Remember 1976? Fields burned, we sizzled, and worried about water rationing
PUBLISHED: 09:04 26 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:09 26 July 2018
This year's sustained high temperatures and lack of rain brings uncomfortable echoes of another year remembered for its heat and 'white grass', writes Steve Russell.
Do you remember the heatwave of summer 1976? Sizzling for days on end, we headed for the coast and dreamed of ice-cream on tap. But it all got a bit serious, too, with panic-buying in the shops and warnings of water rationing. Here we look back 40 years, when the sun shone… and shone… and shone
I was 13 when it stopped raining and every day felt as if we were living in an oven. We’d already had hot spells, but they’d not lasted. This was different. From June 22 until August 26, the usually-unreliable British weather was relentlessly – ruthlessly – dry, sunny and baking. Not what you need when a drought has been worsening since the spring of the previous year.
You don’t really take much notice of the wider picture when you’re a young teenager. It’s only now, reading the old newspapers from 1976, that you realise how difficult and precarious life was becoming that summer. While the chirpy Elton John and Kiki Dee provided the soundtrack of that summer – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart was released as the heatwave to end all heatwaves took a grip – reality was a bit more stark than a synthetic poptastic “romance”.
Lawns turned brown and then an anaemic white. Crops and houses burned. East Anglian agricultural topsoil was sucked dry by the sun and then destroyed by the east wind. We saw panic-buying as shoppers hoarded frozen veg. The prospect of water rationing and communal standpipes became very real – one tap between 100 homes in towns and one between 40 households in rural areas, the politicians warned.
Around the country, rivers and reservoirs dried and cracked, and looked like the Australian outback.
Thousands of householders did indeed find themselves sharing standpipes that summer – including parts of our region, Yorkshire and Plymouth. Many folk in Wales and the west of England were a times left without tap water for much of the day as temperatures topped 80F, as they often did that year.
The major heatwave that began on June 22 saw 25 consecutive days where the mercury crept past 80F somewhere in the UK. Worse, the temperature actually hit 90F each day − somewhere − from June 23 to July 7.
Entries to Bury St Edmunds Rabbit Club Show were down because of the intense heat. If anyone doubted how bad things were, grant aid of nearly £30m from the Common Market Commission, to help Europe’s livestock farmers cope with the consequences of drought, put them straight.
On June 23 the EADT reported the situation was critical. To encourage people to think about saving water, we launched a competition. First prize was a £300 shower. It would be won by a school dinner lady from East Bergholt and her husband. The competition highlighted strategies such as placing a filled plastic bottle in the loo cistern; showering instead of taking a bath; and having only five inches of water in the tub.
Sunday, June 27 had resorts in Suffolk and Essex reporting their busiest day ever. Felixstowe, Walton on the Naze, Frinton and Clacton all greeted record crowds as temperatures nudged into the 80s.
But the hottest place in Britain was Southampton… at 95F.
Meanwhile, Maldon Carnival Queen Elaine French was unable to present prizes at the town’s Carnival of Sport. She was at home, with sunstroke.
On June 28, sub-officer Peter Long collapsed with heat exhaustion while fighting a fire at Chelmondiston, near Ipswich. About 12,000 bales of straw and a large barn were destroyed at Hill Farm.
Suffolk County Council maintenance staff worked overtime to lay sand on roads where the tar was melting in the heat.
June 30 saw fire brigades in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk answering a call every three minutes, on average, as tinder-dry cornfields and woodland were destroyed in blazes fanned by strong breezes. Suffolk had 619 calls – possibly a one-day record. There were major fires at Walsham-le-Willows, Great Cornard, Foxearth and Lakenheath. Pea-pickers John Thornton, Jeremy Brooks and Peter Leeder spent an hour helping to fight a blaze that tore through 60 acres of woodland at Little Cornard. It was also tackled by about 50 firefighters.
Jeremy said: “In about 15 minutes it went from the size of a small bonfire to the size of a football pitch.”
At midnight on July 1, a ban came into force to stop hosepipes being used to water gardens and clean cars in the Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket and Mildenhall areas.
There was some news to make us smile, though. As Britain sweltered, a department store in Lowestoft put an advert in the local Jobcentre. It was looking for a Father Christmas for later in the year.
By early July the Government was talking about new powers to combat southern and eastern England’s worst drought for 250 years. Sprinklers on golf courses would soon be outlawed. There was more talk of water rationing – already reality in Guernsey.
EADT weatherman Ken Blowers said Essex and Suffolk’s rainfall deficit stood at eight inches. In Ipswich, 11 of the last 13 months had been noticeably dry. June, with only a third of an inch in places, was the driest of all. The top 12 inches of soil had been dried out in many locations by prolonged temperatures sometimes 20F above average, abnormally low humidity and fresh easterly winds.
Thurston Upper School closed its outdoor swimming pool at weekends and evenings to conserve water. Between 700 and 1,000 gallons had been used to top it up each week.
In the first week of July a grass fire – believed to have been sparked by a garden bonfire – threatened homes in New Farm Road, Stanway. Flames rose 25 feet high and chicks kept in a garden were killed.
Farm buildings and hay were destroyed at Rake Heath Farm, Eriswell, near Lakenheath. Damage was put at £10,000.
Saturday, July 10 brought hope the heatwave was ending, with the arrival of thick cloud and a cold front… though we were warned heavy rain was needed before autumn to head off water restrictions.
Anglian Water divisional manager Brian Hall raised anew the spectre of standpipes. Parts of Essex had seen just 11mm of rain in June, compared to the average of 41mm.
John Lawes – from Thurston, near Bury St Edmunds – was heavily involved in producing an Anglian Water TV commercial urging us to do more to conserve water or be prepared for the inevitable.
On July 13 we reported that, despite everything, the British cereal harvest was looking like the richest yet, valued at more than £1,000m. Reduced yields would be more than offset by price rises likely to see barley and wheat fetching £80 a ton.
“The loser, once again, will be the housewife (sic), who will soon have to pay dearly for those extra hours of sunshine which have withered and stunted the growth of almost every crop,” wrote EADT agricultural editor Peter Hopper.
Such were the vagaries of the weather that Tuesday, July 20 brought torrential rain and chaos. More than two inches fell on Ipswich in five hours – the heaviest in a 24-hour period since August, 1916. Rush-hour traffic was halted in town and the C&A store flooded. A landslide blocked the main London rail line at Bentley.
With river flows the lowest ever recorded, and the underground water table dropping, a region-wide hosepipe ban was imposed that month. At the end of July, Suffolk Fire Service said the month had seen almost 900 acres of crops destroyed in blazes that would have cost farmers about £100,000.
The tinder-dry conditions persisted. Ten acres were consumed by flames at Chattisham Place, not far from Ipswich. Many blazes were thought to be caused by cigarette ends being thrown away carelessly. Worried farmers put up signs to warn of the dangers.
In August, flames sweeping across Knodishall Common came within yards of homes twice within 12 hours. On a happier note, Brightlingsea welcomed home its Olympic gold medal-winning sailors: Reg White and John Osborn. The mayor said it was the town’s proudest day. On August 9, fire swept through a stubble field at Braintree and then destroyed three cottages in a terrace.
A few days later, Anglian Water warned us to use water wisely or rationing was a certainty from October in a bid to save eight million gallons a day.
Fred Peart, the Minister of Agriculture, flew in to Suffolk to visit farms on light land that were the worst affected by the drought. He arrived at RAF Honington, between Bury St Edmunds and Thetford, with his plane making an emergency landing with one engine…
The minister described the drought as a tragedy but urged the public not to panic. He hoped 1976 would prove to be a freak summer. “I think people in the towns must realise some of the difficulties our farmers and farmworkers have to face… I am only asking that people should understand this when they complain about food prices.”
It was a difficult time, on many fronts. On August 16, fire killed 180 pigs, destroyed buildings and caused damage of £10,000 at a Kelsale smallholding, near Saxmundham.
Stowmarket firm Suffolk Lawn Mowers, which had cut 100 jobs earlier in the year, announced it was losing a further 30 – blaming the consequences of two very dry summers.
The drought had provoked a marked rise in insurance claims for subsidence – East Anglia one of the areas hardest hit, because of the heavy nature of the soil and its low annual rainfall.
On the 20th, Suffolk housewives were accused of panic-buying frozen vegetables. Freezer centres said sales were up considerably as people seemed to be hoarding – against Government advice.
Farmer Jack Jiggens – from Wix, near Harwich – was reported as criticising such hysteria. He was selling 15 acres of French beans on a pick-your-own basis but found there was little demand. Some housewives, he said, were too lazy these days to go out and pick their food, even though it was much cheaper than in the shops.
And then rain fell in Suffolk and north-east Essex on Friday, August 27 – the first in 24 days and, wouldn’t you know it, the start of a bank holiday weekend. But the meteorological station at RAF Honington registered only 0.008 of an inch. Weathermen were quick to warn that the drought went on.
But that sprinkling did herald a weekend of storms and power cuts, as floods hit East Anglia twice in 36 hours. On the Sunday night, the Met Office at Honington recorded 8.6mm of rain in two hours. Great Yarmouth experienced its wettest day for two years… as (naturally) a hosepipe ban started in the Lowestoft and Yarmouth area.
The AA reported one of the quietest bank holidays on the roads, and the EADT front page that Tuesday declared: “It has been a Bank Holiday washout for East Anglia.”
It came not long after the Government had created a Cabinet Drought Committee and named Sports Minister Denis Howell the Minister in Charge of Drought Co-ordination. Game, and a good communicator, he told journalists he was doing his bit to help save water by sharing baths with wife Brenda.
We weren’t out of the woods, but we could perhaps stop holding our breath. The autumn was wet – by October, rain was failing regularly – though Mr Howell had to deflect a few barbs when he warned reservoirs were still in a desperate state. Rationing would still go on around the country unless we cut consumption by half.
Eventually, things got back on an even keel. But the spectre of drought – and the later notion of climate change – would come back to haunt us.
The years 1995, 1997, 2001, 2003 and 2006 would all bring heatwaves. In fact, Met Office summer figures for the UK show less rain fell in the drought of 1995 (73mm) than in 1976 (76mm).
In 2016, in the EADT, Anglian Water’s Sarah Dobson talked about how “the threat of droughts and extremes of weather are just as pertinent as they were in 1976 – perhaps even more so”.
We all need to remain “water wise”. Definitely. “Our region is the driest in the UK, with some areas receiving less rainfall than Jerusalem in a typical year.”