Hard to believe it’s 40 years since the great drought of 1976.
Months on end in Britain when no rain fell and the heat beat down. The rivers and streams dried up. Water was cut off in many areas, people had to queue at standpipes in the street and – when there was water for baths or showers – you were cheekily encouraged to “shower with a friend”.
It badly affected Dartmoor, where I did much of my walking at the time and was a voluntary official with the Ramblers Association. Apart from a few stagnant pools, the rivers more or less dried up. The reservoirs emptied, proving the folly of building dams so near the headwaters and sources of the rivers.
With the Devon Ramblers chairman, the late Ron Vinnicombe, I was involved in discussions with the water companies who wanted to canalise old mining leats to transfer water from rivers to the reservoirs. It was a bit too late for that. Neither had much in the way of water – fortunately, the rains came before such an environmentally devastating scheme was put into action.
Some silly idiots in the media and local politics agitated for more reservoirs on Dartmoor, even though the moorland reservoirs had been the first to dry.
Sylvia Sayer, the inspiring Dartmoor preservationist got a lot of hate mail. But then those of us involved in Dartmoor politics in the 1970s were used to that! In those days the Devon Ramblers Association and the Dartmoor Preservation Association were proper campaigning organisations, skilled in casting off the “dump it on Dartmoor brigade”.
Water conservation should really have involved plugging leaks in the system. The city of Plymouth was losing 40% a day of its water because of its antiquated water mains. Some had never been properly repaired after the Nazi bombings of the city in 1941.
The heat made walking nigh impossible for even the hardiest of us. I remember one ramble – a dozen miles from Postbridge, where we halted by the River Dart below Sandy Hole Pass, putting our feet in the remnants of the river, disinclined to wander on.Walks became shorter and we yearned for rambles with shade.
Now, if you’re reading this and live in a hot country, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. But the problem is that Britons rarely get a chance to acclimatise in hot weather, which is why we wilt so quickly when the sun comes out.
I remember a walk near Sheepstor, when we were walking amongst the bleached bones of dead livestock. The sun beating down was like having a hot frying pan pressed down on your head. Birds found it difficult to get anything to eat. Only supplementary feeding kept much of the moorland wildlife alive.
The government appointed Mr Dennis Howell MP Minister for Drought. He was probably the most effective minister in British political history. He’d hardly been appointed before the rain began to come down in buckets. And it rained and it rained and it rained.
There was, I believe, one lasting effect on Dartmoor. Before the drought, I knew many paths through the moorland bogs and mires. In the years that followed many of the paths I know had been readjusted and we were all obliged to learn new ones. And in my opinion the bogs and mires post-1976 were never quite as wet.