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London weather: making sense of utter madness.

by Rajul on June 2, 2010

Is it any wonder that one of the world's best umbrella shops is located in central London? (image credit below)

The first thing to know about London weather is that you’ll never figure it out.  In early May for example, the sun should have been shining.  After all, spring had officially sprung more than a month earlier.

Instead, it was positively wintry – cold, grey and miserable.  The winter coat suddenly had to be exhumed from the back of the wardrobe.

Then for a brief period a couple of weeks later we suddenly had a mini heatwave, with temperatures briefly even topping those of Spain!  By the end of May we had returned to London’s year-round default position: grey with a bit of drizzle, interspersed with fleeting bursts of sunshine.

Talking of drizzle, isn’t it amazing how someone out there knows that you left your umbrella at home?  So it inevitably rains after you’ve hit the road!

And when you’ve put on your heavy winter clothes to be totally prepared for rain and wind – that’s when the sun comes out, if only for ten minutes, just to ensure you’re nicely baked before reaching your destination!

So the rule for dealing with London weather is ‘be prepared’ (no surprise that the Scouts, whose motto this is, were invented in England since centuries of our weather experience are encapsulated in this succinct tip).

It could be argued that London's unruly weather makes the city more atmospheric

Even August nights can suddenly turn chilly and it can easily rain.  Our seasons tend to linger or arrive too early, so there’s never a dull moment.

In Britain today, the best working definition of “Britishness” is the ability to not bat an eyelid in facing the elements: rain or shine you simply get on with it (though admittedly may have a bit of a moan beforehand)!

Forget citizenship tests – I think aspiring residents of our lovely isle should be subjected to a “weather test”.  Put them in a special room where all the myriad subtle varieties of our wonderful weather (Summer hail?  Spring snow?  Horizontal rain?  We’ve seen it all!) are inflicted for quick bursts.

If they still want to live here, fair play to them!

Tourists who haven’t dealt with the British weather before need to remember when packing that variability really is the norm.

Make sure you pack multiple layers, so you can quickly whip a cardigan out of your daypack or strip down to a t-shirt if the sun comes out.

If it's a sunny day, then why not walk along the canal at Little Venice?

Remember though that this extreme variability lies within a fairly moderate range of temperatures.  You won’t need an Everest-capable fleece and you probably won’t require a bikini or swimming trunks either.

The commonest evil is precipitation (rain, sleet, hail, snow, scotch mist, drizzle and mizzle) – so a waterproof or good brolly is definitely advised.

Don’t be surprised that the best umbrella shop in the world is in London – James Smith & Sons (est. 1830) in New Oxford Street (pictured above)!

If you have a week’s vacation in London, don’t schedule it too much – for example, Tuesday must be museums, Wednesday must be parks, etc.  You should instead arrange your schedule into ‘rainy days’ and ‘nice days’.  Then, at breakfast time, simply take a look out of the window.

If the sun is shining, take a trip along the river to Hampton Court, walk along the South Bank , go to Greenwich, or visit Hyde Park – or perhaps Clapham Common or Hampstead Heath to venture slightly further afield.  You could also walk by the canal or visit some gorgeous cemeteries.

If it’s raining or a big black cloud is scooting along the sky, it’s a day for exploring well-known or hidden museums; or perhaps a nice art gallery or some independent cafes (or maybe for observing the moody, rainswept cityscape of Canary Wharf from the dry haven of a DLR carriage).

Or why not do a cosy luxury hotel  crawl or visit some historic pubs?

The Docklands Light Railway offers some truly stunning perspectives on Canary Wharf - whatever the weather

The mistake that many tourists and visitors make is to trust the tv or radio weather forecast.  Avoid this at all costs!  We love the Met Office to bits but, like a dotty old aunt, she often says the wrong thing at the wrong time.  The long-range forecast in particular can be hopelessly out.

Don’t take newspaper forecasts too seriously either – how long ago was it printed?  You’d be surprised how often that’s off the mark too.

Simply looking out of the window often has a better success rate.

Londoners love to complain about the weather and some will say the sun never shines in London.  Actually, it does – quite often – and London can be remarkably beautiful in the bright but cool spring sunshine, or basking in the full-throated burning sun of a warm summer’s day.

But you can’t depend on it the way you can (usually) depend on summer in Spain or Italy.  So Londoners grow up usually “expecting” the weather to spring a surprise.  In fact, we’re most surprised when it fails to surprise us!

Which is why we’re fascinated by the rare consistent runs of weather like heatwaves, or when it snows long enough to actually settle on the ground.

Once you learn to appreciate the vagaries of London’s weather you’ll know that you really are hopelessly in love with the city.

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Photo credits: Jennifer Pickens’ photostream.

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