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There’s nothing new under the sun


SHAKESPEARE provides a quote for every occasion. This year, as I waited month after month for summer to arrive, the one that came repeatedly to mind was ‘The rain it raineth every day’ because, after a few glorious days in June, that was what it mostly did. Now things are even worse. Not content with ravaging Scotland, Storm Babet (have you noticed how these weather events have been getting above themselves ever since they’ve been dignified with a name?) has just tipped a full month’s worth of rain on the north-east of England in 24 hours

No doubt the clever people whose job it is to read the entrails for climate change will do their best to persuade us that this is yet another manifestation of excess carbon dioxide. In Shakespeare’s day, they would have had to seek alternative explanations for the relentless rainfall. I always wondered why Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (probably written between 1594 and 1596) was allowed to hold up the action of the play with lengthy digressions on pelting rivers, drownèd fields, and seasons running amok. Knowing how Shakespeare liked to insert a dash of topicality into his scripts, it seemed likely that he was referring to contemporary weather conditions in England; perhaps even inserting a few extra lines whenever a run of rain-sodden performances had been spoiling business.

Recently I found confirmation of this possibility when I discovered a website with a section called ‘Weather in History’ which lists unusual weather events recorded by contemporary sources throughout the centuries. Sure enough, an entry for the year 1594 states: ‘Wet and unseasonable summer – extensive flooding of fields etc, with loss/spoiling of crops across England: probably the year referred to in Wm Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.’  We are informed that in the same year, in the early spring, there had been unusually strong gales, in which thousands of trees fell. Perhaps, then, the country also experienced at some point that confusion of seasons lamented by Titania, with roses frosted in June and flowers budding in winter.

Intrigued, I began to search through other years, and was impressed by the extremes of weather experienced long before the industrial revolution could claim any responsibility for such abnormalities. A couple of years before the miserably squelchy summer of 1594, for instance, there was a drought which left the waters of the Thames so low that horsemen could ride across the river near London Bridge. At that time, too, the Trent ran nearly dry. From 1538 to 1541 the country had experienced a drought so severe that at one point sea water extended beyond London Bridge even at ebb tide; in 1540 the weather ‘was so fine that picking of cherries commenced before the end of May and grapes were ripe in July’.

We have all heard of the gales that played a great part in foiling the Spanish Armada in 1588, but what of the tornado that laid waste ‘cottages, trees, barns, hayricks, and most of a church’ at Patrick Brompton in Yorkshire in March 1577; or the thunderstorm in July, 1558, which rained down outsize hailstones on Sneinton in Nottinghamshire, uprooting trees, and destroying the church, whose bells were thrown down into the churchyard, while lead from its roof flew dangerously through the air, and several people were killed.

Then there were the severe winters of the Little Ice Age. In January 1506 horses and carts were able to cross the frozen Thames, while in Marseilles even the Mediterranean was frozen. In the winter of 1513/4 carts were once more able to cross the Thames from Lambeth to Westminster. In fact, the records repeatedly state that the Thames at London is frozen: in 1517; in December 1536 and January 1537, when Henry VIII and Jane Seymour rode along it from Whitehall to Greenwich, and in December 1564 to January 1565, when Queen Elizabeth and her court ‘indulged in sports on the ice at Westminster’.

Glancing through earlier records, it is the same story of floods and droughts, of tempests and torrents, of a routine backdrop of climate punctuated irregularly by anomalies in the weather. Skimming through the records at random, for instance: in the summer of 1214, long before human activity allegedly forced temperatures to boiling point, there was a drought that brought the Thames so low in London that women and children could wade across it; then, from 1256 until 1258 relentlessly wet weather led to extensive flooding, ruined the harvests, and resulted in widespread starvation.

Four centuries later, in January 1607, as many as 2,000 died in floods around the Severn Estuary; in 1636, in London, there was ‘not a drop of rain from March to August’, whereas the summer of 1648 was so cold and wet that it was described by contemporaries as ‘worse than several of the past winters’. And so on, up to the present day. These records would be a useful counterbalance to the climate-change gospel which is now a compulsory part of the syllabus in our schools.

The fact is that gales and flooding have always been with us; there have always been abnormally hot or cold summers, unseasonably warm winters, miserably wet or cruelly dry periods, ‘unprecedented’ winds and hail and high water . . . In the past these things would have been ascribed, if not to strife among the fairies, to the wrath of God, rather than to climate change. But then perhaps things aren’t so different today, after all. Today, too, there is a wrathful deity who must be appeased. Her name is Gaia, and the price she demands is not prayers and repentance, but blood sacrifice.

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Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond is 78, a mother and grandmother living in the north-east of England.

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