The 25th of June 1976 was a bad day to have been travelling on London Underground’s Bakerloo Line between Finchley Road and Baker Street. Not only did a signal failure cause what was usually an eight-minute journey to last for an hour and half but, as rather rotten luck would have it, it just happened to be one of the hottest days of the hottest summer for some three hundred years.
Some passengers inevitably fainted. Others sought desperately to mitigate their discomfort by stripping to their underwear. One man, shirtless and possessed of a physique that was the subject of much admiration and distraction amongst those with whom he was trapped, took the unilateral decision to propel himself Tarzan-like at the windows of the carriage, holding onto two straps suspended from the ceiling as his feet pounded away at the glass, eventually succeeding in providing some much appreciated ventilation for the benefit of his long-suffering fellow passengers.
In other parts of the United Kingdom the heatwave had a similarly profound effect on those upon whom it had been visited, even if the solutions were not always quite so drastic. Hundreds of people flocked to the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park and turned it into a veritable lido, whilst others sought similar solace from the fountain up the road in Trafalgar Square. Mothers queued with buckets at standpipes in the street as water supplies became ever more scarce, with reservoirs and even rivers running dry. The government officially appointed a minister for drought, a Member of Parliament called for an investigation into stingy ice-cream portions which were allegedly being served by exploitative vendors and a doctor memorably advised that adults should hydrate themselves with a nice pint of cool beer.
As if all this were not surreal enough, vast swarms of seven-spotted ladybirds – coccinella septempuncta to the anoraks – made their hungry way inland, all 24 billion of them if official estimates were to be believed, sustaining themselves with the sweat of humans and biting anyone who resisted.
The long, hot summer of 1976 has remained the stuff of legend ever since. We have had warmer days, but never have we experienced such a long and unrelenting heatwave as we did in that extraordinary year.
For those who are old enough to look back with fondness – whether it be the music, the big screen or any other aspect of popular culture to which we cling as we reminisce – it is that great heatwave which invariably serves as a backdrop to all our memories.