Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Weather

The weather in 2012 has been quite notable, and people will remember it as wet and miserable, forgetting the warm Spring and the remarkable fact that in the south east, six months were wetter than normal while six months were drier than the official long term average (Jan; Feb; March; May; Aug; Sept).

Even though the UK has fairly uniform weather the whole year through, it remains the perennial talking point. Panic sets in when it is too cold, too hot or too wet, but UK extremes are nothing like as bad as elsewhere in the World. Each year people express surprise at heavy rain, hot sun or deep snow as though it was something new. The main reason that it is so significant is that it is unpredictable. Some countries can guarantee heat in summer, cold in winter; and when seasons begin and end; whereas in the UK it is much more 'random'. Old adages like 'three fine days and a thunderstorm' highlight the unstable nature of our weather. It is still not possible to be confident of weather in a week's time let alone a month. Each year, unwise pundits predict, apparently confidently that it will be a hot 'barbecue' summer or a 'cold' winter. At present the Winter 2012/13 is supposed to be the coldest winter in a 100 years. So far it has turned out to be close to average. 2012 will stand as a monument to these wild predictions, once drought was predicted and hosepipe bans were officially declared, the heavens opened and floods were the chief concern.

I thought I would share my favourite weather sites on this page. I am lucky to be able to chose which days to go for long walks and the weather plays the biggest role in the choice. The selection also takes account of the season and the direction of the sun to provide best opportunity for seeing wildlife and photographs. For distant views I like to chose a day with a dry, cool wind from the north while for butterflies little wind and warm sunshine.

Current Conditions

rainfall radar

Before setting out I look for problems on the roads and the current weather situation with regards rain and cloud. For rain, the best site is Will it Rain Today The site shows rainfall radar images of the last few hours with the ability to zoom in and track individual rain clouds.

visible cloud radar

For cloud cover the best site is the Met. Office with its Infra-red and Visible radar images. Low thin cloud does not show up on Infra-red so it is important to see the visible radar image too.

current observations

Another site that concentrates on current observations from mainly public weather stations is the XC Weather web site. It displays wind, temperature, weather, pressure and cloud conditions on the maps. It also gives animations for the last 24 hour's readings. The site is aimed at people involved in outdoor activities.

Europe satellite

For a broader picture of the whole of Europe Sat24 give recent satellite images. The Met Office also provide one for Europe

current observations

There is a detailed cloud radar for Reading showing cloud height and depth which can sometimes be helpful.

Tomorrow's Weather

Met office forecast

I like to be prepared for a walk the day before and make the final decision in the morning to allow an early start. The best site for looking at predictions for the following day is the Met. Office forecast. The BBC get their data from the Met. Office and used to present the data in a clearer way, but now I prefer the more up-to-date detail of the Met. Office site. Another useful web site is Norweigan it gives a good graphical prediction.

Met office pressure forecast

If I feel like making my own predictions as a 'weatherman' I need to know the pressure patterns, these are missing from the rather poor BBC web site so I often look at the old-fashioned Met. Office surface pressure charts. I have a barometer and it remains a very useful tool, I have a rule of thumb that pressure below 30 inches means it is likely to rain; and if above unlikely. [30 inches of mercury is 1016millibars or 762mms mercury if you insist]. To go even more professional you can view a range of European observation maps on the WXMaps site.

The Week Ahead

ECMWF forecast

Beyond a day or two the current forecast models can not be entirely trusted, however they do give advance notice of likely clear days in the week ahead. Avoid 'The Weather Outlook' site, I have found it poorly presented and inaccurate. The official medium range forecast provided by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts ECMWF is best. It give pressure and rainfall predictions for up to ten days ahead.

Storm Caribbean

During the summer and autumn a major influence on the weather are remnants of Tropical storms and Hurricanes. These originate in the Equatorial region of West Africa cross the Atlantic to batter the Caribbean and then travel north and then east to hit northern Europe. These storms have the power to knock 'stable' weather systems out of the way. There are two sites I look at to see what is brewing. Storm Caribbean has an excellent range of maps from various sources, click on the map on the top page to gain access to them.


There is a useful animation of the North Atlantic from MIMIC-TPW often indicating weather on its way from the Atlantic. A similar one showing water vapour is on the NOAA site. Our weather is usually driven by the Jet Stream that powers the depressions as they track east over the North Atlantic. Deviations from the normal flow have a marked effect on our weather, an old fashioned Java animation is available to view here.

Trends and Historical Data

Environment Agency rainfall

It's interesting to put the current weather into context. My main source of data on rainfall is the Environment Agency's weekly and monthly reports. These include rainfall, aquifer, reservoir and river statistics with comparison to long term data. For individual reservoir levels the ones in Kent/Sussex are important as they seem to suffer most from drought stress and give an immediate idea of how wet/dry it has been. Thames Water do one too.

Thatcham weekly rainfall

On a local area basis I pay tribute to the many people who keep personal weather monitoring stations going. Many feed their readings into sites like Weather Underground. The site gives sunrise and sunset times which helps when planning a long winter walk. A local one for me with lots of interesting charts and historical extremes is at Thatcham.

Extreme Weather

Weather Underground severe

There are sites that come into play when we are subject to extreme conditions. For flooding there is of course the Environment Agency. For thunderstorm tracking there are sites such as one on the Isle of Wight. Weather Underground have one for Europe severe weather of alerts for all weather types. For more of a global climate trends I like the maps of snow cover on the Climate4u site comparing this with the previous year.

Weather France

When we get very hot weather it usually comes as a 'bubble' of hot air from the south. Looking at neighbouring countries' weather sites can help to see what is going on. Meteo France and La Chaine Meteo have useful maps.

I hope you find some of these sites of interest, if you come across other useful UK weather web sites please let me know.

The Year 2012

Regrettably no long walk was possible in December, due in good part to the weather. My walking year only started off in March, and by the end of the month it was hot and very dry. Concern about possible droughts and water shortages began. My walks around Newbury and Abingdon saw dry paths with plants beginning to wilt.

Abingdon,dry path

The change came at the end of April, when a particularly intense storm brought winds, rain and flooding.


After a few weeks of wet and record April rainfall, May was not too bad at all, with some of the best walks of the year. Towards the end of the month it turned really hot.

Whitehorse,Uffington,Dragon Hill

June was fairly wet, but excellent for orchids, they seemed to like the rain and the warm spell at the end of May. At Bramshill the most impressive insects were dragonflies, well actually Broad-bodied Chasers, which were large and striking.

Broad-bodied Chaser,Bramshill

I made a special trip to see the fairly rare Fly Orchids

Fly Orchid,Burghclere

In July it was a struggle to choose a dry, bright day. Everything was growing well with the ample rainfall, and with so much lush grass on offer grasshoppers and crickets were plentiful. The Roesel's Bush Cricket at Medmenham was a highlight.

Roesel's Bush Cricket

Following the alternating pattern, after a wet July, August proved slightly drier than average with a few brief spells of hot weather. Wild flowers prospered in the moist conditions, including a favourite of mine Eyebright this one near Chequers.


Following the pattern, September proved cool and wet, with a few sunny, bright days to compensate. A highlight was a patch of mint at Upper Chute that had attracted a good number of Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral butterflies. A good plant for gardeners to attract them.

Small Tortoishell butterfly

The continuing wet conditions favoured fungi, and 2012 proved a good year for many species. I chose walks through woodland to look out for fungi and was amply rewarded.


With yet more rains the poor state of footpaths more than anything prevented long walks, it gets tedious when spending the whole time avoiding puddles and slipping over in mud rather than looking at the wildlife. So my walking year ended in November near Theale.


I failed to complete a number of walking projects in 2012, with the weather as chief excuse, so there is plenty of scope for walks in 2013, things I hope to see next year include Fragrant orchids to increase my orchid tally. I hope it is a better year for butterflies who have had a rough time together with most flying insects (and therefore bats). I heard a report that said that there will not be a drought next year, whatever happens. I think this is complacent, it only takes four weeks of dry weather for wildlife to begin to suffer, and if it turns hot, demand for water increases dramatically. So I am not wishing for a dry 2013, may be if the rain falls at night everyone will be happy!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Theale, Padworth and Aldermaston Wharf

With a month to go before the shortest day, opportunities for walks become more limited and there is much less to see now most fungi are over. Earlier in the year I had claimed I had completed the Kennet and Avon canal all the way from Reading past Hungerford into Wiltshire. I was wrong, I had missed out a fairly local section of the canal between Theale and Padworth. So this walk on a crisp Sunday corrects the omission. So I can now claim to have now walked the whole of the Berkshire stretch (30 miles). Here is map of the walk - 10 miles in all.

View Theale - Padworth - Kennet and Avon in a larger map

You might think this was the Lake District from the picture. The old gravel pits around Theale never have much in way of wildlife interest. They look good in autumn though.


Many leaves have fallen, but not all by any means, Sycamore was on the turn.


My path led up past Sulhamstead Police College (complete with a Police museum). At a farm there were hundreds of starlings - a rare enough sight these days. The muddy path then led through a field of cows; I was a bit concerned when they all cantered over towards me. One word and they were spooked and ran off, before approaching me again a little more carefully and then running off.


At Sulhamstead Bannister Upper End (about the longest English place name I have ever come across) was a house caught in the midday sun.

Sulhamstead Bannister Upper End

The path runs along the edge of a ridge with good views over the Kennet valley, north-west to Beenham and Bucklebury.


With few flowers and no butterflies I have to resort to farm animals. I am not sure which breed of horse these are. The piebald markings make them look somewhat like Jersey cows from a distance.


Oak trees were still in leaf, and a few were still predominantly green, others had changed to deep orange-red.


Of the few flowers still out was hogweed. Close by I was delighted to see a group of goldfinches feeding on seed-heads.


Following a recent talk on Hairstreak butterflies I have another thing to look out for. Brown Hairstreaks lay their eggs in Blackthorn at about eye level. They are fairly localised in distribution and unknown in Berkshire so worth scanning for. In places buckthorn berries were abundant.


I can't resist including another shot of magnificent old oaks in autumn.


The path led me to Padworth, I have visited the church several times before, with the sun in the position where it was, the tower was the best feature.

Padworth church

I have published a few pictures of burdock, including some in bud. Here is the seed-head with all those incredibly efficient hooks.


I then reached Aldermaston Wharf which is two miles down slope from Aldermaston itself, it is still a busy canal port with dozens of boats tied up there. There are some grand houses along Mill Lane leading down to the canal.

Aldermaston Wharf

Then it was back along the canal tow path all the way back to Theale. There were many fishermen along the banks, several with very long rods to reach the opposite bank. A little further the most spectacular autumn colour of the day came from a large field maple.

field maple,autumn

I saw only one boat actually moving on the waters. This was the most interesting looking moored boat.

Kennet and Avon canal,boat

The seeds were all ready to be blown away.

seed head

Not many waterfowl on the canal, this swan hissed at everyone who passed.


A final shot of the Kennet and Avon canal in autumn glory.

Kennet and Avon canal,autumn

Monday, 5 November 2012

Garden flowers 2012

With a wet and dull November begun, it is time to look back at the delights of a summer garden and then to look forward to next year. What a year it has been, the Spring was hot and dry and the chief concern was planning for a long drought. The summer was a wash-out with only a few days where it was practical to enjoy the garden. The wonky seasons were reflected in the performance of the plants, many did not get the sun and heat they needed, others coped admirably. Back in May all seemed OK, the cotoneaster horizontalis was full of bloom and bees.


Hostas like it moist so they did well.


And onions.


The mature shrubs that reliably flower in May such as weigelas.



And as ever the Chinese beauty Bush (Kolkwitzia).


Now the annuals, they were powered on by the hot spell in March/April and then suffered with all the cool and damp. They put on a fair show. Nigella was one of the early ones.


I bought a new variety of Cosmos whose flowers change colour with age from red to pink. Quite pretty, however the plants themselves were too straggly.



One real stunner from seed were Lavatera, it was covered in pure white flowers, but they were all over too soon.


One real winner this year was Crocosmia. Best year ever - I have it in a dry spot and the extra moisture made all the difference.


I have grown Echinacea from seed a few years ago and they are now putting up an excellent show each year.


Another perennial that I had nurtured from seed last year that almost got the chop was Evening Primrose (Oenothera) because it did not flower. I was very glad I kept the faith as this year it flowered all summer long.


My biggest disappointment was a climber that usually makes incredible growth and flowers for a long time. This year Mina Lobata really struggled in the cool, damp conditions.


Finally a plant that prospered even though I thought it a warm climate plant - a nasturtium that has seeded itself around quite nicely.