With all the talk about this year’s being another 1976, those of us who actually remember as far back as that can’t help but compare the two summers – as far as this one’s gone, anyway.
There are ways in which the two years don’t compare. For a start, after a wet and miserable spring in 1976 (some likenesses there, then) the long, hot summer started at the beginning of June, just after the Bank Holiday (of course), so the heatwave had started around a month later than this one, which can make a lot of difference to the survival of many plants and wildlife. Then, as I write this, there are thunderstorms forecast by the middle of next week, more than a month earlier than in 1976, when the drought broke in earnest over August Bank Holiday at the end of that month (of course, again) – at least in the East Midlands, where I lived then, and still do, although not in the same area.
That was the year when I resolved never to have a large garden again, especially one on what local farmers called ‘good, strong land’ and I called solid clay; fertile when properly worked but a nightmare after a few days without rain. By mid-July, my lawn had turned the colour of straw, except for the dark patches of clover and deep rooted weeds (I didn’t use weedkillers then on grass, and still don’t now, preferring not to cut too short, when after mowing, the effect is generally just as good). It had big cracks all over that would break an ankle if you weren’t careful, and it was a really bad advert for a landscape gardener, but there was a hosepipe ban, and any water salvaged from the kitchen sink was too precious to waste on grass.
By the end of the month, when work had almost dried up – literally – because nobody wanted to waste money on a garden they could see drying up before their eyes, and it was too hot for strenuous manual work until the evening anyway, I resigned myself to waiting for a change in the weather, whenever that might come, instead settling down in the comparative cool of indoors to make my wedding dress. 1976 was the year of my first marriage, sadly not the most successful, but the date is easy to remember.
This was the year of weird and wonderful inventions for getting bath water out of the bathroom and onto the garden. I still feel guilty taking a bath when a shower does the job more efficiently with much less water; now I shower exclusively, particularly as in the intervening 37 years water meters have become more widely installed, and I for one, can think of better ways of using a metered commodity than filling a bath.
It was the year when Dutch elm disease really took hold, and hedgerows all over the country turned brown and sad, not helped by high temperatures and drought. We could be facing a similar problem this year with ash dieback fungus; so far our county is free, but who knows? It was also the summer when trees planted during the ‘Plant a Tree in ‘Seventy Three’ campaign that had hung on through the warm, dry summer of 1975 finally succumbed through low rainfall and lack of care after planting (remember the cynical rhyme, ‘Plant a tree in ‘Seventy Three; plant some more in ‘Seventy Four; how many alive in ‘Seventy Five?’). Fortunately we all take tree planting much more seriously now – last year’s wet winter has proved a Godsend in the drier Eastern counties, and for the first time since it was planted in 2000, our four-acre wood has really taken off, encouraged by the welcome warmth that followed the first adequate natural watering it has had since planting.
Even if the drought continues as long as it did in 1976, once dusk comes ever earlier and we can hope for heavier dews overnight, things should keep ticking over until the heatwave finally breaks. As I write this, few gardens in our village are showing signs of real stress other than a strawiness of lawns that might have benefitted from being mown slightly less short. Our own plot is a riot of colour as I write this, and as long as we do not get banned from watering our pots, it should survive until the big sort-out in October.
Sometimes it’s nice to have a real, old-fashioned summer for once.