Heatwave: Look back at how region sweltered in 1976

Flares and Choppers, the Bay City Rollers and Brotherhood of Man. And a government minister being ordered by No. 10 to perform a rain dance. It must be the summer of 1976.

Firemen battling with the flames on Haughmond Hill, near Shrewsbury, in July, 1976
Firemen battling with the flames on Haughmond Hill, near Shrewsbury, in July, 1976

As temperatures soar, this summer will inevitably be compared to the unforgettable heatwave of 46 years ago. In truth, there is still a long way to go.

There has been hotter weather since 1976. The record temperature up until now came on August 10, 2003, when the mercury tipped 38.5C (101.3F) at Brogdale, near Faversham, Kent, and the warmest single month on record came in July, 2006.

The reservoir in the Elan Valley pictured during the great drought during the summer of 1976

But the thing that makes the summer of 76 so memorable is its sheer longevity – and of course the memorable soundtrack.

It was a wonderful time for youngsters, who would spend hours basking in the sun around areas such as Shrewsbury's Quarry Park.

Many teachers took their classes outdoors, with pupils at Bellan House School in Oswestry receiving their reading lesson at Cae Glas Park.

Skies were almost cloudless across Shropshire, and some parts of the country had an average of more than 14 hours of bright sunshine each day over the period.

The River Severn in Bewdley, pictured by Charles Kenchington during the drought of 1976

The Burwarton Show, near Bridgnorth on August 5, was a huge success, attracting 15,000 visitors, with a record number of entries for the horticultural section.

But the lack of prior rainfall did cause problems for organisers.

Show spokesman Henry Yates said the ground was so hard that there was trouble fencing the show arenas and erecting marquees. Twenty tons of sand was specially brought in to put down on the far side of the horse jumps to ensure horses landed safely.

“In the past we could have done with pumps to suck the water and mud away from the jumps, but this year the problem is entirely different,” said Mr Yates.

Because of the tinderbox conditions, two 900-gallon slurry tankers were being loaded with water and standing by during the show to deal with any fires.

From June up until September, there was barely any rain, with parts of south-western England going 45 days without rainfall.

The Army was on standby for fires

But while this was great fun for the children, it was less so for the farmers.

The NFU said cereals, fruit and vegetables were seriously affected, while the county's dairy farmers were “on the edge of disaster”.

County NFU secretary Mr Sam Badger warned that food prices would leap as farmers faced a fodder shortage.

Front page of the Shropshire Star of July 3, 1976

On the dairy front, Stephen Roberts, of Lawley Farm, Telford, vice-chairman of the Milk Marketing Board, said unless there was two inches of rain by August 20 butter production in Britain could come to a standstill .

Surprisingly, the National Coal Board was also warning that despite the heatwave there was the prospect of possible coal shortages in the winter.

Firemen battling with the flames on Haughmond Hill, near Shrewsbury, in July, 1976

The River Severn was reduced to little more than a stream, and army Green Goddesses were on standby to support the fire service which had been overwhelmed with the forest fires sweeping the tinder-dry countryside and water rationing saw standpipes installed in some parts of the country.

Firefighters and soldiers spent days battling the flames on Haughmond Hill, near Shrewsbury, where more than 150,000 trees were destroyed as flames reached a height of 50ft.

In Mid Wales, the big drought brought back memories for people in the small village of Staylittle, in the hills between Llanidloes and Llanbrynmair. With the 11,000-million gallon capacity Clywedog reservoir at its lowest level, remains of hillside farms submerged nine years previously when the massive reservoir was created, had reappeared.

Similarly at Lake Vyrnwy remains of the houses and roads of the village that was flooded when the lake was created emerged as the water receded.

People were being urged not to swim in rivers, canals or reservoirs.

A hosepipe ban was introduced on August 3, and gardeners were urged to let flowers die, and to use bath water on their trees and bushes. At the Bucks Head, home to Telford United, only the newly-sown centre circle was watered.

Queues formed at Market Drayton swimming baths, but Shropshire also saw three drownings during the first weekend of the heatwave as people paddled and swam in rivers, pools, reservoirs and quarries.

At the end of June, more than 3,000 workers at COD Donnington were sent home because of the heat, as well as over 100 machinists at Silhouette’s Market Drayton factory, where firefighters pumped water on to the roof to try to keep it cool.

Mr Brian Redman, of Stanton Lacy, with his son Stuart, putting a shine on their Bamford oil engine at the Burwarton Show in August, 1976

On August 31, the crowd at Lords broke out into spontaneous applause when rain interrupted play for 15 minutes – it was the first precipitation in London in more than six weeks.

It was also the summer that turned Birmingham MP Denis Howell into an overnight celebrity. Appointed minister for drought on August 24, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan bizarrely summoned him to Downing Street to perform a rain dance. Within five days of his appointment, the West Midlands received half an inch of rainfall. When the drought came to an end in September, he became known as the "minister for flooding".

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