England has a reputation for being a cold, wet country. There are plenty of references in literature to the prevalence of rain in the English weather. The Canterbury Tales opens with a line referring to April’s sweet showers – but it also refers to the “drought of March.” It is a surprising feature of the UK climate that drought is actually a recurring theme through history and at the moment we are in another drought period. Naturally as I write this, the rain is pelting down outside and has been since the hosepipe ban was introduced but it takes more than a few weeks of persistent rain to restore groundwater levels. Here on the chalk downs the springs have almost run dry and the river, a “winter bourn” has been dry for several years now.
As early as 682 AD there is a record of a terrible drought in Southern England and the crops dying in the fields and the population starving. In the medieval period the lack of rainfall could threaten the livelihood and then the lives of a significant part of the population. If wells and rivers ran dry and harvests failed the people died. Even the richer folk, the clergy and nobility, suffered a loss of income from tithes although that is comparative when you can’t feed your family. 1730 was a drought summer and there have been at least ten major droughts since 1800.
One feature of the 19th century was that there were several instances of years when the winters were dry in a row leading to a shortage of water and a widespread failure of local water supplies. By this stage the industrialisation of society meant that supplies could be brought in by train but it also meant that there was a greater demand for water for industrial purposes in mills and works, some of which were forced to close as a result. It was not unusual for the use of water to be limited to four hours per day for months on end.
One consequence of drought was the spread of diseases such as typhoid and cholera. The “Great Stink” of London in 1858 was caused in no small part by the hot summer and the lack of rain. The Thames and many of its tributaries were overflowing with sewage and the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive causing both illness and terrible smells (smells so bad that there were plans for Parliament to move upriver to Hampton Court and for the law courts to relocate to Oxford.) The situation was eased when the weather broke with heavy rain, as it always seems to do.
One of the rather curious things that occurs when there is a drought is that parch marks in the fields reveal the outlines of ancient building and field systems. Another is that those valleys flooded to make reservoirs such as Mardale in the Lake District and Ladybower in Derbyshire reveal the ruins of the villages lost when the area was “drowned.” Here is one such lost village commemorated in verse:
“King’s tower and Queen’s bower
And weed and reed in the gloom;
And a lost city in Semmerwater
Deep asleep till doom.”
From The Ballad of Semmerwater by Sir William Watson.