As Britain braced itself for its hottest day ever, a single tweet caught my eye. It asked how people coped with the heat during the fabled summer of 1976.
Few who experienced that extraordinary summer will ever forget it, especially if like me they were enjoying their best ever school holiday. I can remember only one occasion in 1976 when I felt uncomfortably hot.
My memories of that golden summer start with rain. Mum and Dad took me to a summer fete at the Edward Nicholl children home in Penylan, Cardiff, and we dodged the showers as local MP and prime minister James Callaghan opened the event. But within days the rainclouds disappeared and stayed away for two months.
The summer of 1976 may not have seen temperatures as high as this year’s frightening record of 40.3C, but somewhere in the UK the temperature hit 32C for 15 days in a row. Just as seriously, the lack of rain along with the previous year’s very dry summer led to a serious drought. I remember a standpipe being set up near our house, and the mains water being restricted. Jim Callaghan even appointed a drought minister, the jovial Denis Howell. Mr Howell worked his magic: within days of his appointment the heavens opened and the heatwave was over. Just as in 2022, the dry conditions led to forest fires, and fire engine sirens formed part of the season’s soundtrack.
Going on a summer holiday
My sister got married at the beginning of August in Cyncoed, Cardiff, and the wedding photos provide an unmistakeable memento of that scorching summer: the parched grass were yellow n the images. The next day, Dad drove me and Mum down the newly completed M5 to Cornwall. I had been rather unimpressed by Looe when we stayed there three years before (I’d wanted to go to Newquay) but the historic harbour town proved a perfect setting for a two week heatwave holiday.
Most days, we headed to the tiny seaside hamlet of Seaton, Cornwall. I spent countless hours in a rubber dinghy on the river, which led to a large lake (long since opened to the sea). On another day, Dad persuaded us to walk from Looe to Polperro: “It’s only a few miles!” We set off expecting to arrive in the picturesque harbour village within the hour. Yet each time we rounded a headland, expecting to see Polperro, we saw just another stretch of coast. Eventually we came to Talland Bay, and fell upon snacks and drinks as if our lives depended on them. We finally reached Polperro and a cream tea after some seven miles in the heat. That was the only time I can remember being discomforted by the heatwave. We got the bus back…
East Looe was – and is – a classic fishing town. Perhaps that inspired me to buy a fishing rod, along with a book called Begin Fishing with Uncle Bill (such an old fashioned title). I spent many happy hours deciding which rod to get. Sadly this proved to be a very short lived obsession – as soon as I bought the kit, I lost interest, and don’t remember catching anything. By contrast, Dad proved adept at catching mackerel using a line, which Mum then gutted and cooked in the holiday flat for dinner.
Another memory of that summer holiday in Looe was sitting at the dining table overlooking the river building an Airfix kit of HMS Victory. We watched a more current British warship on that month’s BBC fly on the wall series about HMS Ark Royal, which featured Rod Stewart’s single Sailing as its theme tune. We spotted Ark Royal’s sister aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle, lying sadly off Plymouth as she awaited her fate. The two ships, ordered during the second world war, were Britain’s last traditional aircraft carriers until the renaissance of the type in the 21st century.
Those six-week school holiday seemed to stretch for ever into the future when we broke up in July. Yet even that unforgettable summer of 1976 came to an end. I remember the moment the heatwave ended. Mum and I were on one of those back to school shopping trips that called time on summer’s freedoms. We were in Cardiff’s Queen Street and got soaked in a traditional summer rainstorm.
I vividly remember feeling the odd one out as I went back to school in September 1976 as many of my friends were sporting a new-style bag with a second compartment at the front. That summed up my childhood: I felt left out but never to the extent that I asked Mum to get me the must-have-item. Heaven knows how I’d have coped had social media been around in 1976. But I’d have had more personal photos to illustrate this post!
PS: 40 years after we first stayed in that Looe holiday flat it featured in a BBC news story after a resident died there in a landslide.