Behind the Folklore

Behind the folklore: St Swithin's Day: Does rain today really mean a ruined summer?


"St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare"

In 1716, John Gay, the author of The Beggar's Opera, published a poem entitled Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London – a lengthy paean to the joys of striding around the capital (ironic considering his reputation as a corpulent and entirely sedentary man of letters). In it, and with typical élan, he poured scorn upon the age-old legend of 15th July - St Swithin's Day:

Behind the folklore: oak and ash: Can trees predict the weather?

Oak before ash, in for a splash
Ash before oak, in for a soak

One lesson that this column frequently hammers home is that animals, birds, plants and medieval saints tend to be as unreliable in predicting long term weather patterns as the writers of those hyperbolic, dodgily-sourced tabloid articles that warned us last November of an impending Arctic white-out.

Behind the folklore: cows lying down: Do cows really lie down when it rains?

If a well known piece of old countryside folklore is to be believed, a sure sign of the imminent arrival of rain is the sight of a herd of cows sitting down in a field. But then again, if old countryside folklore is to be believed, black dogs are devils and Londoners can't be trusted, so it's a claim that cries out for further examination.

Behind the folklore: swallows flying high: Do high-flying swallows mean dry weather?

Swallows high – staying dry

Are birds really any good at forecasting the weather?

Before you get all outraged and start demanded my dismissal, what follows is not the ranting of some boorish Richard Keys-alike dinosaur railing against the increasingly high profile of women within the Met Office – it's a simple question about avian behaviour.

If English folklore is to be believed, some of our native birds make for reliable oracles of future weather conditions. The most common form of this particular branch of folklore comes in a neat little rhyming aphorism:

Behind the folklore: red sky at night: Is red sky delightful for shepherds?

Red sky at night, shepherds' (or sailors') delight

Red sky in the morning, shepherds' (or sailors') warning

Other than the prolonged absence of female company, there hasn't been much that has united shepherds and sailors throughout history. But if the two most common forms of this age-old rhyme are to be believed, a mutual love of nocturnal red skies and antipathy towards red-tinged mornings binds these two ancient professions together.