It was 130 years ago this morning that The Grotto in Wanstead Park was destroyed by fire.
The building, once part of the grand estate, was being used as a store room since the park’s acquisition by the Corporation of London. The fire, according to a local report at the time, initially started in a cottage adjacent to the Grotto and was discovered about 9 o’clock by a man who had been walking through the park.
Mr G. H. Sparrow, of Latimer Road, Forest Gate, raised the alarm with Wanstead Fire Brigade who, despite arriving quickly, were too late to stop the fire spreading from the cottage to the Grotto. Their efforts were further hampered because the Ornamental Water was being cleansed – a supply of water was 250 yards distant from the River Roding, a fact that cost precious minutes.
By the time the fire was subdued the place was entirely destroyed – only the outside walls and entrance remained intact, probably more or less what you can see today.
The building was composed of shells, pebbles, fossils, rare stones, looking glasses and “a fine painted window that was built at an immense expenditure by the Countess of Mornington”. Its destruction removed the only remaining monument of what was once one of the great estates in the Eastern Counties.
I’ve often wondered if the weather could have played a part in the demise of the Grotto. The monthly average for November, however, suggests not. A mean of 5.7C is over 3C colder than what we’ve seen this November and although it was a dry month with 45mm of rain – that total is nothing out of the ordinary for the month.
Conditions on the day were uncannily like this morning: bright though chilly, the temperature only rising to 7C after an overnight low of 2C. Perhaps one contributing factor was the north-westerly breeze which would have helped drive the flames through the structure.
One could also point to the fact that Ornamental Waters had no water to douse the flames. Though the fact that it was empty is nothing new as the entire lake system had retention problems from the park’s inception.
Perhaps it is a case that fires do just sometimes happen regardless of how careful we are in preventing them.
It is sad that bad luck seemed to hit the Grotto just like it saw the demise of Wanstead House decades before.
Anyone hoping for a continuation of June and July’s hot weather would have been left sorely disappointed by last month which was characterised by frequent rain and the coldest August night for over 20 years.
August 2014 was the first month this year to be cooler than average; the mean temperature of 17.2C was 1C below average, making it the 89th warmest August since 1797: 1.6C cooler than last August, the coolest for 7 years.
The month was marked with thunderstorms and heavy downpours, contributing to what was a much wetter than average month – some 76mm fell which is 152% of the monthly average and the wettest for 4 years.
The hottest day occurred on the 7th with 27.3C recorded – nothing special for August and a date that heralded the end of the hot spell during June and July.
A couple of nights were notably cool for August: 5C was recorded during the early hours of the 23rd – the coldest August night since 1993.
Sunshine was below average with 161 hours recorded – that’s 83 per cent of mean. The sunniest day was on the 3rd when 12 hours of sunshine were recorded. Throughout the month there were just 2 days with 10 hours or more of sunshine. There were 4 days with thunder recorded – the average for August is 3.
Looking further afield there were many thunderstorms around the UK though many places missed out on the big downpours. It was yet another month where rainfall totals could vary greatly in the space of just a few miles.
On the 9th a station in Woodford Green recorded 24.4mm, double what fell in Wanstead. The legacy of TS Bertha coincided with the end of our extended hot spell – an excellent analysis of this storm can be found here.
There were some spectacular cloud formations not far from here. A particularly good one was seen in Witham.
On 25th a perfect curl could be seen on a depression centred off the west coast of Irleland. The rain associated with this low pressure brought the month’s highest daily rainfall total: 23.4mm (the system bringing 27.5mm) – a thoroughly miserable Bank Holiday Monday where it rained ALL day, from 6am until 9.30pm. It was yet another example of how much even frontal rainfall can vary over a small area with St James Park recording 38.2mm. The top 30 totals for that day can be seen here.
It was the summer when the ‘sea’ came to Redbridge. A record-breaking 59-hour deluge in the middle of June 1903 left vast swaths of the borough inundated. But this was no thundery downpour. All across London and the South East record rainfall rates and totals were set, many of which still stand well over a century later.
According to one local historian the fields between Wanstead Park and Ilford – as far as Uphall Road – were like an open sea and the railway track at Seven Kings resembled a shallow river.
After a dry start to the month June quickly went downhill with notable falls of rain during the second week. The main deluge arrived around noon on Saturday, June 13, and lasted until near midnight on the 15th.
The rain was caused by a depression that moved slowly across southern England, becoming stationary over the English Channel close to the Isle of Wight for 24 hours before moving north-east. It introduced a very cool NE’ly airflow – the temperature on the 14th and 15th failed to climb above 11C and on the 19th a high of just 9.2C was recorded as yet more rain fell.
Across the London area there were five days within the period 10th to 19th June when over 25mm of rain was measured in many places. The deluge added to what became the wettest summer month on record. At the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, just over 154mm fell, three times the amount of what normally falls in June in this area. Further west, Kew Observatory recorded 184mm.
The 1903 rains produced an unprecedented summer flood on the Thames. At Teddington 7335 million gallons (33,374 million litres) of water flowed over the weir on June 21st. Elsewhere the Lea Valley was one vast lake, especially around Enfield, with the Royal Gunpowder Factory inundated.
The Friday, June 19th edition of the Essex County Chronicle abounds with other tales of woe from the floods…
Barking and District: In the large area of low-lying ground between Lea Bridge, Ilford, Barking, and East Ham, houses stood in a great inland sea, which was washing over the garden fences and lapping at the lower windows. Upstairs the occupants could be seen moving about or gazing hopelessly out at the dreary waste of black waters. Boats from Barking Creek were rowing about with supplies of milk and bread, and those who wished were taken away. All along the Barking Road from East Ham scenes almost identical were witnessed, but, happily with the end of the rain, the water did not retain its level long. Past Barking and on to Rainham the roads on Tuesday were quite impassable, much of the heavy traffic which goes through Rainham towards Barking having to turn back.
Woodford and Wanstead: The inhabitants of Claybury Asylum and Woodford Bridge were cut off by 3ft of water from Woodford. The whole of the Roding Valley was in a deplorable state; sheds, trees and stock that was once alive floating in all directions. Wanstead was divided from Ilford by a great lake, but happily the total of loss in property was here very small.
Lea Bridge: The Leyton marshes were covered by one great sheet of water, Lea Bridge Road itself being quite 2ft under. Boats were to be seen plying among the tramcars.
Epping: The valleys were well-nigh impassable, especially at Thornwood and parts of Theydon Bois.
Romford: The floods reached to Romford High Street, and made the thoroughfare impassable for pedestrians. The crisis caused a heated exchange among members at a meeting of the Urban Council on Monday evening where it was agreed to allow the free use of the town fire engine for pumping water from ratepayers’ premises, provided that those who required its services paid for the labour. Cllr J. Bassett thought the residents should make their own arrangements for getting rid of the water. Cllr J.R Holliday replied: “You don’t live near the river. I should like to stick you in the middle of it. I think it is the duty of the council to protect property.”
Laindon: Here the height of the deluge was experienced between seven and eight o’clock on Sunday evening. The rain descended in apparent ropes of water, causing consternation, flooding houses, choking drains and water-troughing, cutting deep channels in roads, washing up plants and new potatoes. On Monday the water was between 3 and 4ft feet deep at Noak Hill and other bridges.
Woodford: An exciting scene took place at Woodford Bridge, where a steam circus, with its owners, was in the most precarious position. Men and women were submerged up to their armpits while extricating the caravans.
Away from the South East the weather was much dryer. Felixstowe and Yarmouth newspapers reported that Sunday had seen “delightfully sunny weather, with cool north-easterly breezes”. Lincoln, meanwhile, recorded less than an inch of rain for the whole month!
Could these rains happen again? Meteorologically, given the same synoptic set-up, it is possible. In terms of the June monthly total of rain we came close in 1997 when 133mm fell – though this was much more evenly spread throughout the month. And thanks to massive investment in local river systems since the 1950s the flooding nightmares brought by the Lea and Roding rivers should stay firmly in the past.
*You can see the full stats from Greenwich for June 1903 by clicking this link.
Much has been printed in the tabloids over the past month or so that we are in for a severe winter. Not a week goes by without the Daily Express splashing that the ‘Worst winter EVER is on the way’. Just this morning the same rag told us that three months of ‘exceptionally cold’ weather are due. On closer inspection the story elaborated the scene with quotes from James Madden of Exacta Weather, one of the ‘experts’ feeding these fantastical stories.
Quite how Mr Madden and other experts arrive at these forecasts is a bit of a mystery. The mystery has deepened further since I decided to crunch a few numbers and try to predict what is in store for the months ahead. Looking at data for this area stretching back over 130 years to 1881 I decided to calculate a seasonal average and arrived at a final figure using singularities – basically looking at the weather patterns we’ve had during October and November.
Many professionals would scoff at this method of pattern-matching, so I’ve incorporated a couple of other ‘now’ factors and taken on board current variables such as sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Pacific.
The figure I arrived at, taken as an average of the closest matching autumn periods, is a mean temperature of 4C with rainfall totalling 133mm over the months of December, January and February – that’s about a degree colder than average and 90% of average rainfall. The probability of a winter with a mean temperature of between 4C and 5C is 37% – the most likely outcome. With this in mind a winter in the form of 1986-87 is possible – though whether we would see the same extremes of temperature and snowfall that we experienced in January 1987 is open to question.
The Met Office, with all their computing power and expertise, seem to be hinting at something similar – ie slightly colder than normal. The opening couple of weeks to my forecast seem quite plausible, looking at tonight’s models. Look at the similarity in the synoptic charts for December 8th here.
Over the last few years the snow lovers among us have been spoiled after a run of very mild winters during the late Nineties and early Noughties that prompted climate expert Dr David Viner to utter the immortal words that one day “children just aren’t going to know what snow is”. It was only a matter of a few years before the words from the senior research scientist at the University of East Anglia seemed a bit hollow.
Mark Twain, born this day in 1835 , once uttered the famous phrase: “Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get” – there is always a chance we could suddenly lurch back to milder winters. This winter could spring a surprise, be it very cold or very mild. But judging what’s happened over the last 130-odd years – a 1962/63 or a balmy 1989/90 look very unlikely.
* Forecasting models use probability on any given outcome. Millions of observations are fed into the Met Office database (and other countries’ weather agencies) every day. Supercomputers then crunch through this data to give probable outcomes. With the volatility of the atmosphere it is not surprising that certainty of any outcome often falls away rapidly. Forecasting has improved greatly in the last 20 years – though anything the models churn out beyond three to five days should be handled with caution. Long range models can give *some* idea of general trends for the months ahead – but changing just one variable can vastly alter an outcome at the end of the run.
* *Over the past few months I have been collating data for the area around Wanstead. This data is freely available from the excellent Met Office library and is emailed via Excel spreadsheet. Rainfall stats include a near-complete daily archive, stretching from 1961 to 2003, from City of London Cemetery . Sadly the rainfall station, along with many others, ceased to supply the Met Office after cuts were made shortly after the turn of century. Prior to 1961 I have used monthly figures taken at the Greenwich Royal Observatory stretching back to 1881. Though this is 6 miles away the difference in temperature between the two areas would be miniscule compared with rainfall data and so can be used. I use my own stats for the period after 2003.
It’s usually around this time of year that this area experiences its first air frosts – but a warm, wet October caused by an active Atlantic and a jet stream sitting close to us has meant that classic radiative cooling nights have been in very short supply. There’s been a couple of chilly nights – down to 2.6C on October 30th and November 5th – but to record an air frost the thermometer must read below 0 Celsius (32Fahrenheit).
Last year, Wanstead recorded its first air frost on November 6th (-1C). Looking back through the records to 1980 the earliest frost was October 17, 1992, and the latest was January 6th, 2004. Interestingly it appears that having frost in October can signal a mild winter to come!. The median for the first frost is November 16th – 18th. Forecasts for this week suggest we could be scraping the windscreens for the first time on Saturday, thanks to high pressure building in from the Atlantic and calming things down.
Indeed, the models today suggest there is a chance of a block forming in the Atlantic which effectively stops depressions from whistling in from the west, unlocking the door for cooler weather from the north or east. It’s a long way off in meteorological terms though.