Remembering the heatwave of 1976: water shortages and ladybird invasions

  • Watch ITV West Country archive footage of the Great Drought of 1976

As parts of the South West record their hottest day ever - with Almondsbury in Bristol hitting 35.3°C and Bude in Cornwall reaching 34.2°C - we thought we should take a trip back in time through our archives to the Great Drought of 1976.

The hottest temperature in 1976 was recorded in Cheltenham on 3 July as 35.9°C, with people struggling in sweltering heat during the summer. There have been higher temperatures in the UK since - perhaps due to global warming - but what made that year so remarkable was the lack of rain that accompanied the hot weather and a sun that didn't stop shining.

Drought-hit farmland near Exeter in August 1976. Credit: ITV West Country

It dried up the land and - as much as people enjoyed the sunshine - led to real fears that farmers would not be able to feed their animals.

Parts of the South West went for 45 days without rain in July and August.

Here's the late Ken Rees, reporting from a farm in Ide near Exeter in August 1976.

Ken said, "It's ironic that the burning sunshine, the current heatwave, which is doing so much for the West Country's tourist industry, is proving to be a disaster for West Country farmers."

The warning signs were there back in September 1975. A dry summer led to concerns that reservoirs could run dry and calls for people to save water.

It was early in 1976 that the water firms sprang into action with slogans, tips and threats of fines and water rationing. The Government even appointed a Minister for Drought.

The phrase, "Save water, bath with a friend" was more a meme than an official campaign but it seems to have won the status of slogan of the year. Wessex Water came up with its own version, perhaps just as risque - 'You Turn Me Off - Water is Precious'.

A Wessex Water engineer installs a standpipe in June, as water shortages hit. Credit: ITV West Country

In April, Frank Howarth, Senior engineer for Wessex Water, came up with a wealth of water-saving tips for HTV viewers, including putting a large bag of water in the toilet cistern to reduce the flush and conserving bath water.

Frank Howarth said, "Only have five inches of water in your bath. I know this is an old wartime economy measure but it is a very good one and the bath water can also be used for garden watering".

Swarms of ladybirds invaded Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea in July 1976. Credit: ITV West Country

One unexpected consequence of the drought was the arrival of swarms of ladybirds infesting towns and cities across the UK but particularly coastal resorts like Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea where our cameras caught them attacking people in force.

1976 became known as the year of the ladybird. The warm spring meant larger numbers of aphids, which created more food for them. Then the hot summer dried up the plants leading to the aphids - and their prey - being without food. They then went on the hunt for food in their masses - ending up in seaside resorts because they were cut off by the sea.

The end of the drought - flashflooding arrives in Taunton on 14 September. Credit: ITV West Country

The rain finally came - heavy downpours arrived on 14 September - ironically the very same day Wessex Water opened its Drought Information Centre in Taunton.

Back to 2022 and there is an amber weather warning in place for most of the UK, with a red warning in place for a smaller portion - including parts of Gloucestershire.

The heat is expected to last until midnight on Tuesday 19 July.