Harry Mount

This sheltered isle

Even at its worst, the English climate is the gentlest and most fascinating in the world

This sheltered isle
Rainbow over Wast Water with the peaks of Great Gable (left) and Lingmell (centre) in the distance, in the scenic Lake District National Park|Rainbow over Wast Water with the peaks of Great Gable (left) and Lingmell (centre) in the distance, in the sceni
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This rainy weather has occasionally softened my rock-hard cynicism about climate change. I have bicycled around London for 25 years — and I usually get drenched about half a dozen times a year. This week, I have been soaked six times in as many days. For a moment, I nearly fell for the theory, suggested by some scientists, that the jet stream had slipped south, pushed downwards by warming polar temperatures. 

But then the sun came out, and reason — and cynicism — returned. This summer’s weather is unusual, but it isn’t freakish. If anything, our extreme reaction to not-so-extreme rainfall shows how limited the capacities of the British climate are. In the places that have been recently flooded, rainfall may have been high, but only by British standards. The wettest recorded day in Britain was during the Cumbrian floods of November 2009, when 12.3 inches of rain fell on Seathwaite in 24 hours. On 16 June 1995, in the wettest place on earth, Cherrapunjee in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, it rained 61.5 ­inches in a day.

It’s no surprise that in our insular way — insula is Latin for island — we forget how much gentler our island weather still is than in the rest of the world. Being an island helps: we’re close enough to the sea to benefit from its cooling, hydrating effect in summer, and its warming effect in winter. Being in the far north is another help. We’re a comfortable distance from the equatorial heat. 

We also benefit from the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. In the Gulf of Mexico, the warm air and sea cook up the hurricanes which smash into the Gulf Coast, as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005, obliterating New Orleans. Our weather system borrows from the same source, but it’s been tamed to pleasant gentleness by the time it hits our shores; between August and November, the remnants of a Gulf hurricane sometimes give Britain a light battering, courtesy of the Gulf Stream, as Hurricane Katia did in September 2011. A month later, Katia carried a tree trunk all the way from the Florida Everglades to Bude, Cornwall, along Gulf Stream currents. Occasional coconuts and turtles float from the Gulf to the Outer Hebrides. 

Thanks to the Gulf Stream, there’s no part of the earth’s surface as small as Britain where such a diversity of plants can be grown. A garden in north Yorkshire, say, lies in the intersection between the northern edge of the continental flora zone and the southern edge of the northern flora zone. So you get a rare combination of the heat-loving bee orchid next to northern plants like bird’s-eye primrose and globeflower. No wonder we’re such keen gardeners.

Because of our northern climate, the Gulf Stream and our island nature, we are blessed, too, with the right amount of rain to produce Britain’s exceptional greenness. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was staggered by the effect of the colour on Durham. The green grass and trees, he thought, distinguished Durham from other European cities like Prague and Avignon, also wrapped around dominant castles and cathedrals. James Ravilious, the photographer son of artist Eric Ravilious, used black and white for pictures of Devon because, he said, it got rid of the green which so dominates the English landscape and is such a tricky colour to ­capture. 

Tiger Woods has been having similar problems with too much greenness, practising for this week’s Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes, Lancashire. ‘Oh my God,’ he said of the rough, ‘It’s just that you can’t get out of it. The bottom six inches is so lush. I’ve never seen rough this high. Or thick, or dense.’

Oh, come off it, Tiger — maybe it’s a little thicker than normal, but the difficulty in getting out of luxuriant rough is why our golf courses are much better than the bald fairways and wispy rough of courses near Tiger’s home on Jupiter Island, Florida. Golf,  like so many sports invented in this country, was created by our climate and landscape: the rolling dunes of the links were made by the sea; the green of the greens by all that rain; that thickly matted rough by the rain and our Gulf-Stream-warmed climate.

The list goes on: our love of walking, picnics, camping, landscape paintings and sporting pictures, the seaside... All those tastes — and the terrain that happily accommodated them — were created by the gentlest, most unpredictable, most compelling weather on the planet.

How England Made the English by Harry Mount is published by Viking.