A tale of two heatwaves: 1976 versus the present day

A tale of two heatwaves: UK may be sweltering like 1976 — but without crochet bikinis, chilled Black Tower and baths just 5 inches deep

  • Year 1976 only one in which temperatures reached 32.2C for 15 days running 
  • Accompanying drought between May and August was driest period on record
  • Here Femail compares 1976’s heatwave and drought with the present day 

FOUR-MONTH DROUGHT WAS THE DRIEST ON RECORD

THEN: The year 1976 stands out as the only one in which temperatures reached at least 32.2C for 15 days running, while on five days temperatures soared over 35C.

The accompanying drought — May to August — was the driest period on record, culminating in an astonishing 45 rain-free days for parts of the South-West.

NOW: This year’s heatwave hasn’t reached the burning highs of 1976 — yet — but statistics suggest it could. The country is enjoying its 16th consecutive day of heat above 28C, making the spell of scorching hot weather the longest since 2013 when the UK enjoyed 19 days in a row above the same mark.

Although some areas will have thundery showers this week, Met forecasters say the high temperatures will continue for the rest of the month.

HOUSEWIFE VIGILANTES VS GOLF COURSE SPRINKLERS

THEN: With several rivers running dry, a Drought Minister, Denis Howell, was appointed and the water supply in Yorkshire, East Anglia and Plymouth was replaced by communal standpipes commanding queues in the street.

Around the country, rivers and reservoirs dried and cracked, and looked like the Australian Outback.

With several rivers running dry, a Drought Minister, Denis Howell, was appointed and the water supply in Yorkshire, East Anglia and Plymouth was replaced by communal standpipes commanding queues in the street

People were told to pour their washing-up water down the toilet instead of flushing it, and empty the five inches of bath water the National Water Council suggested they use into the garden after bathing.

So ingrained was the urge to save water that a diligent group of Surrey housewives kept a round-the-clock watch on a golf course to stop groundsmen using sprinklers. Lawns turned brown and then an anaemic white, and many vegetable crops failed (an estimated £500 million worth) and people started panic-buying frozen veg.

NOW: Although we’re not officially in a drought, a hosepipe ban has been implemented in Northern Ireland, and utility companies in England and Wales say if the hot weather continues they might have to follow suit.

Reservoirs such as Lindley near Harrogate are starting to dry up and sustained high temperatures mean crops like lettuce, cauliflowers, potatoes and broccoli could start to fail.


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SLIM ON WHITE BREAD AND FINDUS CRISPY PANCAKES

THEN: The nation stripped off in 1976, but there was markedly less flesh to flash, with only around 3.5 per cent of the population considered obese and the prevalence of obesity among children aged five to ten under two per cent.

Surprisingly, then, studies suggest the average Brit actually consumed 20 per cent more calories around this time — a diet which comprised culinary delights such as Smash (powdered mashed potato), Findus Crispy Pancakes and sliced white bread.

But snacking had yet to become a national pastime and with only around half of the population having use of a car we led far less sedentary lives — meaning those extra calories were burned off. Portion sizes were also smaller — a bagel weighed 2oz and contained 160 calories, compared to today’s versions which can weigh up to 10oz and contain 800 calories.

NOW: Fast forward 42 years and those taut bodies have been replaced by bulging figures on the beach. One in four adults, and one in five ten-year-olds, is now overweight, with the proliferation of desk-bound jobs, computer games, car ownership and convenience foods contributing factors. We’re a different shape too — the average woman’s waist increased from 24in in 1980 to 34in in 2017. Still, we can at least pretend we’re still slim — the average British woman’s size 14 pair of trousers is now four inches wider at the waist and three inches wider at the hips, and would, in the Seventies, have been a size 18.

SPANDEX TRUNKS AND CHARLIE’S ANGELS

THEN: Although Spandex — or elastane — had begun to be used in swimwear in the late Sixties, meaning swimwear could better hold its shape, costumes and bikinis were simple and mirrored the understated, hippy look in fashion.

The underwiring and structure of previous decades was abandoned and women either opted for tiny crochet bikinis in neutral fabrics or replicated the seductive one-piece halter-neck red swimsuit showcased by Charlie’s Angels actress Farrah Fawcett.

The underwiring and structure of previous decades was abandoned and women either opted for tiny crochet bikinis in neutral fabrics or replicated the seductive one-piece red swimsuit

For men, tiny Spandex trunks, often brown and stripy with a drawstring waist, were all the better to show off that nut-brown tan and hairy chest.

NOW: Multi-coloured. Ruffled. Beaded. Most of the intricate swimwear in fashion this heatwave is a world away from the Bohemian vibe of 1976.

Moreover, many now view the all-in-one costume as a more stylish — and flattering — alternative to the bikini. Sizes have invariably got bigger to accommodate our growing curves — the average women’s bust was a 34C in the Seventies, compared to a 34DD today.

Swimwear is also no longer something you fling on when you want to relax in the sun, but a fashion statement in its own right, often accompanied by a £100 price tag.

The global swimwear market is believed to be worth over £10 billion, and while one costume would once have sufficed the average woman now owns four.

COSMETIC SURGERY WAS STILL TABOO

THEN: Surprisingly, there was an appetite for fake tan in the Seventies, with sunless tanners containing dihydroxyacetone (DHA) — still the main ingredients in today’s fake tans — already approved for use in beauty products.

The only problem was that experts struggled to control the amount of DHA absorbed by the skin, meaning it stuck in clumps on the top layer of skin and streaked, with attempts to soften the orange colour with powders proving largely unsuccessful.

Elsewhere, cosmetic surgery existed — liposuction and breast implants had recently been made available — but was still taboo and largely confined to celebrities.

Surprisingly, there was an appetite for fake tan in the Seventies, with sunless tanners containing dihydroxyacetone (DHA) — still the main ingredients in today’s fake tans — already approved for use in beauty products

Shaving was the main form of hair removal for women — and regarded by many as essential to showcase mini-skirt-clad legs.

Diet pills started being marketed as miracle weight loss cures while the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ diet, which entailed people forcing themselves to go to sleep whenever they felt hungry, was also fashionable — and ideal in hot weather.

NOW: Fake tan — now better developed to permeate deeper into the skin — has never been more popular, with one bottle of Fake Bake Flawless Tan sold every 30 seconds worldwide.

Shaving has fallen out of favour — almost one in four young women has stopped shaving their underarms and around 85 per cent of women claimed they shaved their legs in 2016 compared to 92 per cent in 2013.

This is thanks partly to a new generation of feminists campaigning for female body hair to be seen as acceptable, and partly to a rise in alternative techniques such as laser hair removal treatment.

Cosmetic surgery is available to the masses, with breast implants the most popular procedure — there were 8,251 operations performed in 2017, an increase of six per cent from 2016, although at just 2,309 operations liposuction procedures were down 28 per cent from the previous year, having fallen victim to the increasing array of non-surgical treatments available to tighten skin.

Dieting, meanwhile, has little to do with counting calories and more to do with shunning entire food groups.

The popular Paleo diet, which typically comprises meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts, has gained in popularity, as has gluten-free regimes and The Fast Diet, which requires abstaining from food altogether for extended periods.

HOW FAB! LOLLIES LOW IN CALORIES

THEN: The Lyons Maid lolly and ice cream poster was a lurid sight to behold, with the multi-coloured Zoom and Fab ice lollies among the favourites.

Back then calorie counts are likely to have been around 120 per lolly

The Funny Feet lolly, made of pink ice cream, was also a hit, as was the Screwball — a cone of raspberry ripple ice cream with a ball of bubble gum at the bottom.

Back then choc ices were still small blocks of vanilla ice cream coated in a modest layer of chocolate, not the calorific multi-flavoured extravaganzas smothered in lashings of confectionery they would later become.

Calorie counts are likely to have been around 120 per lolly.

NOW: We can’t get enough of cold treats right now — Iceland reports sales of their ice lollies have increased 340 per cent from last June and ice cream by 159 per cent — but there are infinitely more options available.

Haagen-Dazs, which launched its first store in 1976 with just three flavours — vanilla, chocolate and coffee — now boasts concoctions as niche as Chocolate Salted Fudge Truffle and Matcha Green Tea.

And of course, many of today’s ice creams are more fattening. Compared to a Fab lolly, which has 90 calories, a Magnum has 270.

SUNBATHING? SLAP ON THE BABY OIL . . .

THEN: Skin cancer? What skin cancer? Attitudes to sunbathing were simple in 1976: the browner the better.

Sunbeds were about to become mainstream, Barbie had been made over into a bronzed ‘Malibu Barbie,’ and although a rudimentary form of SPF had been invented, water-resistant sun creams were unavailable, UVA and UVB protection was yet to be sold and it was considered completely normal to step out in the sun slathered in baby oil.

Although a rudimentary form of SPF had been invented it was considered completely normal to step out in the sun slathered in baby oil

It would be another two years before the American Food And Drug Administration proposed to regulate the sun cream industry, and sun cream manufacturers such as Tropical Blend Sun Oil promised to give customers the ‘deepest, darkest, wildest tan you can’.

NOW: Despite constant warnings about the dangers of sun damage and the fact that we are buying more sunscreen than ever — Brits spend more than £260 million a year on sun cream — incidence of skin cancer is now five times higher than in the Seventies, due largely to more of us going abroad.

FIZZY DRINKS FOR THE FRAZZLED

THEN: Binge-drinking had yet to begin. In 1975 we drunk an average of 6.9 litres of alcohol per person annually, compared to 7.8 litres in 2015.

Wine had already become more popular, with the amount drunk nearly quadrupling between 1960 and 1980. German varieties such as Black Tower dominated, while the sweet fizzy pink Portuguese Mateus Rosé gained a dedicated following.

Harvey Wallbangers were the height of cocktail fashion — especially when adorned with a glacé cherry. Fizzy drinks often came courtesy of a SodaStream.

The accompanying drought — May to August 1976 — was the driest period on record, culminating in an astonishing 45 rain-free days for parts of the South-West

NOW: Australian and New Zealand wines — virtually unheard of in 1976 — are among the leading brands, although more of us are abstaining from booze, with almost half of the population shunning a regular tipple and one in four young adults entirely teetotal.

However, our thirst for a chilled rosé wine — long a summertime staple — has returned with a vengeance. Sales are up by 16 per cent year-on-year at Majestic.

Iced tea and green juices are similarly fashionable, especially as the recent sugar tax has added 24p per litre to the cost of some fizzy drinks, while the current CO2 crisis is limiting their availability.

JACKETS OFF AT WIMBLEDON? OH, I SAY!

THEN: Away from the beaches and parks, Brits were largely expected to carry on as normal despite the stifling heat.

Some concessions were made: Wimbledon umpires were allowed to remove their jackets for the first time but stewards at the Henley Royal Regatta shortly afterwards still had to wear ties.

Tips to tackle the heat seem endearingly, if startlingly, basic. ‘Save Water — Bath With a Friend’ became a popular T-shirt slogan. Fans were largely either of the handheld variety or simple blades attached to the ceiling that pushed the air around as they moved.

NOW: There are so many new-fangled gadgets on the market to keep cool that one recent survey revealed we will spend an average of £205.47 trying to stay chilled.

The most popular purchases are electric fans (those wanting to push the boat out can purchase the £229 circular remote-controlled Dyson fan, that comes with hidden blades), followed by cooling sprays, ice packs and paddling pools.

According to a survey more than half of consumers are reported to have bought thinner duvets, and 10 per cent are buying plug-in air conditioning. Halfords, meanwhile, claims sales of coolboxes have soared by 158 per cent against this time last year, while beach shelters have risen by 600 per cent.

Pictured: A Londoner washed his car using water from the Thames in Putney during Britain’s worst drought for 250 years

DEATHS, RIOTS AND A PLAGUE OF LADYBIRDS

THEN: The heat prompted serious fires in Southern England, the tarmac on the M1 melted and a study of the population of Birmingham found the average daily number of deaths rose by nearly 20 per cent, with the excess deaths mainly among elderly men and women with cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease.

Crops failed, causing food prices to rise by 12 per cent, while swarms of some 23.65 billion seven-spotted ladybirds filled Southern and Eastern England in search of aphids that had been destroyed by the heat.

The heatwave also led to an outbreak of antisocial behaviour — there was an increase in deaths from violence among men aged 20 to 39 and riots broke out at the sweltering Notting Hill carnival.

A man coined the ‘heatwave rapist’ attacked Birmingham women who left their windows open at night in their beds.

NOW: Think we might have mastered the heat by now? Think again. Gritters are out to protect the road surface as some roads have melted in the heat, while train tracks are buckling causing lengthy delays. Passengers have been stuck on the London Underground in temperatures as high as 35.4C — five degrees hotter than the legal maximum for transporting cattle.

The devastating fires on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester could take months to extinguish; the RSPB has warned high temperatures pose a threat to garden birds such as robins, blue tits and blackbirds and the RSPCA has received 625 calls in two weeks about animals in hot environments — the majority of them dogs in cars.

Perhaps the odd thundery shower would be welcome after all. 

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