How the hottest day on record in U.K. felt

The Hampstead Heath bathing ponds in North London draw city residents on Tuesday during Britain's historic heat wave.  (James Forde for The Washington Post)
The Hampstead Heath bathing ponds in North London draw city residents on Tuesday during Britain’s historic heat wave. (James Forde for The Washington Post)


LONDON — On the hottest day ever in Britain, with temperatures soaring above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, we found Earthlings huddled beside the refrigerated section at the Marks & Spencer grocery at Marylebone train station.

“I’ve been standing here for like 10 minutes,” said Andy Martin, 28, a video technician. “Don’t tell anyone.”

This is not normal here. This kind of heat. This heat wave.

The Meteorological Office, the nation’s weather service, reported that at least 34 rentals in Britain exceeded the previous high temperature, with a broad swath of southeast and central England topping 40 degrees Celsius. That’s a hellish 104 Fahrenheit.

A fire spread in Dagenham, East London, as temperatures climbed above 40 degrees Celsius or 104 Fahrenheit on July 19. (Video: Storyful)

Britain is not designed for this. The country’s homes and shops, train stations and Tube carriages, its schools and offices — very, very few of them have air conditioning.

Has it ever, in human history, been this hot in the British Isles? Maybe not.

There was a kind of tremulousness, an anxious feeling in the capital on this signal day. It was windy, but that dry sirocco-feeling wind, common in the Mediterranean, in Sicily not Southhampton, with the summer leaves crackling and people stumbling about, from one patch of shade to another, as ambulance crews were kept busy, peeling heatstroke victims off the sidewalks.

Stepping inside some of Britain’s hottest homes on the hottest day was like entering steam rooms.

As reporters from The Washington Post went into some of the flats at Chalcots Estate, a public housing development in central-north London, they were met with a thick fug of heat.

“Can you feel it? It’s so hot,” said Mandy Ryan, who works as a residents association representative.

She walked into her living room and pointed at a ceiling fan, whose blades were rotating slowly, and accused the appliance of uselessness.

“That does nothing,” she said.

Like many residents in the tall tower block just north of Regents Park, she has spectacular views of the London skyline.

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She also has a fine collection of cuckoo clocks and ceramic dog ornaments. But inside her home on Tuesday, the most striking thing was the soupy air.

Bonnie, her Labradoodle, was panting heavily at her feet.

“We won’t be having a leg of lamb for dinner tonight,” she joked, nodding at her unused oven.

John Szymanska, a handyman originally from Poland, was plastering and painting a flat in Hampstead in North London.

“It is a misery,” he said, soaked in sweat. “But what can you do?” he asked. “Everywhere it’s getting hotter.”

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Unlike some immigrants, who might mention that they find the English weak in this heat, Szymanska offered sympathy. “I feel for them. They’re not used to this.”

Back at Chalcots Estate, Paul Rafis, 38, a butcher and hip-hop artist, was struggling.

His sofa bed was covered in fur. He explained that his dog, Wise, is shedding a lot. Not that Rafis is sleeping much.

“When it’s hot, you suffer in these blocks,” he said.

In his studio flat on the 15th floor, Rafis was worried that his fridge might catch fire — so he turned it off for four hours and shoved the food into his freezer.

Some experts have said that the fire that engulfed nearby Grenfell Tower in 2017, killing 72 people, may have been caused by overheated wiring in a fridge-freezer.

“Nothing in the house is used to this weather,” Rafis said, tapping his fridge, which felt hot again soon after being plugged back in.

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London’s subway, the Tube, can be notoriously hot—and no line has a worse reputation than the Bakerloo.

“Anyone who enjoys a spot of paddle boarding on rivers of molten lava should head over to the Bakerloo line, where they will feel very much at home,” Labor Party lawmaker Karen Buck tweeted.

We entered with some trepidation at Charing Cross station. There were industrial-size fans forcing air into the narrow passageways, but just like a cave, deep underground, there were pockets of cool air at the platforms.

Inside the carriages, it was pretty ripe.

For Angel Rodriquez, a kitchen worker of Spanish birth who was headed to his afternoon prep shift, the ride wasn’t as bad as he imagined it would be.

He wasn’t philosophical, though. “This is all us,” he noted, saying climate change would only intensify and make things worse. He nodded when reminded of the headlines from home, where huge wildfires have consumed parts of Spain.

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Streets in London weren’t empty, but they were definitely quiet, with the windows of the city cloaked in curtains to block the sun. The royal parks and their long lawns were mostly empty, with only a few hardy souls spreading out blankets in the shade of trees.

The Lido, a public swimming pool at Parliament Hill, had a long line of people waiting to enter. In the water, children gleefully splashed each other as lifeguards blew their whistles.

Back at Chalcots Estate, the playgrounds were children. Authorities had urged even healthy youngsters and their parents to stay indoors.

Some residents told The Post they had installed air conditioning — only 3 percent of British homes have it — or bought simple fans. Most, however, were simply drinking cold fluids and avoiding the sun.

A few, albeit a minority, said they were embracing the heat.

“I’m sweating, but I love it,” effused Chantal Peters, 43 and a mother of six.

She said things felt worse two years ago when temperatures soared during a pandemic lockdown. “It was 34C, we were locked in. now that was hot. That was disgusting.”

Sean Walsh, who works in sales, was visiting his 71-year-old mother who lives in a top-floor flat. His daughter got the day off school because of the heat.

He called the weather “brutal.”

“It’s uncomfortable and hot, and this country isn’t designed for this heat,” he said. “The environment is changing and people are forgetting that. All this concrete, in any big city, it’s a heat sink. You’d be blind Freddy not to read the research and see this is going to continue and we need to adapt. ”

Especially in tall buildings, which radiate heat. “It multiplies,” Walsh said.

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