PHEW! It wasn’t much of a scorcher. Lasted about a week before we were all back to normal. Summer over. But those sweltering days during the latter half of last month surely jolted recollections that are burned into the minds of all of us over-50s. That’s right, The Summer of ’76… the Mother of All Heatwaves.

My first three months in Swindon – June to August, 40 years ago – was like being on some exotic holiday… only without the palm trees, beaches and the herds of majestically sweeping wildebeest. Swindon Sizzled along with the rest of the nation in the hottest summer on record, either before or since.

You could boil an egg on your car bonnet – which some did – while swarms of ladybirds, one of many bizarre consequences of The Heat that was swiftly followed by The Drought, were only matched by swarms of ice cream vans.

In Swindon there were drought vigilantes, bone-dry ponds, hosepipe bans, rampant grass fires and bold Adver headlines emblazoned with words such “phew, blistering, hottest, phew, scorching and phew.”

We even launched a “Don’t be a drip” campaign urging readers not to waste the increasingly precious stuff.

‘Phew! It’s going to be hotter’ splashed the Swindon Evening Advertiser on Thursday, June 14 as a string of blazing days morphed into an official heatwave. Swindon was sweltering today, we reported, and it is likely to get even hotter than yesterday’s 86F.

Overheated Swindonians were “flocking” to the swimming pools and the following day our front page proclaimed: ‘Sun melts an Oasis record’ as more than 8,000 people had squeezed into the pleasure dome over the previous few days.

Water companies were already unveiling ‘save it’ campaigns while the poor old River Og near Malborough became the first of many stretches in the Swindon area to dry-up, prompting our headline ‘Dry gulch, Wiltshire.’ Cars were over-heating and conking out in the scalding sunshine like never before, while the Adver’s ‘We’re just fall guys for the sun’ splash on Monday, June 28, revealed the average number of collapsing people in Swindon had trebled. Nine, if you were wondering, over that particular weekend.

Adver photographers appeared to be rising to the occasion, using it as an excuse to snap a stream of bikini-attired local lasses basking in the sunshine and the limelight. “How’s this for a drop of what you fancy,” went one of our modestly risqué captions in those less PC days.

Talking of which, Swindon police conceded that officers could discard their ties while tramping the beat, or engaged in other out-of-doors activities.

The emergency services were “snowed under” coping with twice as many calls as usual, mostly outbreaks of grassfires, some of which were caused by irresponsible picnickers flicking their cigarette butts into dry glass.

One grassfire was sparked by the sun’s rays catching a piece of broken glass – just like they told us it would in the Boy Scouts.

And the temperature – hitting the late 80s daily while heading steadily towards the 90s – just wouldn’t abate. “We don’t known when it is going to end,” shrugged the Met Office at RAF Lyneham.

The Adver introduced a regular front page Heat Spots column, featuring news bites such as “another record tumbled last night… the hottest in June since records began in 1940.”

Farmers around Swindon were complaining of scorched lettuces while the town’s shops ran dry of electric fans. But pubs – big sigh of relief – were well stocked. Wadworths told us they used very little water in the brewing process. “I hope that will kill the standing joke about beer being watered down.”

However, the Adver’s fishing correspondent Godfrey Hargreaves had some bad news. “Owing to the very high water temperatures which caused a large number of fish to be distressed, Coate Water has stopped all angling until further notice.”

As June melted into July our front page blared: ‘Turn off or it’s hot water,’ referring to a new Bill that was being rushed through Parliament the coming ‘Fryday’ restricting household water use.

Another itsy bitsy bikini girl preened from our front page to illustrate the launch of Thames Water’s Save Water campaign in Queen’s Park Friday, July 3, burned up all weather records as The Hottest July Day Ever… 91F in Swindon. “The mercury has not dropped below 87F since June 25…”

We carried a rundown on the weeks’ temperatures: Sunday 91, Monday 90, Tuesday, 88, Wednesday 88, Thursday 90, Friday, 91. Twenty Swindon folk had keeled over since the heatwave began And then, as if someone up there was having a laugh, “hailstones the size of mothballs” briefly and biblically battered part of the borough – specifically aimed at an archaeological dig in Wanborough.

The simmering intensity dropped from early 90s to early 80s but water supplies remained “on a knife edge”.

Thamesdown Buses were looking decidedly grubby as a result of not being cleaned while The Public at Large fumed at water leak stories revealing thousands of gallons had been wasted through undetected pipe leaks.

Thamesdown council ordered Swindon householders not to use hoses on the car or the garden – but civic golf courses, trees and shrubs would continue to be watered until further notice.

Three 14th Century cottages went up in smoke in Shrivenham as fire roared through tinder dry thatch. Firemen in the Swindon area tackled 63 blazes in one dizzy 24 hour spell – invariably grass fires and stubble trouble.

The Crammer, a huge ornamental pond on Devizes Green – the one from which the Wiltshire Moonrakers legend allegedly sprang – went “completely dry” for the first time in living memory Printed in bold red and black lettering, notices were erected on main roads into Wiltshire informing motorists they were entering a drought zone… as if it wasn’t just as bad elsewhere.

The heat – or maybe the beer – went to the heads of fans who battered each other with sweaty palms at the Swindon-Northampton game, creating an almighty ruck which the Adver branded the “worst ever outbreak of violence” at the County Ground.

Falling water levels saw boating grind to a halt at Coate Water as the lake began to evaporate.

Dispensing weekend pleasure cruises along the Kennet and Avon, the Charlotte Dundas paddleboat floundered after running out of water near Pewsey On Tuesday August 17 “the big cut back” loomed with Thames Water poised to introduce a widespread ban that included sports fields, prompting the Adver to publish a photo of sprinklers generously showering civic-run Broome Manor Golf Course “If we don’t do something to maintain the growth of grass and trees the bill for their replacement will ultimately fall on the ratepayers….and it could run into hundreds of thousands,” responded the council.

Drought vigilantes materialised in Swindon threatening to trash any garage car wash that continued to operate.

“We will wreck them,” an anonymous member of the conservation minded gang warned in the Adver.

In Wroughton a local stream which had “never run dry” was dammed by some enterprising residents so they could dip in and water their gardens, leaving others glaring in anger at a liquidless channel.

Meanwhile, the Adver launched a “Don’t be a drip” campaign, urging readers to cut out and display our “it’s in your own interests to save water” notice.

And then, on Saturday, August 28, something truly extraordinary happened. It rained. Copiously and bounteously. In Swindon it was our first drop in six weeks.

Our duty snapper popped around the corner to Wood Street and took a photo encapsulating the town’s joy and relief… a chap called Charlie Lea from Wroughton singin’ and dancin’ in the rain.

But as the parched nation soaked up the heavy duty downpour the Government’s specially appointed Drought Minister Denis Howell dampened spirits: “It has to rain from now until Christmas to make sure we are alright next year.”

Phew! What a spoilsport.

  •  THE Adver’s columnist Shirley Mathias, who could be a trifle spiky bordering-on-acerbic when the occasion arose – quickly found a typically off-the-wall consequence of the blazing weather to rail at.
    “As the summer grows hotter so does my feverish hatred of the Merry Widow Waltz,” she typed, presumably with gritted teeth.
    “It is almost matched in intensity by a deep loathing of Harry Lime, the Vienna Waltz and the Teddy Bears Picnic.”
    That’s right, Shirley was having a pop at itinerant ice cream salesmen – or rather the electronic jingles which had become a regular shatterer of the peace in her neck of the woods.
    “The Merry Widow Waltz started jangling away outside my neighbourhood at about 2.30pm last Sunday… and spent the next couple of hours chiming round and round the same quarter of a mile area,” she simmered.
    “I’m not the only one,” Shirley went on before trawling through some comments from friends… one of whom vowed never to eat another ice cream if she heard the Teddy Bears Picnic just one more time.
  • THE 1976 heatwave saw the UK experience the hottest average summer temperature since records began and also plunged the nation into severe drought.
    The UK’s highest ever June temperature was recorded in Southampton (35.6C/96.1F) while the hottest day of the Summer of ’76 was July 3 with temperatures soaring to 35.9C/96.6F in Cheltenham.
    The drought was at its most severe in August while parts of the South West went 45 days without rain in July and August.
    Some £500 million worth of crops were lost, subsequently pushing up food prices by 12 per cent.
    The conditions also resulted in massive swarms of seven-spotted ladybirds – 23.65 billion of the critters.