At the end of a summer’s afternoon in Stratford-upon-Avon, Jennifer Nash shivers, adjusts the scarf around her neck and pulls the hood of her anorak over her head. “If it was nice we’d be walking around doing things – we’d go out on the boats,” she says, surveying the cold grey water of the Avon and the equally grey skies in the distance. “But instead we’re just going to go back to the hotel and get warm.”
Nash and her husband, David, are taking what record numbers of Britons were predicted to take this year: a staycation, eschewing fancy foreign climes with their troublesome temperatures and expensive currencies in favour of the dependable charms of home. They are also following another trend: taking a short break, in their case a three-day trip from their Middlesex home.
But most of all they are doing what Brits love to do in the summer: they are moaning about the weather.
“The journey up here on Wednesday was dreadful,” she says. “I don’t like driving in the rain, anyway, but it was torrential. It took much longer than it should have.”
Around them as they sit huddled on a bench in the Bancroft Gardens, outside the Royal Shakespeare theatre, the signifiers of summer are all in place: pleasure boat cruises, ice-cream stands, groups of Japanese tourists. But there is something amiss: the cruises are near empty, the ice-cream stall is shuttered and the groups of tourists scurry past without so much as a selfie. It is all a little dank.
There was a man who once lived in Stratford who had words for all of this, and much else besides. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” William Shakespeare would have said, or: “For the rain it raineth every day.” And if there were a chorus for this summer of discontent it would surely answer, “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain.”
It didn’t start like this, the Great British Washout of 2017. June was glorious, as was much of July, with temperatures exceeding the historical average maximum for those months of 20 and 21C respectively. Holidaymakers duly took note. Or at least they didn’t ditch their plans and head for the intense heat in southern Europe, which has prompted the less-than-affectionate soubriquet of the “Lucifer summer”.
“From 30 June to 20 July we saw 58% year-on-year growth in bookings,” says Dan Yates, founder of Pitchup.com, a booking site for camping and caravanning. “Since the start of the school holidays, which is pretty much when the rain came, there has been a drastic annual growth drop. Since the rainfall, from 21 July to 10 August, we have seen growth drop to just 5% in bookings made by UK customers.”
The campers at the Winchcombe camping and caravanning club are made of sterner stuff. Nestled in the Cotswolds, about 20 miles south of Stratford, it is thriving, the second-busiest of the club’s 106 sites. “We had 102.23% occupancy in July,” the co-manager, Susan Liggett, says brightly, before a flicker of doubt crosses her face. “That was slightly down on last year. I think that has to have something to do with the weather.”
It is Friday and visitors pour into the site’s shop-office, where tins of Spam vie with bottles of squash and cans of dog food for shelf space. Many return year after year – in some cases month after month or even week after week. “I come here every Friday after work,” says Craig Carter, standing outside his caravan, wearing the camper’s uniform of Crocs and shorts. “Then back to Halesowen on Sunday night. This is our sanity.”
But what about the rain? Isn’t he worried?
“We ain’t made of sugar,” he replies. “We won’t melt. And it doesn’t rain in the caravan. Anyway, I’m not good with the sun. I don’t like it hot. What’s the point in going abroad when you’ve got such beautiful countryside here?”
The statistics for the beginning of the year show that Carter is not alone. According to Visit Britain there were 14.4 million domestic holiday trips of more than one night in the first quarter of the year, up 3% on 2016.
On the Isle of Wight, according to David Thornton, chief executive of Visit Isle of Wight, growth has been around 4% this year, with visitors taking shorter breaks than previously. “Bookings for the summer and into the autumn look very strong now,” he says. “New festivals and events are attracting visitors who have never been here before.”
But while the domestic market may be holding up, there is a rush for foreign trips as the reality of August in the UK sinks in. “The not-so-great British summertime weather has prompted a last-minute dash from Brits to get on a plane and head to the sun,” says Tony Hopkins of the holiday company Thomas Cook.
“Bookings for departures next week are selling twice as quickly as they were this time last year, and at this rate our package holidays for next week are likely be full by Sunday evening. We are seeing similar levels of high bookings for the next few weeks.”
These fair-weather Brits are choosing familiar destinations. “Our members are reporting particularly strong last-minute demand for countries around the Mediterranean, where temperatures are set to hit the mid-30s over the weekend and into next week, with Spain, Greece and Turkey doing particularly well,” says the Association of British Travel Agents’ Sean Tipton : “It is no surprise that many customers are looking to escape to guaranteed sunshine and high temperatures.”
Perhaps what should be a surprise is that anyone is surprised by the August deluge. Met Office figures show that the average rainfall for the month is 89.5mm, which makes a typical August slightly wetter than a typical February.
Indeed, the August bank holiday was moved in 1965 from the first weekend to the last weekend of the month in an attempt to avoid the wet weather. The move was not successful and between 1984 and 2013 there has been widespread rain across the UK on nine occasions over the bank holiday. This year, however, the rain has seemed unrelenting, with Wednesday providing the low point of flash flooding, yellow weather warnings and 58mm of rain recorded in 12 hours at Painshill reservoir in Surrey, more than the county’s average rainfall for the month.
“Summer 2017 probably won’t go down in people’s memories as a particularly bad one because we had a fairly good, dry June and July,” says a Met Office spokeswoman. “It hasn’t really lived up to people’s expectations – but that’s just expectations. If you get a really important event that gets washed out, then that colours your memory of a summer.”
Psychologists have a term for that colouring of the memory. They call it “fading affect bias”, or FAB. Negative memories are thought to fade faster than positive ones, leaving us all with a sense of nostalgia. Those sunny summer days of childhood? Those are the ones we remember because FAB has dispatched rainy-day memories to the dustbins of our minds. If we had more accurate, less emotional memories, runs the theory, we would know that it rains in August and adjust our expectations and our behaviour accordingly.
Back at the campsite in Winchcombe, Simon Aldridge from Stroud acknowledges that nostalgia has led him to want to sleep under a thin sheet of nylon in a field during what should properly be termed the rainy season.
“I used to go with my family when I was a kid and I loved it, so I wanted my two boys to have the same experience,” he says.
His wife, Natasha, eyes the sky with some foreboding. “This is our first time,” she says. “We’ve been waiting for the weather to pick up but then we thought we’d just go for it. We did have second thoughts when it rained on Wednesday but we’d already paid the deposit so there wasn’t really a choice.”
Assuming the Aldridge family survived Friday night they might want to consider their options for the week ahead: the BBC forecast speaks of “business as usual”: a euphemism for heavy rain, high winds and potential storms. This is, after all, August.
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain.