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The Great British Summer and its Folklore

Published: 25/06/2020 By Richard Bennett

Welcome to the Great British Summer. After the winter floods it’s good to see the sunshine. But as we all know, sunshine in the British summer is not always guaranteed. Weather forecasters are not the only people who predict the weather. There are also lots of traditional sayings and proverbs which aim to help ordinary people predict the weather. Here’s some that you might find interesting.

“Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning” (or sailors rather than shepherds, depending on where in the country you are). 

Can often be proven true, since red sky at night means fair weather is generally headed towards you. A red sky appears when dust and small particles are trapped in the atmosphere by high pressure.

“When swallows fly high, it will be dry”

True. Ish. This should probably be adapted to "when swallows fly high, it is currently dry". Swallows and other birds fly high to chase insects which have been carried up by thermals. If it's raining, then those same insects will be washed down to lower levels.

“Cows lie down when it's going to rain”

False! There is no evidence that this is true.

“Mackerel sky and mare's tails make tall ships carry low sails”

True! Tall (sailing) ships would lower their sails when bad weather approached. Mackerel sky (altocumulus clouds) and mare's tails (cirrus clouds) could both be associated with an approaching poor weather.

“St. Swithun’s day, if thou dost rain,  For forty days it will remain;  St. Swithun’s day, if thou be fair,  For forty days 'twill rain no more”

False! St. Swithun's Day is on 15th July. Although our summers can follow a more or less settled pattern, there has not been a continuous period of 40 days of rainfall since UK records began.

“When the wind is out of the east, tis neither good for man nor beast”

True! An easterly wind implies polar continental air - which, in winter at least, can be bitterly cold and bring snow to eastern parts of the UK.

“It's too cold for Snow”

False! In the UK at least, it is never too cold for snow. In places like Antarctica and the middle of large continents, far away from the relatively warm ocean, it may be true. At very cold temperatures, there will be very little evaporation from rivers, lakes etc. and so the air will be very dry and it's very unlikely to snow.

“In the morning mountains, in the afternoon fountains”

Sometimes true! In the summer, clear skies (maybe due to high pressure conditions, or a tropical continental air mass) which allow you to see the mountains can lead to thunderclouds bubbling up through the day and heavy rainfall in the late afternoon.

“Rain before 7, fine by 11”

Mostly false! Although rain showers do tend to cross the UK on a timescale of a few hours, they can move much more slowly. Morning rain could be the last remnant of a band of rain passing through, but if it's marking the arrival, then it'll still be raining at 11.

“When March blows it’s horn, your barn will be filled with grain and corn”

False! Blows it’s horn’ refers to the occurrence of thunderstorms. Thunderstorms in March indicate it is unusually warm for that time of year but this is no indicator of a long term weather trend.

“When March come in like a lion it goes out like a lamb”

False! Whether or not there is a storm at the beginning of March (coming in like a Lion), the weather at the end of the month could be stormy or calm (going out like a lamb).

“Cold night stars bright”

True! A clear night - typically due to high pressure conditions - will let you see the stars well. If there are no clouds to insulate the Earth then more heat will be lost from the surface to space and it will be a cold night.