The heat did me in this week. I am usually OK with high temperatures, or at least I thought I was. I have often worked outside in soaring temperatures. As an archaeologist I worked in wide open fields during heatwaves and remember the sweat dripping off my nose like a leaking tap. I developed a very deep brown tan that summer. Well, across my shoulders and back.
I have also worked in heatwaves in costume, at historic attractions. I wore woollen suites, with frock coats, waist coats and full bottomed peri-wigs, all for the sake of authenticity. It was hot, without a doubt, but there was a strange affect that the coolness of the morning was kept in my suite. Like a cool-bag, it retained the cold and I never got too hot, unlike the visitors I led around the site. All of them wearing shorts, T-shirts, with bottles of water and struggling in the heat. The most common question would be “aren’t you hot?” The answer was unexpected.
It also helped knowing where the cool places were. Historic buildings can “regulate” the heat because of the materials they are made of. Wattle and daub, wood and plaster, all contain an element of moisture, which seem to be released into the air when they are hot. Windows are few and far between, because galss has always been expenisve and only used where it is important to do so. These cooler areas are often behind the scenes where visitors don’t go. A good hideaway where you can undo the top button and enjoy the wonderful cool damp feeling on the face.
It is difficult to calculate weather in history, but there are indicators. This woollen suit I was wearing was a replica from the 17th Century and there was a heatwave in 1666, just before the Great Fire of London. Samuel Pepys, famous for his diaries, but did many other great things in life, recorded on the 7th June,
“The hottest day that I have ever felt in my life”.
That doesn’t help us really. Pepys may have never encountered many hot days, so it could have been in the “20s” (degrees Celsius). In addition, he would have been wearing a woollen suiter and peri-wig. But, on 5th July he says
“Extremely hot … oranges ripening in the open at Hackney”.
There is an indicator – how hot does it need to be for oranges to ripen openly in Hackney in July? Please let me know.
The heat didn’t lead to the Great Fire; it was a number of factors. The enquiry (William, Secretary of State, State Papers Domestic of Charles II, September 1666) concluded:
“The Hand of God, a Great Wind and a Very Dry Season.”
I don’t think there have been such temperatures as we have seen this week for many 100s if not 1000s of years. It is something we have all been predicting, but what is terrifying is that it has come so quickly.
Today though, as I have climbed the career ladder and do less work at the “chalk face”, I find myself at the screen, working at home. The heatwave was insufferable. I don’t want to experience it again. There was no escaping the heat and our buildings aren’t up to these extreme temperatures. I spent the two days in my office with the curtains drawn, shutting myself away from the burning world.