Weather Lore: How country folk read weather signs.

by Phil Rigby

The society’s first meeting for 2017 was in Orton, and we were educated, amused and entertained by Jean Scott-Smith, from Shap, whose title on this occasion was: ‘Weather Lore: How country folk read weather signs.’ 

She began by pointing out that this has been done for thousands of years, and indeed, before the development of modern scientific weather forecasting in the last century or so, it was the only way people might have some idea of what to expect from the weather. For country people, whose livelihood depended on farming, this was a vital part of the attention they paid to their work, so as to know when might be a good time to sow, fertilise, reap, gather the flocks from the hills and send them back again. So, to quote a well-known example, we have the old saying about red sky at night and morning dictating what a shepherd might do. 

Other weather sayings might have a much more local significance, depending upon local peculiarities of topography and climate. So one might hear near here: 

‘When Knipe Scar puts on a hood (i.e. is cloud covered) Bampton folk will have a flood.’ 

In the last 150 years people in Tebay and Shap have read the weather from the sound made by the trains as they passed, which of course had much to do with the wind direction, which is a strong influence on the weather we may expect. 

The calendar has also been a common source of weather lore. So we have sayings about St. Paul’s Day in January, Candlemas in February, St. Swithun’s Day in July, Michaelmas in September, St. Luke’s little summer in October, and many others. It is also said that a green Christmas means a white Easter, but fortunately that doesn’t always work. 

Much of country folks’ weather lore comes of course from their observation of the natural world, and decades, even centuries, of experience. They have looked at the clouds, felt the winds, enjoyed the sun and studied the phases of the moon. One of the first to study cloud formations was Luke Howard (1772-1864), whose names given to the various types still stand today, and who realised that the different formations indicated different weather patterns. 

One local feature is the Helm wind, which is experienced on the fellside above Appleby when the wind coming from the east rolls down the slope of Cross Fell, and can sometimes be very violent. This is Britain’s only named wind, a local version of the German Fohn wind or the French Mistral. Often there is forewarning in the forming of a band of cloud along the fell top. Much study of this was undertaken by Gordon Manley (1902-1980), who set up a weather station on Great Dun Fell in 1937, and took a series of readings from there which have been the basis of further work. 

Other sources of traditional weather lore were trees and plants, and the behaviour of animals, though these sayings are not always reliable: the relative coming into leaf of the oak and the ash has never been a good indication of the likely summer weather! 

Jean’s talk was so full of interesting little traditions and insights that we felt that it was almost a pity that we now have the Meteorological Office to inform us – certainly for most of us our skills of observation are not what they might have been. 

Our speaker was warmly thanked for a most interesting evening.