What was it like in Britain’s record-breaking heatwave?

What was it like in Britain’s record-breaking heatwave?

The media, though, was a catalogue of doom and horror: house fires, grass fires, transport failures, and so on. But, awful though some of this was, it was the distilled essence of the heatwave. Elsewhere, things were quiet.

The centre of town felt subdued. I was reminded of those periods of the pandemic when we were in between lockdowns. It wasn’t empty, though, or wilting.

In Westminster, tourists were still sitting in the open-top part of those double-decker sightseeing buses. On Oxford Street, people were still lugging bulging bags of designer shopping. In St James, white-haired gents were still wearing their cream blazers and navy-blue regimental ties, as they headed to their clubs for refreshment.

Some of the traditional British response to a warm day, however, was less evident. The parks weren’t as full as usual with shirtless sunbathers – we’d got past that stage, it was just too hot. My local pub’s huge beer garden is usually teeming by 5.30pm when the sun’s out, but it was practically deserted.

Too hot for some traditions … the shirtless sunbathers abandoned the parks. AP

The Tube and train stations were also depopulated, as the transport system buckled – sometimes literally – in the heat.

Inside the carriages, it was hot but bearable. In fact, some lines are now airconditioned: I could have, and probably should have, spent the day riding round and round on the Circle Line.

My train home, though, was a sauna. I sat motionless in my seat, dripping sweat – triggering Proustian recollections of backpacking trips on Indian trains from 25 years ago.

No train to Hogwarts … King’s Cross station was closed. Bloomberg

The thing that London really lacks, on days like this, is a beach. It’s almost the one and only time that homesickness can still get the better of me: what wouldn’t this Sydneysider give to be able to jump in the car and get to the beach for a swim?

From London, the nearest beaches are all an odyssey – and a disappointment.

I began to think that, as an Australian, I was feeling a bit too relaxed about the whole thing. At one point, I had to take a taxi – so I decided to test out the locals’ experience and asked the driver if he was suffering with the heat.

“Me? No! I love this!,” he exclaimed, as he wiped beads of sweat from his brow with a towel, in the front seat of his boiling black cab. There was not a hint of English irony.

The people doing it toughest would be those whose houses aren’t built for heat – that is, lots and lots of us. An Adelaide-born neighbour of mine lives in a roof-loft apartment, and usually works from home. He grew up in this kind of heat, but has had to take refuge in his company’s airconditioned office.

On London’s south bank, members of an Australian cabaret and circus troupe show the locals how it’s done. AP

Most people I met while out and about were finding it bloody hot, but offered that quintessential British mixture of resigned stoicism and deprecatory humour.

It was quite a contrast to the hot tempers on Twitter, and the vented spleens in the papers. Even the heatwave has become part of the culture wars now.

Some commentators were doggedly insisting that the BBC coverage was overblown; that the Meteorological Office’s pulsating red weather charts were alarmist; and that this two-day spell was certainly no worse than the great heatwave of 1976, when everybody just got on with it.

On the other side of the echo chamber, people were reposting footage of fires, and gnashing their cyber-teeth about the Conservative Party leadership contest’s lack of engagement with climate policy.

It’s certainly true that this is Britain’s first 40-degree temperature on record. There may be more of it in future; and a country whose infrastructure and housing stock is geared to a temperate climate may have to start thinking more about adaptation.

London’s fire brigade declared a “major incident” Getty

But the forecast for Wednesday is 26 degrees, with some rain in the afternoon. By Friday, it looks like those of us not brought up in this climate will once again be needing a light sweater or cardigan if sitting outside past 9pm.

Normal summer service will resume. In August, many Brits will go on holiday to Greece, Italy and Spain – looking for more of this kind of heat.

Before long the evenings will shorten, and the summer of 2022 will join 1976 in the nation’s folkloric memory.

But despite having lived through yet another moment when history was made in front of our eyes – and in Britain these moments seem to come round so often, now – we’ll all be hoping it doesn’t transition from folkloric annals to annual tradition.

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