Brittle and dry: London in the heat wave

At 37 degrees, the airy lawns of an East London park have dried into arid emptiness amidst a potentially lethal heat wave.

A shirtless man in black trousers wanders northward across Weavers Fields carrying a bag.
Parched grass at Weavers Fields, East London, on 17 July 2022.

by Jay Richardson
18 July 2022

Everywhere is the dry rustle of dead leaves. They’re in the park, on my street on the way to the train, in the gutters, and on the driveways. It’s windy, but the hot air blowing past does little to help with the intense heat. It’s even worse in the sun.

But six months ago, when we published a set of field recordings to chronicle a small, oddly-shaped park in Shoreditch called Weavers Fields, London didn’t feel remotely this way. Even though there wasn’t much in most of the park except a thin layer of grass, the trees and hedgerows around its edges sheltered a chirping, rustling sanctuary of life. But that was in winter, and a mild one, and the park-border sanctuary felt fragile even then. With the arrival of forty-degree heat across London and most of southeastern England on Monday, I travelled back to Weavers Fields to hear what had become of its subtly lively character.

Stepping onto the Overground, the relief at being graced with air conditioning practically beamed from people’s faces. New arrivals opened the train doors and visibly sighed with gratitude. Before long, my fellow passengers’ conversations had returned from discussing the heat wave to matters more mundane: “I’m off to a stag do on Friday”, “Meeting this morning went well?”, “It’s not really my job to ask, him, is it, it should be Charlie asking him.” There was no sign of life on the streets out the train window until I spotted a cyclist weaving between brick warehouse buildings in Shoreditch. On the platform, everyone moved with purpose, keen not to spend more time in the heat than they absolutely had to. Several days of Met Office warnings had clearly got the message through: Don’t take risks in a heat wave.

I had, to be honest, been faintly surprised to find that the trains were still running at all during the heat wave. Street vendors and bin collectors were also out, but moving languidly, some wearing towels on their heads, and occasionally grimacing. Every few hundred yards, an air conditioner or a junction box blew hot air out into the street with a startling roar.

But for the most part, life looked relatively normal: people good-temperedly held it together and even basked in the heat. Birds still twittered, I saw no one collapse from dehydration, and the indie coffee places almost all had their doors open. The people who had come out onto the street, to smoke or to survey the heat or both, looked determined to stay out.  The curly-haired guy I passed lounging in a white knitted tank top on Cheshire Street was still there when I returned half an hour later. The sparrows chirped more than usual, and London sounded momentarily like Hong Kong, the last place I found myself in this kind of heat.

Weavers Fields did not sound like Hong Kong. The Overground bridge at the park’s southern boundary still gave out its familiar reassuring rumble, but the rest of the place sounded like a tinder box. The wind agitated bone-dry tree branches and thin plastic bin liners, and underfoot was the whisper of what had been grass, now dusty and defeated. Incredibly, the hedgerows still harboured a lively tribe of sparrows, but they were not to be found anywhere else, as if word had got out that the old hawthorn was the best place to stay cool. People had also congregated there, but there were no young children out, and no elderly people, not even in the shade. Most of the rest of the park sounded muffled and desperately sparse. Just like in Cambridge during the first coronavirus lockdown, the soundscape had a disaster-stricken quality.

Around the corner, an ice cream van chimed loudly, and fittingly, and yet its cheeriness jarred somehow with the park’s grim interior landscape—and with the dire climate warnings with which this almost unbearable temperature seemed to be crying out. The air had a sandy quality, its touch both lazy and rough. I won’t pretend that 40 degrees feels like this to everyone, but I’m not used to it, and I could already feel my brain struggling to adapt, becoming less and less able to focus. On the other side of the park fence, leaves scraped along the pavement like paper. The bustling city had finally been reduced to sounding like the inside of an office.

On the way back, a train arrived that wouldn’t take me all the way home, but I didn’t care. I pressed the button and opened the doors and sat down and started to breathe properly again. By this time, about four in the afternoon, I’d occasionally see the bright red face of someone who didn’t look quite okay, with their head slumped to one side and their gaze vacant, looking like they were about to drop their water bottle. The lady next to me shifted nervously in her seat. º


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