Britons’ resolve tested by record rain

An inconvenience in cities such as London, rainfall has been devastating in rural Somerset and elsewhere.
An inconvenience in cities such as London, rainfall has been devastating in rural Somerset and elsewhere.

LONDON — Let’s stipulate one thing from the start: Britain has never been known for its salubrious weather.

Great odes have been written to the fog, the clouds, the constant drizzle. From Shakespeare to Sherlock, the patter of rain has formed the ever-present backdrop. Complaining about the damp is a cherished national pastime.

And yet, rarely has it been damp like this. To close out 2013, many parts of Britain experienced their wettest December in decades. The turning of the new year brought the rainiest January in a century. (Maybe even longer. The records don’t go back that far.)


With some areas underwater since Christmas, the usual tut-tutting about the gray has given way to desperate pleas for relief from the wave of storms that has washed over this perpetually waterlogged isle.

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Forget ‘‘Keep calm and carry on.’’ This is the winter when the stiff upper lip has gone all wrinkly.

The Sun — the newspaper, not the glowing orb that has scarcely been seen in months — recently ran a front-page cry to the heavens, invoking St. Medard, the patron saint of clear skies.

‘‘Dear Lord, we’ve had enough,’’ read the appeal. ‘‘We ask you please that the rain may stop soon.’’

The paper even enlisted a pair of its famous, and infamous, Page 3 Girls to join in the prayers.


But the petition apparently fell on deaf ears from above: The forecast says the storms will continue.

A soggy inconvenience in some places, including London, the record rainfall has been devastating in others, as roads, farmland, and houses remain submerged across vast swathes of rural England.

Troops have been deployed for flood relief. The prime minister has been raked through the muck in Parliament for his policies on river dredging. Engineers from the Netherlands — a nation that knows a thing or two about the life aquatic — have been called in for emergency consultations.

Julian Temperley, a 65-year-old cider brandy maker from Somerset, said he has 50 acres of land that lie buried in a watery grave, six feet under.

‘‘We know about water. We enjoy water. We like floods, up to a point,’’ said Temperley, whose low-lying and heavily agricultural corner of southwestern England has been among the nation’s worst-affected areas. ‘‘But we don’t expect water to come into your house. That is different.’’


In Temperley's 89-year-old father’s house, that’s exactly what the water has done. Outside, the scene was pure wasteland — with the unusually warm winter temperatures contributing to the fetid atmosphere.

‘‘There is quite a smell at the moment. Things are rotting under the water, and there are a lot of dead animals floating around,’’ said Temperley, who like many in the area blames the government for failing to keep up with river dredging efforts that could help lessen the storms’ impact. ‘‘Last year was the worst flooding since 1926, and this year is at least twice as bad, if not three times as bad.’’

For those shivering through winter in the eastern United States, wondering if British misery, too, can be pinned on the polar vortex, the answer is: to a point.

The contrast between the frigid temperatures of North America with the warmer air farther south has intensified the jet stream over the north Atlantic, and created a conveyor-belt for storms that runs right through Britain. But even as milder temperatures have crept back on the East Coast, there’s no let-up in sight to the rain and wind here.

‘‘The unsettled conditions are going to continue well into the middle of February,’’ said Alex Burkill, meteorologist with the Met Office, Britain’s national weather service.

The oppressive gloom has led to some unusual coping methods. A pair of teenagers ran away from their elite boarding school in northern England and, parents’ credit cards in hand, hopped a flight to the Dominican Republic. (Authorities later caught up with them at a five-star, beachside hotel, where the only water in sight was seductively warm and aquamarine.)

But mostly, Britons have just endured — and wondered when it’s all going to stop.

The Rev. Sue Evans, vicar of St. Medard Church and author of the Sun’s front-page plea, said she’s grown accustomed to the daily trek to the stables to wash the mud from her horses’ hooves, so they don’t rot. But she could do without it.

‘‘Everybody is getting tired of this and just hoping that things get back to normal,’’ said Evans. ‘‘We’ll ask God, as we do for all things.’’