It was Dr Johnson who noted that ‘when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather’. Two centuries later, little has changed: weather is an enduring English obsession. According to the UK Meteorological Office (www.metoffice.gov.uk) – known to all as the Met Office – weather reports are the third most watched TV broadcasts, and when BBC Radio 4 proposed cutting the late-night shipping forecast (‘warning of gales in North Atlantic; Viking, Forties, good’ etc) there was a huge outcry from listeners – most of whom never went anywhere near the sea.
This fascination with the weather is part of a long tradition, and ancient folklore is full of mantras for second-guessing the moods of the elements. Snow on St Dorothea’s Day (6 February) means no heavier snowfall that year, while rain on St Swithin’s Day (15 July) means it’ll continue for the next 40 days. The slightest tinge of a pink cloud can cause locals to chant ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’ like a mantra.
But despite this obsession, the weather still keeps the English on their toes. A few weeks without rain and garden-hose bans are enacted; too much rain and rivers burst their banks, flooding low-lying towns. Similarly, a fall of snow (the amount that in Germany or Switzerland would be brushed off without a second thought) often brings English motorways to a standstill. The rail network is particularly susceptible to weather delay – trains have been cancelled for everything from leaves on the track to the wrong kind of snow.
When to go
When you travel will depend on the type of holiday you’re looking for, but regardless of when you arrive, the good old British weather is bound to play a part in your travel plans. The English have long been preoccupied with the nation’s weather, and things look set to become even more unpredictable thanks to climate change (just look at the devastating summer floods of 2007 for a sign of things to come). But despite the unpredictability, there are a few rules that underpin the seasons. Winters tend to be cold and wet, with the hottest and driest weather generally reserved for July and August. The shoulder seasons often produce the best weather: sunny spells jostle for space with sudden showers between March and May, while balmy ‘Indian summers’ often pitch up between September and October. Snow in England generally arrives either end of winter, especially in November and February.
All things considered, late April to September is the best period to travel. Summer sees England at its liveliest: holiday traffic increases substantially during the peak period between late July and August (when the schools are on holiday), especially in seaside areas, national parks and popular cities like Oxford, Bath and York. Opening hours tend to be reduced between October and Easter, and some places shut down altogether for the winter. But in the big cities – especially London – you’ll find plenty to do no matter when you travel.