This day 40 years ago was the hottest June day ever recorded, with temperatures rising to a scorching 35.6 C (96.1 F) - and this was just one day of a relentless heatwave that ran through most of the summer. It made 1976 a spectacularly good butterfly year - I remember walking across Wimbledon Common with clouds of butterflies rising up all around me - but the heat was hard to bear for us temperately inclined Brits. The worst of it was that all this heat coincided with, and worsened, a prolonged drought that had begun the previous year with a hot, dry summer followed by low winter and spring rainfall. Everywhere trees died - especially beech and lime - while rivers and reservoirs dried up, crops failed (food prices rose by 20 percent), and what had once been lush grassland turned to baked earth. There were standpipes in the street and we were advised to reuse bathwater, share a bath, or even give up bathing altogether - not a huge leap for many Brits in those less fragrant times.
Things became so desperate that a Minister for Drought was appointed - one Denis Howell, who was already Minister for Sport, and not a man noted for his charisma. A week into his new job, he was turning on a ceremonial stopcock in Yorkshire when it began to rain stair-rods. Howell was obliged to shelter under an umbrella while talking to a local TV crew about the urgent necessity of conserving water. Suddenly Howell had become the Rainmaker, a man with uncanny powers of summoning rain from the heavens. He was for a while a kind of comic national hero - and his reputation travelled abroad too. On a visit to Tashkent, where there had been no rain for two years, he was asked if he'd kindly employ his legendary rainmaking powers. 'I could only reply' [he recalled in his memoirs] 'that anything could happen.' Sure enough, that night there was a sudden electric storm, followed by an almighty deluge.
We shan't be needing Howell's rainmaking powers this summer, that's for sure.