It is commonly observed that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.’ So said Dr Samuel Johnson. Over two centuries since his death, his observation still holds true. When I meet Jess Brownrigg, creator of this Discovering Britain walk, in a London cafe the first thing we do is comment on the weather. It’s a sultry Saturday in September and it turns out to be the last summer day of a year when Britain basked in February sunshine and battled August rain.
Brownrigg is a London tour guide and leads walks through the capital all summer long, whatever the weather. His dozen or so routes range in topics from Harry Potter to the London Underground, but all have something in common. ‘I often end up talking about the weather,’ he says. ‘It’s a national obsession. I realised how much it has shaped London’s existence and history.’
Brownrigg’s Discovering Britain walk takes in several of the city’s famous landmarks, from the Tower of London to the Shard, each stop exploring some of London’s extraordinary weather events.
We begin at the Monument, Christopher Wren’s elegy to the Great Fire of London. With its pale stone column topped by a golden orb, the Monument was designed to look like a giant candle. It stands 202ft high, exactly 202ft away from where the fire began in Pudding Lane. Despite its size, the structure is dwarfed by today’s surrounding tower blocks. Similarly, the causes behind the fire are sometimes overlooked. The Great Fire was a seismic event in the City of London’s history, one that was shaped by the capital’s geography. The spark was the weather.
As we enjoy some autumn sun beside the Monument, Brownrigg explains: ‘The summer of 1666 was unusually warm. At that time London was crammed with wooden buildings, many only a few feet apart. A long, hot summer left them bone dry. Add stores of flammable materials – including gunpowder left over from the Civil War – and the city was a giant tinderbox.’ It caught alight on 2 September when a bakery oven wasn’t cleaned properly. The inferno lasted three days thanks to a strong breeze. Besides fanning the flames, the wind caused more chaos by changing direction.
From the Monument, we follow the fire’s easterly course. Along the way we visit the Church of St Dunstan in the East. ‘It tells a remarkable story of fortitude,’ says Brownrigg. Founded around 1100AD, St Dunstan’s was one of 87 churches burnt down in the Great Fire. Rebuilt in 1701, legends claim it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren’s daughter, Jane. Apparently, the builders thought the delicate spire would collapse. While the scaffolding was removed, Jane lay below it to prove them wrong (the spire also survived being bombed during the Blitz).
Just two years after Jane’s display of faith, the spire of St Dunstan’s endured one of the most remarkable weather events in British history. ‘Mention the phrase Great Storm and most of us think of 1987,’ says Brownrigg, ‘but that was nothing compared to the Great Storm of 1703.’ That storm lasted a week, killing between 8,000 and 12,000 people. As it swept over London, around 2,000 chimneys and the roof of Westminster Abbey were torn away. Writer Daniel Defoe saw hundreds of wrecked boats piled up in the Thames.
The Great Storm isn’t the only way that weather has affected London’s main river. Before reaching the crowds outside the Tower of London, we follow a path to the riverbank. With Tower Bridge on our left, the sun sparkles on the water. In centuries past we may have been gazing at sheets of ice. Between 1309 and 1814 the Thames froze 23 times. The river became the venue for a series of Frost Fairs. ‘There were stalls and shops on the ice, with events such as gambling, cock-fighting, even horse racing,’ says Brownrigg. ‘During the last fair, an elephant walked across the Thames.’
The river froze partly because it used to be much wider and slower. The underlying cause though was a mini Ice Age, when Northern Europe’s average temperatures dropped by a degree. ‘It doesn’t sound like a lot but if a one-degree decrease made the Thames freeze, what could a predicted increase do?’ asks Brownrigg. To explore this question, we return to the Tower.
For centuries the Tower of London had a moat, fed by the Thames. By the Victorian era the river was a putrid open sewer. So, in 1844, the Tower’s moat was drained. London’s weather soon brought matters to a head (or a nose). In 1858 came the Great Stink. Another hot summer made the already smelly Thames unbearable. A river cruise for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was abandoned within minutes. MPs in the newly-built Houses of Parliament struggled with the odour outside. A new riverside sewer system stopped the stench. Besides cleaning the water, it also narrowed and sped up the Thames. The river hasn’t frozen since.
A short way from the Tower, we arrive at Fenchurch Street. For almost 130 years, the station operated with steam engines. In damp periods, London’s coal-powered steam trains, factories and countless domestic fires created terrible air pollution. The first week of December 1952 saw London shrouded in foetid fog. ‘It was so thick that people felt their way along the streets,’ says Brownrigg. ‘Cars and buses were abandoned and the fog even got indoors. Cinemas and theatres closed as audiences struggled to see.’ In just five days, the Great Smog claimed 4,000 lives. The Clean Air Act of 1956 encouraged the switch from coal to gas, but London’s air quality remains a serious problem.
The walk concludes by exploring the weather’s financial costs. Outside the Bank of England, Brownrigg points out the weathervane. It’s linked to a compass inside the building to reveal the wind’s direction. ‘Sailing ships needed an easterly wind to navigate up the Thames. When the wind blew from the east the ships created more trade, so the Bank had to release more money.’
In work, rest, or play, weather dominates our daily lives. An aphorism claims that while other countries have a climate, only Britain has weather. London’s Great Fire, Freeze, Storm, Stink and Smog are extreme examples but they share common factors. At the heart of our national weather obsession is our nation’s geography. Britain is located at the end of an Atlantic storm trail and within reach of the Gulf Stream. As a series of islands, it is surrounded by moisture-releasing water and their relatively small size means weather systems pass swiftly. These constants make our weather so varied and surprising. So as Brownrigg suggests at the start of the walk: ‘keep looking up!’
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