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Weather Reports

When Boswell and Johnson were tasting all the delights of rural life in Greenwich Park, the following conversation ensued.

J.: “Is this not very fine?”

B.: “Yes, Sir; but not equal to Fleet Street.”

J.: “You are right, sir.”

Robert Herrick celebrated his return to London from Devon in 1640, and declared that

London my home is: though by hard fate sent

Into a long and irksome banishment.

To live in the country is a form of melancholy exile. “If these are comforting for a wife,” a sixteenth-century poem suggests, “Defend, defend me from a country life.” When a young West Indian boy from Notting Hill of the 1960s was given a week’s holiday in a Wiltshire village, he was asked how he had enjoyed the change. “I like it,” he replied, “but you can’t play in the streets as you can in London.” “I love walking in London,” Mrs. Dalloway remarks in Virginia Woolf’s novel (1925). “Really it’s better than walking in the country.” To the city dweller the country may not come as a revelation, but as a restriction. It is “dreadful slow,” one nineteenth-century Cockney girl is reported as saying, “no swings, no rahndabarts, nor origins [oranges?], no shops, no nothink—jest a great bare field only.”

The city is more beautiful than the country because it is rich in human history. Milton, in his blindness, remarked sadly that he was destined never more to look upon the sights “of this fair city.” Here he anticipated Wordsworth’s famous reflection upon London, from the vantage of Westminster Bridge in 1802: “Earth has not any thing to shew more fair.” The great poet of the nineteenth-century natural world wonders upon “the beauty of the morning” as it irradiates “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples”:

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill.

It is a vivid, urban testimony from one whose poetic vision is always associated with landscape. The London suburbs, too, “can be so beautiful,” Vincent van Gogh wrote in the 1880s, “When the sun is setting red in the thin evening mist.”

The beauty and symmetry of the city are manifest in another sphere, also, as exemplified by Aristotle’s remark that “a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it,” which is to say that humankind belongs to the city as much as fish belong to water. The city is the natural element for all those people who feel a compulsion to look upon the earth for contemporaries and companions. If the city is not “natural” then let us say, with Henry James, that it has recreated nature. “As the great city makes everything,” he wrote, “it makes its own system of weather and its own optical laws.”

The city is hotter, and dryer, than other parts of the country because the pollution that it creates has the effect of trapping warmth within the streets and buildings while, paradoxically, at the same time obscuring the sun’s rays. Many dark buildings retain their heat, and the vertical surfaces of the rising city are also better equipped to catch the low-lying sun; the materials of which London is made also retain the circumambient warmth.

Yet another explanation for the perceptible increase of heat in the capital may be found in the sheer congregation of people within so relatively small an area. The body heat of the citizens pushes up the temperature so that, on modern satellite maps, the city is a pale island among the brown and the green. Two hundred and fifty years ago a seventeenth-century observer made the same point. “The torrent of men, women and children, carts, carriages and horses from the Strand to the Exchange is so strong that it is said that in winter there are two degrees of Fahrenheit difference between this long line of street, and that of the west end.”

London’s weather shows other variations. Much of Westminster and the adjacent areas are built upon primeval swamps, and in these quarters the exhalation of damp and mist seems more palpable than elsewhere; Cornhill, built upon a summit, seems crisper and drier.

In the sixteenth century the London climate impressed itself upon the scholar and alchemist Giordano Bruno as “more temperate than anywhere else beyond and on this side of the equinoctial, snow and heat being banished from the subjacent earth as well as the excessive heat of the sun, which the perpetually green flowery ground witnesses, and so enjoys a perpetual spring.” There is an alchemical, or magical, tendency within his vocabulary which points to the image of London as embodying a mild chemical flame.

But then there was the rain.

Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down

Threatening with deluge this devoted Town.

Thus Jonathan Swift celebrates a “city shower” in the autumn of 1710. Annual amounts of rainfall were calculated from 1696, and they demonstrate that London’s showers and deluges declined in frequency towards the end of the eighteenth century only to rise again in the period from 1815 to 1844. Even in 1765, however, a French traveller noted the humidity of the city climate, which required fires to be lit “when it might be most easy to do without one”; he noted that as late as May all the apartments of the British Museum had fires within them “to preserve from damps and humidity the books, the manuscripts, the maps.”

But there have also been great floods. In 1090 London Bridge was carried away by a tumultuous river, and in 1236 the waters rose so high that boats could be rowed in the middle of Westminster Hall; there, too, in 1579, “a number of fish were left stranded after a flood.” The Walbrook became a rushing torrent in the autumn of 1547, sweeping away a young man attempting to cross it, and in 1762 the waters of the Thames were so raised “that the like had never been known in the memory of man.” “In less than five hours,” the contemporary report goes, “the water rose twelve feet in vertical height” and “people were lost in the high roads.” Even at the beginning of the twentieth century Lambeth was so inundated by the waters of the Thames that the houses of the area had to be visited by boats. So the air of London has always been laden with vapours and rains.

Londoners are also more accustomed to the cold than to the heat of summer days. “There’s nothing left but London once it’s winter,” says a character in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949). London becomes more purely itself in the cold, harder and brighter and far more cruel. In the winter of 1739–40 “Tramps froze to death … Birds dropped stiff from the sky, bread hardened into rocks on market stalls.” Thirty years later, according to the Annual Register of 18 February 1771, “A poor boy who on Tuesday night had crept into a dunghill at a stable yard in London in order to preserve himself from the cold was found dead by the ostler” while “A poor woman also, with a child at her breast, and another about three years old lying by her, was found in Rag Fair.”

The cold weather could be so intense that the Thames itself froze regularly over the centuries, some twenty-three times between 1620 and 1814, because the old London Bridge impeded the movement of the water until it became so sluggish that, in the colder conditions, it could not move. In 1281 “men passed over the Thames, between Westminster and Lambeth,” and in 1410 “Thys yere was the grete frost and ise and the most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, and it duryd fourteen wekes so that men might in dyvers places both goo and ryde over the Temse.” In 1434, 1506 and 1515 the river was again frozen so that carts and horses and carriages could travel easily from one bank to the other. As early as 1564 such sports as archery and such entertainments as dancing took place at a Frost Fair on the frozen river. Stow and Holinshed record that, on the eve of 1565, “some plaied at the football as boldlie there, as if it had been on the drie land; diverse of the Court being then at Westminster, shot dailie at pricks set upon the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in anie street of the City of London.” So the Thames becomes a newly populous thoroughfare in the greatly expanding city. The emphasis here is upon excitement and recreation but forty-four years later, in 1608, the general atmosphere of trade and commerce in London had exploited even the weather, and many set up booths “standing upon the ice, as fruitsellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, shoe makers and a barber’s tent.” Again in 1684, “The Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished” so that “another city, as it were, was erected thereon.” The city spawns its own replica, with all the characteristics of its own turbulent life—“bull baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water.” The perilousness of London life, too, was enacted upon the river, when within hours the ice had melted and swept the whole carnival away; a century later, in 1789, a “sudden breaking up of the ice” occasioned a “fearful scene” of damage and fatality.

The cold winters of London impeded the course of trade as well as that of the river. In the winter of 1813–14, the wax and glue froze in their pots, leaving tailors and shoe-makers without the means of work. Silk deteriorated in freezing conditions, so the silk-makers of Spitalfields and elsewhere were also severely affected. Porters and cab-men, street traders and labourers, were unable to pursue their livelihoods. The price of coal and the price of bread were dramatically increased. The master of a school in St. Giles reported “that of the seventy children in his school sixty had not eaten any food that day until he gave them some at noon.” In the severe winters of 1855, 1861, 1869, 1879 and 1886 there were bread riots, and in the latter year mobs of the unemployed looted the shops of central London. In the city there was a direct correlation, then, between weather and social unrest.

There is a connection, too, between outer and inner weather. In the winter “there is a vague smell of alcohol in the streets” since everyone “drinks heavily and incessantly” to combat the aching and intrusive cold. The drink “excites and urges on the rabble to vicious practices.” This account, written in 1879, describes the rain falling like liquid mud, the yellow shadows of the fog which render breathing painful and difficult, and the darkness at midday. The description of a physical fact conveys an immense psychological charge. “Vile” weather at Christmas 1876, according to Henry James, “darkness, solitude and sleet in midwinter” within a “murky Babylon.” November was the worst month for suicides in London and, during the Blitz of the winter of 1940–1, Londoners were more depressed by the weather than by the air-raids.

The sky in London, like its weather, seems to have different orders of magnitude. In some streets, which are the canyons of the city, it seems infinitely remote; it becomes a distant prospect continually crowded by rooftops and towers. Yet in the large squares of Islington where the houses are low, and in the council “cottage” estates of the western districts, the sky is a vast canopy encompassing all the adjacent areas. In “this low damp city,” as V.S. Pritchett put it, “the sky means a great deal to us.” The quality of cloud cover which may or may not bring rain, and the subtle gradations of blue and violet in the evening sky, are sensible reminders of the unique atmospherics of London. A panorama of London from Southwark (c. 1630), is the first view that grants the city its sky; the westward passage of grey and white clouds gives the painting enormous space and lightness, and in this novel brightness the city itself seems to breathe. It is no longer the tangle of dark buildings beneath a narrow strip of sky but an open city whose towers and spires beckon towards the empyrean.

These are the vertiginous skies when at sunset the west is all on fire, reflected in the shifting mass of cloud; on one January evening, at approximately five o’clock, in the year 2000, the cloud cover was rose-red striated with patches of dark blue sky.

Yet the lights of the sky also reflect the lights of the city, and the very brightness of the modern city obscures the brightness of the stars. That is why the typical London sky seems low, damp and tactile, part of the city itself and its thousand stray lights and gleams. It is the sky which inspired Turner living in Maiden Lane, and Constable in his lodgings in Hampstead. According to G.K. Chesterton, “all the forces which have produced the London sky have made something which all Londoners know, and which no one who has never seen London has ever seen.”

The prevailing wind is westerly or south-westerly; the south and west façades of St. Paul’s Cathedral show marked deterioration in the face of wind or rain, and the stone itself “is washed clean and exhibits a whitened and weather-beaten aspect.” Yet these winds kept the western areas of the city relatively free of the fog or smog which settled over the central and eastern part. Indeed an eastern wind was a token of harm, since all the smoke and stench of the industries situated in the East End filtered over the rest of the capital.

London was, and is, a very windy city. By the eleventh century there were seven windmills erected in Stepney, while the earliest maps show windmills in Moorfields and Finsbury Fields. There was a windmill in the Strand, and one by Leather Lane; there was one in the Whitechapel Road, and one beside Rathbone Place. Great Windmill Street is still at the top of the Haymarket, and there were many windmills along the south side of the river in Waterloo, Bermondsey, Battersea and the Old Kent Road. In February 1761 the wind was so high that, in Deptford, it drove a windmill “with such velocity that it could not be stopped, and took fire, and was entirely consumed, besides a large quantity of flour.” John Evelyn recorded that “the Town of Bowe” had continual winds which mitigated the effects of atmospheric pollution and Charles Dickens wondered why metropolitan gales always blew so hard at Deptford and Peckham. In addition, “I have read of more chimney stacks and house-copings coming down with terrific smashes at Walworth.”

Yet in a city established upon extremes, there will also be an extremity of weather. In 1090 six hundred houses, and a score of churches, were overthrown by a mighty wind. The spectacle of Bow Church rafters impaled twenty feet deep within the mud and stone of Cheapside inevitably led to demands for public penance and humiliation to avert the further wrath of God. But the pious citizens of London were not able to turn away the further calamities of their history. In 1439 there came a “grete wynd that dyd a moch harme in many placys”; it tore off the lead roof of the Grey Friars and “it blew almost dovne the ton side of the Old Change” knocking down so many “grete long trees that nether horss ne cart myght pass thorow the streete.” In 1626 “a terrible storm of Rain and hail … with a very great Thunder and Lightning” knocked down the wall of the churchyard of St. Andrew, and exposed many coffins in the crash. It says something about the attitude of Londoners to death that thereupon “the ruder sort” lifted up the lids of the coffins “to see the posture of the dead Corps lying therein.” During this storm a strange mist emerged above the turbulent waters of the Thames “in a round Circle of a good-bigness above the waters” which eventually “ascended higher and higher till it quite vanished away.” There was immediately talk of conjuring and black magic.

Pepys described the great storm of January 1666: “The wind being very furious … whole chimneys, nay, whole houses in two or three places blowed down.” In November 1703 a storm of nine hours descended upon the city— “all the ships in the river were driven ashore” and the barges smashed against the arches of London Bridge; the towers and spires of certain London churches fell to the ground, and in many areas whole houses were lifted up before falling upon the earth. “The lead on the roofs of the highest building, was rolled up like paper,” and more than twenty “night-walkers” were killed by falling chimneys or tiles. Daniel Defoe published an account of “the late Dreadful Tempest” in which he revealed that the shriek and frenzy of the wind were such that “nobody durst quit their tottering habitations for it was worst without” and “many thought the end of the world was nigh.”

Over the next sixty years London was ravaged by several hurricanes, the last being in 1790 when the copper covering of the new Stone’s Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn, “was blown off in one sheet and hung over the front like a large carpet or mainsail.” On the night of 16 October 1987, “London’s Hurricane” hit the capital. It had been preceded by two years of unnaturally cold and windy weather. In January 1987 fifteen inches of snow fell on the higher parts of London, the chimes of Big Ben stopped and the River Thames iced over from Runnymede to Sunbury; in March of that year, sands from the Sahara fell with the rain upon Morden. Then, in that October, the great wind visited the city. The balconies of high-rise flats collapsed, walls were ripped down, roofs stripped of their tiles. Market stalls were thrown through the air, and thousands of trees were destroyed by the effects of the gales.

Extraordinary climatic change is not at all unusual in London; if the city can attract plague and fire, then it also can attract tempest and earthquake. There were three earthquakes during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), the first of which did not exceed a minute but the shock of which “was so severe that many churches and houses were much shattered and several people killed.” One of the incidental features of this catastrophe was the fact that the great bells of the city were so shaken that they began to ring of their own accord—the Westminster clock bell, for example, “spoke of itself against the hammer with shaking”—as if the city itself were heralding its own disaster. There also seems to have been some method in the mayhem; the two further earthquakes of Queen Elizabeth’s reign both occurred on Christmas Eve four years apart. The next most notable tremor occurred in February 1750 when two shocks were felt some hours apart, the second being preceded by “a strong but confused lightning darting its flashes in quick succession.” People flocked into the street, in panic that their houses were about to fall upon them, and the most powerful forces were visible and audible in the West End near St. James’s Park; here “it seemed to move in a south and north direction, with a quick return towards the centre, and was accompanied by a loud noise of a rushing wind.” So London has been visited by elemental forces, invading its central areas; the last record of such a visitation, at least notable in its effects, occurred in the spring of 1884. And then there came the fog.

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