Faithful chronicler of his weather times


"I never travel without my diary," says Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest. "One should always have something sensational to read on the train."

In her time, anyone of consequence would faithfully record the daily happenings of their lives, and years afterwards such documents have provided rich, even sometimes sensational, pickings for climatologists as they rummage endlessly for bits and scraps of information about the weather of the past.

Diaries, whatever their length or the quality of any meteorological information they contain, nearly always have a common feature: they begin on New Year's Day.

And that of perhaps the most famous diarist of them all was no exception. Samuel Pepys began his diary on January 1st, 1660, when he was 27 years old. He kept it faithfully for almost a decade, documenting not only his own escapades and the life and manners of the times, but also the daily sequence of the weather in London during the 1660s.

Just a few days after beginning his chronicle, on January 16th, 1660, Pepys tells us of the hourly weather reports provided for the citizens of London: "I staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window as I was writing of this very line, and cried `Past one of the clock, and a cold frosty windy morning' " - not too different, indeed, from what one might hear on the radio today.

By January 21st, 1661, Pepys was wondering if something funny was happening to the London climate: "It is strange what weather we have had all this winter; no cold at all, but the ways are dusty, and the flyes fly up and down, and the rose bushes are full of leaves, such a time of the year as was never known in this world before here."

But on the morning of November 27th, 1662, the diarist was confronted with an unexpected sight when he emerged from his bed-chamber. "At my waking, I found the tops of the houses covered with snow, which is a rare sight, which I have not seen these three years."

His surprise was all the greater, since only a few days before he had again been remarking on how mild it was: "It hath hitherto been summer weather, that it is both to warmth and every other thing, just as if it were the middle of May or June."

Pepys continued writing until May 31st, 1669, when concern for his failing eyesight caused him to bring the diary to an end. Happily for him, his fears were groundless: he lived for another 34 years, and died at Clapham in 1703.