By Sarah Pridgeon
I’ve made it known that my British heritage prevents me from dealing with extreme weather, but I’m usually referring to snow. As we in Crook County bask in summer’s arrival this week, spare a thought for my countrymen, who are not enjoying it in the slightest.
Anything outside a narrow temperature band is a problem for the Brits. As I’ve mentioned before, my home country is set up for “slight drizzle” and the occasional break in the clouds, and that’s about it.
One thing we are definitely not prepared for is a heatwave of the ilk that swept the isles last week, baking the Brits in its wake. The nation as a whole grew steadily grumpier as the days went by.
Up in Cambridgeshire, the county council was forced to dust off its gritters when the roads began to melt in the heat. So bad was the damage that one witness commented it, “sounded like cars were driving on water”.
Meanwhile, one poor guy in Scotland was sent to hospital with second-degree burns after mowing the grass in his yard. He did feel hot, he said, but he thought it was just because he was working and he didn’t notice the blisters all over his shoulders until his mum pointed them out.
The brave soul was back at work the next day, despite the temperatures. Mind you, he was only supposed to be watering gardens that afternoon, so he just “turned on the hose and sat in the van”.
By the middle of the week, the Met Office had issued an amber heatwave warning, a shrill declaration of panic that’s one step down from a national emergency.
Every newspaper on the stands published its own handy guide for getting to sleep in the heat, because not one of those millions of homes on our islands has an air conditioner inside. My husband asked why the British don’t believe in cooling systems and I didn’t really have an answer for him.
Musing on the question, I have come up with two theories. It’s either because air conditioning is a ridiculously expensive solution for our usual three days of sun, or it’s because we’d be making too much of a fuss.
The nation lamented to hear that it was experiencing the longest spell of high temperatures for June in two decades. Everyone then headed inside to avoid the toxic air as the Mayor of London triggered an emergency air quality alert.
The rest of the south soon suffered the same fate as the winds carried the pollution far and wide. By the middle of the week, my home town of Bournemouth had breached the threshold at which ozone pollution must be reported to the European commission and Wales was bracing itself to be next.
I felt so sorry for the Londoners, surrounded by all those tall buildings that trap the heat so perfectly. On Wednesday, the Met Office recorded the highest June temperatures in London since 1976.
A friend of mine sent out a plaintive message as she boarded the London Underground on the way home, asking us to wish her luck as she headed into the mouth of Hades. Having been on those cramped, over-full carriages in a heatwave before, you couldn’t have paid me enough to join her.
I also remember a summer while I was living there when the temperatures passed all reasonable levels for days on end and it was impossible to cool off for more than a moment. At the time, I was living in an apartment over a Chinese restaurant, with neither a yard at the back nor a balcony. There was nowhere to install a paddling pool, so I spent almost a week sat in the bath.
Tempers frayed as my ill-equipped countrymen attempted to go about their daily business without roasting. One man was apparently sent home from work because he turned up in shorts and this was deemed against the dress code. Not a problem, he said, as he returned in one of his wife’s dresses, pointing out that this didn’t violate any of the rules in the handbook.
At Royal Ascot, perhaps the most hoity toity gathering on the nation’s calendar, lords and ladies were forced to sit down for a while to recover from the shock of being told that the dress code had been loosened for the first time in the history of the event. Just this once, gentlemen in the enclosure were not required to don a dress coat.
Eventually, the Atlantic Ocean saved everyone’s bacon, ushering in its chilly winds to collide with the heat coming over from the continent. By Wednesday night, as a weatherman put it, everything went “bang” as the storms broke out.
Naturally, the weather broke just in time for the Glastonbury Festival, the annual music event from which nobody returns home spick and span. It’s traditional to end the weekend covered from head to toe in sticky mud, so it was good of the weather to cooperate.
But please don’t judge my people too harshly for their incompetence in the face of summer, even as I admit to you that temperatures never rose above 90 degrees. They were also coping with almost 100 percent humidity, and it’s the damp in the air that makes the heat so unpleasant.
I breathed several sighs of relief across those few days, glad to know that I didn’t have to deal with it myself. Instead of pouring with sweat in the confines of a train carriage, I could gaze outside at the beautiful sunshine while basking in the luxury of our air conditioning.