sleep was hard to come by, and even opening the huge Victorian windows all over our flat did not seem to let any air in. Long days in the shop, followed by sleepless nights, all contributed to bad moods, and feeling exhausted.
There was little point trying to get out of London to escape the heat. It was just as hot at the coast, and with everyone rushing to seaside resorts all over the country, traffic and parking were both worse than we had ever seen. By the time July arrived, Britain had its hottest day ever recorded, 36 C (97 F) and there seemed to be no let-up on the horizon. The water shortages became so severe, the government even appointed a ‘Minister for Drought’ and talked of measures to reduce water consumption. This was all quite alien to the British. Despite experiencing some periods of decent weather over the years, nobody could remember a summer like it, with the combination of consistently high temperatures, and the complete absence of rain. Sunburn and sunstroke were featured on the news, those with breathing problems like asthma suffered unduly, and our usual fascination with the weather was propelled into a national obsession.
Back in Clapham, we had all but run out of soft drinks and beer to sell. Companies were rationing supplies, and shop customers were moaning about our inability to meet their needs. Trying to use the car to go to the bank or shops became unusually difficult. Parked on the street, the steering wheel became so hot, I had to take a towel out with me, to wrap around it. The tarmac on the road was becoming soft, and sticking inside the tyre tread. Few cars had air-conditioning in the UK back then, so once in the car, every window had to be opened to try to get some breeze into the vehicle. I began to experiment with ways to get some rest at night. My girlfriend (who later became my first wife) suggested that we drive to nearby Wimbledon Common, late at night. We rested on the cool grass, and I managed to get a couple of hours sleep. Unfortunately, I was also bitten everywhere by all kinds of insects, so that wasn’t going to work. We even resorted to driving down to Gatwick Airport, where the terminal was air-conditioned, and sat around inside during the early hours. Trouble was, we had to go back into the heat, to return home for work.
By the middle of August, the drought was getting serious, and the hot temperatures continued unabated. Despite always longing for a hot summer, experiencing three months of continuous unrelenting heat was something we were neither used to, nor prepared for. Commuters suffered miserably on trains and buses. People working in shops and offices were still expected to maintain dress codes of uniforms, or suits and ties, despite the weather. Cars overheated in traffic jams, and our houses did not have stone floors, shutters, or even fans. Those retailers selling fans had all sold out by the end of June anyway, and they had become one of the most sought-after items in the country. By the time heavy rain arrived at the very end of August, the truth was that almost everyone had had enough, and welcomed the fresher weather that followed. During September, we had almost constant rain though, so we were soon complaining about that of course.
That summer of 1976 was the hottest for almost 500 years. It still stands as the hottest recorded in the UK, for such a long period at least. There have been hot days and hot months since, but as anyone who experienced it will tell you, 1976 will never be forgotten.