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1976 heatwave: What was it like?

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Britain is currently sweltering in its second heatwave of the summer, with temperatures passing 30C on Monday and tipped to rise beyond 35C in southeast England on Sunday.

The Met Office issued a warning concerning the extreme heat forecast last weekend and has warned that the phenomenon is likely to become a more regular occurrence by 2050 as a result of the climate crisis.

While it is certainly scorching out there, the standard by which all British summers are judged remains June to August of 1976, when the UK reportedly recorded its hottest average temperature for more than 350 years and its driest summer for 200, a record subsequently surpassed by an even more barren 1995.

The subject of a nostalgic recent documentary on Channel 5, the heatwave of 1976 reached its peak between 23 June and 7 July, a 15-day period over the course of which at least somewhere in England recorded a temperature of more than 32.2C.

The hottest day of the year proved to be 3 July, when the mercury hit an alarming 35.9C in Cheltenham.

Photographs of the period show revellers of all ages crowding onto Brighton beach and plunging into the Serpentine in Hyde Park or the bathing ponds of Hampstead Heath.

Others show spectators queueing in the shade for tickets to see Ilie Nastase square off against Bjorn Borg in the men’s singles final at Wimbledon or bowler-hatted businessmen setting aside their briefcases, rolling up their trousers and cooling their feet in the fountains of Trafalgar Square.

Hit albums by Demis Roussos, Rod Stewart and The Carpenters were released during the period, as was the classic surf rock compilation 20 Golden Greats by the Beach Boys, perhaps the ideal soundtrack for the occasion.

However, while the balmy temperatures were a novelty and a pleasure for many, there was a dark side to the relentless sunshine.

The UK reportedly experienced a 20 per cent year-on-year increase of “excess deaths” that summer, with a huge spike in hospitalisations as a consequence of sunstroke and heat-related heart attacks.

Londoners relaxing on the Serpentine in Hyde Park on 25 June 1976

(Getty)

Reservoirs dried up, rivers ran so dry that children were apparently able to cycle along the arid bed of the Taff in Wales, forest fires erupted in Dorset and elsewhere, £500m-worth of crop damage was done and the tarmac melted on the M1.

Incredibly, in a detail not at all unlike the plot of a contemporary pulp science fiction novel, the country was hit by a swarm of ladybirds, forced to search frantically for alternative supplies of food after their customary aphid diet was killed off by the drought.

Parts of the south-west went 45 days without any rain between July and August, forcing the closure of some factories to conserve water and James Callaghan’s Labour government to appoint Birmingham MP Denis Howell as its new minister for drought, tasked with encouraging the public to conserve water.

Spectators at Wimbledon protect themselves from the sun wearing newspaper hats and books on their heads during the heatwave

(Getty)

The future Lord Howell famously revealed that he and his wife Brenda had taken to having baths together at their home in Moseley in order to reduce their impact on vital resources and was apparently invited to perform a rain dance by Downing Street in a desperate bid to encourage the heavens to open.

“Save water – bath with a friend” became a popular T-shirt slogan of the moment as the government signed the Drought Act 1976 into law, empowering local authorities to issue fines to people found wasting water.

This legendary heatwave was finally brought to an end by heavy thunderstorms in late August, which carried on into a wet September and October and were severe enough that Lord Howell eventually had to be redesignated minister for floods.

The UK has subsequently seen heatwaves in 1995, 1997, 2003, 2006 and 2018 and recorded a new all-time highest temperature – 38.7C in Cambridge Botanic Garden in July 2019 – but the summer of 1976 continues to hold a peculiar place in the British imagination.

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