As we enjoy possibly the best summer since 1976, (have you booked your family/pet friendly staycation yet?) we’ve done some digging to see if predicting the vagaries of our weather is as easy as looking at the cows or listening to the birds.
Here are six British weather myths that may or may not be useful…
St. Swithun's Day if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain.
St. Swithun's Day if thou be fair,
For forth days 'twill rain nae mare.
Stick together... whatever the weather
St. Swithun was an Anglo-Saxon bishop and is patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. He requested that, after his death, his remains be buried outside with ordinary folk. When he was made patron saint, his body was moved to a shrine within the cathedral. Legend has it that God was so angry he made it rain for 40 days. Ever since, the weather on St. Swithun’s Day has been taken as a predictor for the rest of the summer.
It’s nonsense of course, and yet… our weather is governed by the jet stream. This summer it’s been well to the north, bringing all that lovely weather. By early July, it tends to have settled. If it’s over the UK at that time, and bringing rainy weather, there’s a chance that the outlook won’t change.
On the other hand, Met Office records show that it has never rained for 40 consecutive days after St. Swithun’s Day.
VERDICT: mostly false but with a surprising grain of truth
This is another rain-related belief – we are quite obsessed with rain, aren’t we? There is some logic to this myth: cows sometimes lie down to keep warm, this could be because the air is getting cooler, and cooler air can be an indication of rain.
Cows grazing in the sunshine
It’s a flawed logic though, based on too many variables and totally missing the main reason that cows could be lying down – because they are tired. Cows need their sleep, just like us, and they also need to take it easy while they convert all that grass into milk.
VERDICT: False. But easy to believe because cows lie down a lot and in the UK it rains a lot.
This is probably the best known of our weather sayings and perhaps that’s because it is one of our most reliable. You may not know, but it’s thousands of years old and even gets quoted by Jesus in the bible (Look it up if you don’t believe us: Matthew 16: verses 2-3.)
Peaceful pink skies
The red sky at night is caused by tiny dust particles that get trapped in the atmosphere when high pressure is moving in from the west. This usually means dry and mild weather is coming. Blue light is scattered, leaving the red light to lift our hearts about tomorrow’s weather.
Red sky in the morning might not actually stop fishermen heading out – they are more likely to put their trust in the shipping forecast. But it is an indication that the high pressure has moved eastwards and, as we know in the UK, if there’s any opportunity for a low pressure to step in, it will do so with pleasure, bringing wet and windy weather.
VERDICT: Mostly true. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us!
This old country lore is one of many tree-related sayings. It seems credible that trees, standing in the elements year in, year out, might give us some clues to the weather.
Raindrops on a leaf
If leaves do flip, it’s not because the trees know something we don’t. It’s because the increase in humidity that precedes wet and stormy weather makes the stalks of the leaves weaker, which allows the wind to flip them over. This is particularly true of leaves with soft stems such as poplars and lime trees.
VERDICT: Partly true. But not very useful in the winter.
Birds are great indicators of the weather and there are many weather sayings that relate to them. The idea that they fall silent before a storm might owe something to the fact that they have probably flown away! A 2014 study in Tennessee showed that golden-winged warblers left town one or two days before a storm and came back right after it finished.
Yellow Warbler bird
Too early to detect changes in the air pressure, it’s thought that birds can pick up sounds that humans can’t, such as winds and oceans. This is the likely clue that sent the golden-winged warblers off on a 932-mile round trip to avoid the storm.
VERDICT: Probably true. Don’t bother adjusting your hearing aid, just watch the birdies.
Insects are attuned to the weather and bees are particularly good at predicting bad weather. They are fine with a little light drizzle, but storms are a threat, and the bees tune into air pressure, temperature, humidity and a host of other factors.
Bee hive close up
They get busy, busy, busy a day or two before a storm; the bee equivalent of making hay while the sun shines. Then they batten down the hatches and wait for it to pass. No getting caught 40 gardens away without an umbrella for our clever bees!
VERDICT: True. Turn off the TV Weather and get yourself a bee hive.
We could keep going, there are so many more (it can be too cold for snow – mostly false; pine cones open in the good weather - true; when swallows fly high the weather will be dry – mostly true).
Here’s our favourite, coined by Mark Twain about New England, but we paraphrase as it’s so true for the UK: “If you don't like the weather now, just wait a few minutes”.
Walks in the rain
If the recent bout of good weather has put you in the mood for a Great British holiday, try a UK summer break in the forest. If the sun shines, you have shade, and whatever the weather, you have a cosy hot tub log cabin. And remember, as the old saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing”.
What are some of your favourite weather myths? Share them in the comments below!