Whether the Weather?

Why is it that we British have a reputation for always talking about the weather? Is it because we are an island nation, surrounded by seas and their effects on our climate? Is it due to the jet stream which blows from west to east, typically bringing wetter weather in the winter and drier weather in the summer? Or is it when the wind blows from the east typically bringing cold and frosty weather in the winter and drier, almost tropical weather in the summer? Whatever the reason, we do seem to have quite a bit to say about it.

And talking about sayings, there seems to be weather sayings for all the year round.

Whether the weather be cold
Or whether the weather be hot,
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not.

The sayings are usually derived from folklore but quite often they come true. How many times has it happened that ‘A cold January is followed by a hot summer’ or that ‘A windy March and a rainy April make for a beautiful May’? And we all know about St Swithin’s Day (July 15th) when, according to folklore, we’re in for either 40 days of rain or 40 days of good weather depending on what the actual day brings forth. During September when the evenings start drawing in after the lovely long days of summer, the evening light and sunsets have given rise to the most popular saying of all: ‘Red sky at night is shepherd’s delight but red sky in the morning is shepherd’s warning’. For the winter months, it is often true that when ‘the north wind doth blow and we shall have snow’, but hopefully not true that ‘a winter fog will freeze a dog’. Poor thing!

Fairford Avenue & Monks Orchard Primary School, 1968

I am absolutely not an expert when it comes to the weather. Like everyone else, I look at the forecast to determine if I need my umbrella or my sunhat and sunglasses. Simple! Although, of course, the forecasts have been known to be wrong. We won’t mention 1987 just yet! But it does occur to me that where we all live at present in this little pocket of Surrey (or Greater London, if you prefer) we seem to be fairly lucky with the weather we do get. We are a reasonable distance from the sea, thus protected from coastal flooding and the worst of the sea breezes or gales. We are surrounded by rivers such as the Mole, the Wandle, the Pool and Chaffinch Brook, but these tend to be well-controlled in their courses. The worst floods we seem to suffer are the odd burst water main or blocked drains not carrying away the run off quickly enough. We do get the occasional flash flood from torrential rain as occurred in 2016 but this is fairly rare.

Whilst not underestimating the devasting effects of bad weather on homes and businesses in other parts of the country, I began to think about what sort of weather conditions this area has seen in the past. In general, people talk about extreme weather conditions in connection with global warming. And while this is clearly a huge factor, the country as a whole and our little corner of it have been suffering extreme weather conditions for years. I’ve picked out just a few.

Thames Frost Fair 1683-84
By Thomas Wyke

It has not been that long since we came out of what was called The Little Ice Age, lasting from around the 16th to 19th centuries. During this period the rivers froze over in winter and it was traditional to hold Frost Fairs directly on the ice. The first one held on the River Thames was in 1608 and the last in 1814. Skating was commonplace on the local rivers and ponds.

In 1728 Croydon suffered a violent tempest with huge hailstones shattering windows and buildings. Chunks of ice made deep holes in the ground and many animals were drowned in ditches. In comparison, the summers of 1818 and 1826 were so hot there were severe shortages of water.

The Great Victorian Blizzard in January 1881 was described by the Croydon Advertiser as the ‘meteorological event of the nineteenth century’. There was such a savage gale that the snow, formed of tiny ice crystals as hard as nuts, was driven inside homes and shops. The doors of Croydon post office would not close and the clerks suffered a mini blizzard around the counter. Croydon theatre closed due to snow in the dressing rooms. It seems that opening any door was easy but closing it again against the wind was quite another matter. The railways were badly affected and trains took 3 hours to get from Croydon to London. Cab drivers charged ‘fancy prices’ or linked two horses together to get through the snow, charging double fares. Many vehicles were completely buried in the outskirts of the town.

In February 1895 a temperature in Croydon was recorded as low as -2F or -19C. Chilly indeed. It was a particularly cold winter from January well into March, causing much hardship to many from lack of money and food. Farm work was impossible and all outside work such as building was seriously affected. There was no unemployment benefit in those days and many people had to rely on soup kitchens. Most of the schools were closed, making the situation even worse for many families.

In May 1903, during a very heavy rainstorm, two people were killed by lightning from inside a house in Croydon, and further brutal thunderstorms occurred in 1911 and 1914, killing many more. During the latter, which erupted in June, it seems that day became night and the sky was lit by sheets of blood-red lightning accompanied by ear-splitting thunder. Another nightmare of a storm took place in July 1923, hitting Croydon at its peak around 10pm, raging for eight hours. As for snow, there was a Boxing day blizzard in 1927 and all villages near Croydon were left isolated for nearly a week. The drifts were 10 to 14 feet deep (3 to 4 metres) in places. Gusts of wind of 77mph were recorded at Croydon Airport in 1930, while the driest year of all between 1926 and 1979 was recorded in 1933 with temperatures rising to 87F (31C).

We are now in the period of time of personal recollection, when many of us were children, teenagers or young adults and we can recall much of the impact that these weather conditions caused. If you have any stories to share, good or not so good, please send them to us via email to our MORA address hello@mo-ra.co. We would love to hear from you.

New Addington in January 1987

The Big Freeze of 1947 lasted from January to March with heavy snow falling on the 23rd. Twelve people were killed when a plane crash occurred on the snowbound runway at Croydon Airport. During this period there were many power cuts with people becoming unemployed or temporarily laid off. In February there were 14 days of continuous frost in sub-zero conditions around Croydon, the worst experienced for 106 years. When the thaw began from mid-March onwards serious flooding hit all the low-lying areas.

Another Big Freeze, this time in the winter of 1962-3 was one of the coldest on record. December started with heavy fog and London as a whole suffered its last big smog before the clean air legislation took effect by reducing the use of coal fires. Snow fell at various intervals from mid-December through January and February until early March. There were enormous snow drifts caused by gale force easterly winds and many power cables were brought down. Huge icicles formed, some 3 or 4 feet long, hanging from roof tops and ledges. People were thinking they would never see the sun again and it was with great relief that Spring was finally heralded in with the temperature climbing to a balmy 62F (17C).

There were devastating floods in September 1968 in many parts of the country, but luckily our near area was affected only in a small section towards Beckenham and Bromley. This was in the Chaffinch Brook flood plain area and affected homes in the northern section of The Glade and surrounds, and the often water-logged Ashburton Playing Fields.

Fairford Avenue, 1968

And who will ever forget the long heatwave of 1976, a summer of severe drought when hosepipes were banned and we were told to share a bath with a friend to save water and to put a brick in the cistern for a shorter flush! In July, there was a woodland fire at Shrublands and people formed a human chain with water buckets to douse the flames while they waited for the fire brigade to arrive. The Met Office recorded a temperature of 90F (32 C) in Croydon that same month. It seems there were over 5,000 bush fires recorded in the South-East, giving rise to the nickname ‘blazing summer’.

Jumping forward to 1987, I cannot leave out reference to the Great Storm in October, also known as the hurricane due to the hurricane-force winds that blew. This was the event when famously the weather forecaster, Michael Fish, got it badly wrong. The storm caused substantial damage to buildings, power failures and the loss of thousands of trees. Not one area of the country was left unscathed, including our own.

Great Storm of 1987

I’ll stop here as I’m hoping for contributions from you, our readers. Much of the information I have put together comes from internet sources such as The Croydon Advertiser and from The Surrey Weather Book written by Mark Davison and Ian Currie. Thanks to these sources, I have learnt a great deal.

And talking of learning, here is a story of my own, or rather of my son’s. You just never know where taking an interest in the weather will lead you. One of our sons at age 14 took part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, an element of which involves learning a skill. He had always been interested in the world around him so decided to study the weather. He met and was tutored by no other than the above-mentioned Ian Currie, our local meteorologist. He set up a weather station in the garden and took daily readings and made observations for 4-5 years, covering the bronze, silver and gold levels of the scheme. He studied physical geography at university, gained three levels of degrees and now works for the Environment Agency. Yes, you’ve guessed it, working in a team with responsibility to protect areas from river and coastal flooding, so he has to monitor the weather very closely. His team looks after Kent, but there are similar teams working throughout the country and the Croydon area is covered by a team in London.

For more local weather-related information, please visit frostedearth.co.uk.

As mentioned above, please send in your stories by email to our MORA address hello@mo-ra.co. By sending them in, you give your permission for us to add them to our stories section of the website, but if you prefer you can remain anonymous.

Here’s hoping for a good one, but not too hot!!

 

 

 

LIANNE PRICE

 

< Woodmere Avenue Working Men’s Club >