Legend has it that the weather on Tuesday will be the same for the next 40 days.
St Swithun’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithun’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain na mair.
St Swithun’s Day is probably among the most well known of weather folklore – but, taken at face value, it is probably the most unreliable.
Since 1961 Wanstead has enjoyed 30 dry St Swithun’s Days (57%). From these the longest dry spell that followed was just 18 days, in 2000. On average, if St Swithun’s is dry, the weather stays fair for five days, with rain arriving on the 20th.
Another interesting observation is that the 40-day period that followed a dry St Swithun’s is on average 13% WETTER than if it rained on July 15th.
So what does this mean for the rest of July and the summer? Looking back at other years that have seen a mostly dry and warm pattern in the run up to St Swithun’s Day we should see a continuation of the mostly dry, warm and sunny conditions, perhaps with frequent thundery breakdowns, the first arriving on Thursday into Friday.
Putting superstition and singularities aside current weather models back this up.
St Swithun was born around 800AD and died on July 2, 862, at Winchester, Hampshire. According to historians he was fond of building churches in places where there were none. St Swithun, who was bishop of Winchester, was buried in the churchyard of the Old Minster at Winchester, where passers by might tread on his grave and where the rain from the eaves might fall on it.
His reputation as a weather saint is said to have arisen from the translation of his body from this lowly grave to its golden shrine within the cathedral, having been delayed by incessant rain for 40 days.
The basis of the St Swithun’s saying follows the fact that by July 15th summer weather patterns are already well established and tend to persist through the coming weeks.
In meterological terms the position of the frontal zone around the end of June to early July, indicated by the position of the jet stream, determines the general weather patterns (hot, cold, dry, wet) for the rest of the summer. Like a little stream in its bed, the frontal zone tends to ‘dig in’ shortly after the summer solstice.
As the path of our weather systems is controlled by the jet stream, a more southerly location of the frontal zone – as happened last year – is likely to bring unsettled, wet and cool weather. On the other hand, a frontal zone shifted further to the north – as is happening this year – will help the Azores high to build over western Europe, thus bringing dry and pleasant weather to the UK.
Other western European countries also have similar St Swithun’s day sayings – that follow the principle rule. In France they say ‘Quand il pleut a la Saint Gervais Il pleut quarante jours apres’ – If it rains on St. Gervais’ day (July 19th), it will rain for fourty days afterward.
In Germany the Siebenschlaefer or seven sleepers day (July 7th, after the Gregorian calendar) refers to the weather patterns of the following seven weeks.