The spring is like a young maid
Who does not know her mind,
The summer is a tyrant
Of the most ungracious kind;
The autumn is an old friend
That pleases all he can,
And brings the bearded barley
To glad the heart of man.
The third week of July seems almost ironically to have produced a few of the finest harvesting days across the Vale of York, creating the ideals that every farmer prays for in terms of strong, grain hardening sunlight and drying winds.
Granted, the humidity of the atmosphere may still have been questionable in the wake of July’s incessant rains but the descending motion of westerly winds on our leeward side of the Pennines comes to the aid of lowering grain moisture on brilliant combining afternoons.
Looking across the rapidly changing chequer-worked colours of cereal fields, responsive to the waving motion of sunlight chasing the shadows, it gave the impression that our summer was finally on the move forward, the bearded barley leading the way in genuine yellow colour, “to glad the heart of man”.
The modern picture of today’s harvest scenery clearly illustrates how our concept of the annual task has changed within the space of a lifetime.
It was once regarded that a standing crop was not necessarily a heavy yielding crop of corn, merely a thin crop. Fields with a bit of lodged corn here and there always indicated weighty grain and the prospect of high yields. How things have changed, when today’s cereal fields have virtually no lodged patches, displaying immaculate standing crops in spite of weeks with torrential rain.
When the summer rains used to pour from thundery looking skies in the unsettled, cool decades of 50 and 60 years ago, the cereal fields assumed the appearances of stormy, wave-tossed seas.
Wheat sprouted in the ear and heads of barley characteristically drooped downwards to meet the entanglement of lush green clovers when the under-sowing of cereal crops was in vogue.
Serious lessons were learned as new ideas and innovations in arable husbandry came into conflict with some of the worst summers of the 20th century.
In those stormy summers of 1954 and 1956 the month of August seemed to revive the legendary belief that it was truly an autumn month. Old country lore once believed in the adage : “August ripens and September bears the fruit”.
Many farmers who recollect the harvests of the 1950s would agree that August made a very poor job with her part of the deal.
The barley growing boom of that era saw barley prairies sprawling everywhere across the Vale of York, with the discovery that barley straw in particular was extremely susceptible to the rising atmospheric humidity in those muggy August evenings, leading to numerous broken shear bolts on the straw baling mechanisms as the tension in the packed bales of clammy straw increased to breaking point.
Fast forwarding the decades, today’s picturesque frontispiece of August’s entry 2012 is spearheaded with the genuine ripened yellow hues of modern winter barleys.
Remarkably, this illustrates the unbeatable resolve of Nature which decrees the process of ripening and maturity, virtually without the aid of sunlight in this present summer.
One final word on this subject concerns the historical status of the crop, revealing that the earliest recognised variety of barley, namely Spratt (which later became known as Spratt-Archer) was first grown in 1523 and coincided with at least 14 abundant harvests during the first 20 years of the 16th century, a relatively short period of favourable sunny and hot summers just before the commencement of the Little Ice Age around 1550.
This perhaps validated the wording of the ancient farming song: “All among the barley, who would not be blithe, when the ripe and bearded barley is smiling on the scythe.’’
This year’s contemplations with regard to what August is likely to produce weather wise will lead many people into thinking we’re in the “last chance saloon” as far as this summer goes.
It may be worth bearing in mind some of this month’s meteorological ground rules which basically control the weather in summer’s late stages. Firstly, the mean daily temperatures normally reach their peak by the last week of July, with the surrounding sea-water temperatures peaking in late August which indicates that maritime tropical air flowing over the Atlantic is capable of holding more moisture, which, in turn, can create heavier rainfalls during unsettled periods.
On the basis of long period averages, August’s mean temperature level is just a fraction of one degree below July’s in our region, created by a balancing act between the warmest first two weeks of the month which feature a higher incidence of heatwaves and the normal detectable fall of both day and night temperatures by the last week of the month, usually with the first hint of on-coming autumn.
At this time of the year the atmospheric movements of weather systems tends to slow down and become somewhat irregular.
Depressions are frequently shallow, drifting sluggishly and sometimes becoming triggered into thundery cells of activity, drawing in hot, continental air from Europe.
All this paints a somewhat pessimistic picture, but it does tend to be a characteristic of unsettled summers.
In no year on my records has an unsettled June and July been succeeded by drought and wall-to-wall sunshine throughout August; September is much more likely to produce a complete change into anticyclonic conditions.
It is interesting to note that some of our wettest summers have been followed by very dry autumns, stretching from mid-September until November – two examples, 1956 and 1958.
PROSPECTS FOR THE WEEK AHEAD
The recent tendency for depressions to steer north-eastwards to the north of the British Isles, bringing runs of westerly winds and slightly improved conditions in late July, is expected to be maintained in early August, still with occasional fronts crossing the country but creating more mobility in the Atlantic westerlies for the next few days. Still not truly settled, though better chances of a few fine days in our part of the country.
Showers and sunny spells today and into the weekend period, with breezy south-westerlies and temperatures around seasonal normal 68F (20C). Two or three drier days with more sunshine following, with warm spells, 70-74F (21-23 ), with thundery showers towards the end of the week.