Monday, 16 July 2012

Forty days and 40 nights?

Yesterday was St Swithin’s Day – and joy unconfined, it was sunny! For, after all, that means 40 days of fine weather to come!

A bishop of Winchester, St Swithin seems to have lived the sort of life that, before it ended in 862, hadn’t provided much for the hacks of the time to write about.

It was only after he was adopted as the patron of the restored Winchester Cathedral, over a century later, that stories of miracles started to pop up – including one where he mended a basket of eggs that some men had maliciously broken.

But these days, he’s best remembered for the bit of weather lore that declares that, if it rains on his feast day (15 July), it’ll rain for a further 40. If the weather is fair, however, it’ll be fine for those following 40 days.

He’s not unique.

The French have St Medard (8 June), Urban of Langres, and Saints Gervase and Protais (19 June), all of whom are credited with an influence over the weather.

In Belgium, there is St Godelieve (6 July), while on 27 June, Germans mark Siebenschläfertag, which might be the German word for a dormouse, but is Seven Sleepers’ Day – which commemorates the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a story that crops up in both Christian and Muslim traditions, and which was, far more recently, the basis for the superb Terracotta Dog, the second of Antonio Camilleri’s wonderful series of Montalbano detective novels.

Remarkably, there’s a bit of a scientific basis for all this weather lore.

Sticking with St Swithin, around the middle of July, the jet stream settles into a pattern that usually holds steady until the end of August.

It simply depends whether the jet stream beds down for high summer to the north of Britain – or lies across the south of the country.

If it’s the former, the forecast is good. If it’s the latter … well, just look at the current situation.

But it was fine yesterday – and it’s raining today.


St Swithin got it wrong.

Rats are being driven from the sewers by the rising waters; puffins are drowning in their burrows; butterflies and bees and many other insects are being badly hit, together with bats and many, many more of our natural cohabitants of these islands.

But the slugs and snails are having a veritable ball.

Well, I knew I’d picked a perfect year to start gardening.

At least yesterday provided some time to actually get into the garden and do something that will – hopefully – be productive.

The Other Half gave me a hand to clear some dead hedge out of the way in the bit of carpark I’m slowly colonising.

While he was sawing away, I pruned the vine that has been spreading rapidly around the nearby communal bins. As I’ve previously explained, the contracted gardeners just haven’t been seen in an age, and so such things are getting so overgrown that you can’t get to the bins without having greenery flapping into your mush.

My communal efforts concluded, I turned over the patch where, in theory at least, I’d been hoping red onions and parsnips would take root.

The new riddle even came out to help get rid of some of the stones.

Once that was done, it was time to create three drills, each approximately 1.5cm deep. In the first one went seeds for Swedes.

In the second was sown turnips and, in the third, carrots.

And then the really careful bit. A trio of small bamboo wigwams, spaced evenly along the bed, now support a massive piece of enviromesh, pegged into the ground with an awful lot of pegs, to not only make it reasonably taut, but to help protect against the bloody slugs and snails.

Then it was a case of standing back, allowing myself a modicum of satisfaction – and crossing fingers.

The rest of the gardening project is in a range of stages. The nasturtiums have gone a bit mad – gloriously so.

The vine in a pot in our own garden is growing steadily upward, while three bunches of grapes develop. Grapes! In my garden! In Hackney, for goodness sake!

The chilies are just beginning to produce fruit. And the tomatoes …

Oh my: there are six now at quite advanced stages of growth, while loads more tiny green orbs are appearing each day. It’s almost ridiculously exciting.

The broad beans are shedding their flowers and turning into real bods, which are lengthening and fattening by the day.

The peas have produced flowers – if only a few. But hey – that’s incredible really!

The strawberries have finished, but in considering what I’ll do next year, they’re already near the top of the list for serious expansion.

Given what the weather has been like in the time since almost everything was planted, it’s probably close to a miracle that anything has grown to a point of being edible.

I’m giving up on the radishes and spring onions.

The former are actually producing flowers, but absolutely nothing to eat below the soil. The latter – well, there are stems, but nothing else.

The plan now is to strip out the three planters in question – and start again with some more radishes, but lamb’s lettuce in the other spaces.

Weather permitting, of course.

Oh, and you may find it useful to know that, improbable as it may seem, if ever there’s a drought, you can pray to St Swithin.

Presumably, water company executives have been starting meetings on their knees for months.


  1. Sorry to appear fussy, but a 'Siebenschlaefer' is a dormouse.

  2. I love fussiness (or pedantry, as we call it in the trade!) ;-)

    I had to rely on English-language material when I was looking this up. According to Wikipedia:

    "While it might seem that the name of the day refers to the Edible Dormouse (Glis glis), a rodent known as Siebenschläfer in German, it actually commemorates the Seven Sleepers legend."

    I probably should have gone into more detail on that.

  3. And I've now edited the piece to make that clearer. So thanks again!

  4. The jet stream may not be so settled