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Few bright spots at end of the worst summer for a century

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 01, 2012

  • JULY: The main road leading into Otterton, East Devon, was washed away after the River Otter burst its banks following torrential rain

  • AUGUST: A Bank Holiday quagmire greeted showgoers at the Great Dorset Steam Fair

  • JUNE: Visitors to the Royal Cornwall Show had to battle against the wind and rain

  • JUNE: Huge waves crash on the Cornish coast at Porthleven

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For the weathermen September marks the start of autumn and a chance to assess just how bad the summer has been. Martin Hesp has been taking the Westcountry’s temperature.

If anyone was ever in any doubt that we've just been through one of the most miserable summers on record, then here are a few headline facts.

This year the Westcountry suffered the wettest April, and equal wettest June, in 250 years.

Exceptional rainfall in early summer put that period alone on a par with the 10th wettest winter on record.

According to the Environment Agency (EA), river flows tripled from March to June. The number of properties receiving flood warnings increased to an all-time high.

Met Office figures have yet to be fully verified as the official summer period ran until midnight last night, but the Exeter-based organisation says that, provisionally, both Devon and Cornwall have had their second wettest summers on record.

Cornwall notched up a total of 428mm of rain during the three summer months, but was beaten by a wetter Devon which recorded 441.1mm.

That is a foot-and-a-half of water – and all of it flowing off down river courses and valleys causing occasional mayhem as it went. No wonder a record 1.1 million homes in England and Wales have now signed up to receive direct flood warnings.

However, if you fear we're falling over a waterfall into a damp futuristic abyss then it might come as some small consolation to know that there has been a worst Westcountry summer – just once, in 1912, when 564.5mm of rain fell on Cornwall and 516.5mm on Devon.

But back then the region's all-important tourism industry was in its infancy – today it is the biggest single contributor to the Westcountry's economy despite the fact that it teeters on a tightrope above an alluring sea of foreign holidays.

You will never hear a mover or shaker from the tourism industry admitting disaster – but this year they are talking about what boils down to a wholesale reinvention of their business model.

Seeing the sunny side of things is difficult when you learn it's been one of the dullest summers on record with just 399 hours of sunshine up to August 28. This makes it the dullest since 1980 when the UK saw only 396 hours of sunshine.

A Met Office spokesman added: "To complete the disappointing picture, it has also been a relatively cool summer with a mean temperature of 14C, some 0.4C below the long term average. Despite this it was a little warmer than the summer of 2011 which saw a mean temperature of only 13.7C."

To rub ice into that wound the Met Office then announced that the hours of darkness between Thursday and Friday this week represented the coldest August night on record.

No one, it seems, is immune from the wet, cold, dull conditions that the jet-stream has been throwing at us this so-called summer. From ice-cream manufacturers to chilli farmers, businesses across the South West have been suffering due to the weather.

Award winning Somerset ice-cream maker David Baker said: "The weather gods have devastated us this year – if it's raining, our people can sit in the van all day and not sell a single ice cream.

"You can go to a show with glorious weather and you'll take a certain figure – the next year you go to the same show and the weather isn't as good and sell 10 to 15 times less. And we've had lots of cancellations this year," said Mr Baker of Styles Ice-Cream, adding that in one July weekend his business suffered the cancellation of six shows costing him £20,000.

The region's calendar of open air events has experienced one of the worst seasons ever. Paul Hooper, secretary of the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations, said: "This year the show industry has gone through a very tough time. Many shows have been postponed and some have had to cancel altogether.

"I've been in the show industry for 30 years and this is the worse summer for weather I have seen," said Mr Hooper. "It's come close to being what you could call a foot-and-mouth year."

Cancellations of such events hit many small businesses badly. "We've had 10 shows cancelled this summer – and that hasn't helped sales," said Phil Palmer, of Dartmoor Chilli Farm. "We should have been at Dorset Steam Fair this week but it was too muddy to get in!"

Small producers have been hit all over the region – like Ben Brunning of the Nearly Naked veg-box company, based in the South Hams. The business continues with its wholesale range but in mid-summer Mr Brunning had to tell his 100 veg-box customers that he could no longer supply them.

"I have farmed all my life but I can honestly say this year has been the worst year in my career for growing horticultural produce," he said.

If mankind has been struggling, then so have the birds and the bees.

"With the adults spending longer away from the nest searching for food, the chicks may also have been more exposed to the chilly, wet conditions, in particular for species like blackbirds and thrushes whose nests are open to the elements," said an RSPB spokesman.

Meanwhile local beekeepers are concerned that if weather conditions do not improve entire colonies could starve or become so depleted in numbers that their viability would be in doubt.

"We need a couple of weeks of really warm weather so they can get out every day – and we need that to happen now so they can get out on the blackberry and clover and, hopefully, the heather," said a leading Somerset beekeeper.

The nearest humans get to living like birds and the bees is when they're out camping – and that is a pursuit which has been particularly badly hit in the Westcountry this year.

Back in early July, Phil Haggarty – co-owner of the Upper Lynstone Caravan and Camp ing Park at Bude – told me: "The combination of bad weather and high fuel prices has put off a lot of people who come up until this point in the year – now we're about to go into the main season and I can only hope the weather will improve."

It didn't. So how were things looking now at the end of a damp August? "Everybody that booked came – it was the casual people who come on whim who failed to turn up," replied Mr Haggarty. "Now we're looking forward to an Indian Summer – that's when we get the retired people coming in their caravanettes and caravans, so they're more immune to the weather. But if you could have a word with the weather gods…"

One man who would dearly like to have a word with the weather gods is Malcolm Bell, head of Visit Cornwall. He too was hoping for a good Indian summer when he talked to the WMN this week.

"We've had four bad summers in a row – this one eclipses the other three because we didn't even have a good spring this year – it's been turgid all the way through," said Mr Bell.

"Yes, we've had an indifferent July and August – but on the positive side the average length of stay in Cornwall is seven nights, so some weeks people have had half-decent, half-bad weather.

"Lots of parks and hotels have laid on more things to do, but it's the businesses like beach cafes and campsites which have been hurt the hardest.

"It is a mixed picture – I can't give you the figures yet, obviously, but the legacy of this summer will be an inevitable trend toward later booking. Soon it won't be trend – it will be the norm – people will keep their options open," said Mr Bell, echoing Mr Haggarty's comments about people holidaying "on a whim".

And here we come to the crux of the matter as far as tourism is concerned – it is an industry which is in the hurried act of reinventing itself.

"We will have to learn to be more about tactical sales and marketing," said Mr Bell. "For example, with late booking – when weather is right – you don't want to be giving away deals.

"But if late booking is the downside of the internet, the upside is social media – for example we are really pushing the World Belly Boarding Championships (to be held at Chapel Porth tomorrow) – we are using social media to talk about new food and drink festivals, and so on.

"We are going to have to be more creative," concluded Mr Bell. "There are things we can do to innovate and adjust. We can hope for good weather, but plan for bad."

These thoughts were echoed by Matthew Cross, head of marketing for Plymouth and a representative on the Devon Tourism Partnership. "There's no denying the fact that it's not been easy year – the weather has created challenges," he said. "We have to create reasons for people to visit that are not based on weather – it can be a deal-breaker if the sun doesn't shine."

Like Mr Bell, Mr Cross talks about more cultural events and more promotion of the region's heritage as part of tourism's answer to bad weather.

But if that's for the future – have there been any winners during this, the worst summer on record?

"I'm sitting in my office with the door and all the windows open," said Scillonian campsite owner Kathy Stedeford this week. "We get warmer weather than you do on the mainland – in fact, apart from some stormy days a few weeks ago it hasn't been anywhere near as bad a summer here as the one you've had.

"We've had all our regular campers rebook for next year," said Mrs Stedeford, who not only runs Bryher Campsite but also manages her own holiday business in the islands and runs Bryher Boats with her family.

"That must tell you something about the weather here," she said. And it does. If you have low hills and are parked 28 miles out into the ocean you are unlikely to have the Westcountry's most common weather syndrome – otherwise known as "relief rain".

The only other winner during Summer 2012? The answer could be the mosquito. There's been a sharp rise in mosquito numbers in places like the Somerset Levels – and the insects are beginning to cause concern. The only thing that could get rid of them is a good old fashioned cold winter – but what chances of that during these days of climate change?

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