The great bake in Britain

A searing heat wave has led to drought in parts of Britain, with tankers supplying water to residents in an Oxfordshire village. The conditions remind many of shortages in the 19th century, and the lesser-known story of the Maharaja of Benares coming to the rescue of villagers in the Chiltern Hills. Here’s a look at the dry, dire situation

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By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sat 27 Aug 2022, 9:25 PM

If you walk along the Thames Path or in any of the lavish green parks in London, you might think autumn is here: leaves have turned golden and red, feeling crunchier under the feet. These are typical indicators that autumn is around and the climate is getting cooler. But before you rush to take photos, or break into W H Auden’s Autumn Song, or recall poetry to celebrate the changing colours and falling leaves, remember it is August, it is still as summery as it gets; autumn is days and weeks away. Britain and much of Western Europe have gone through some scorching days and weeks, breaking summer temperature records. Blame it on climate change or the new uncertainties of environment across the globe, but the impact is real, felt in everyday life. This part of the world is not geared up to deal with temperatures reaching 40 degrees C, which upsets cycles of nature as well as living conditions of humans.

What is happening to the trees? Experts are calling it a ‘false autumn’, because the changes in colour and falling leaves are a result of heat wave and drought conditions. Leigh Hunt, senior advisor at the Royal Horticultural Society, believes auburn leaves and early leaf fall are signs that trees are stressed and are ‘shutting up shop’. This is one of the most severe years he has seen in terms of damage to trees in the countryside: “It’s giving the appearance that we’re already in autumn, but the days are too long for those natural autumn processes to begin. Physiologically, the plants are not responding to autumn conditions; that’s why we term it loosely as ‘false autumn’.” This has implications for nature’s cycle downstream, particularly when it leads to early crop of berries, fruits and nuts, which experts say can be a disaster for wildlife that depend on them for food.

In fact, two-thirds of Europe is under some sort of drought warning, in what is likely the worst such event in 500 years. The latest report from the Global Drought Observatory says 47 per cent of the continent is in ‘warning’ conditions, meaning soil has dried up, and another 17 per cent is on alert, meaning vegetation ‘shows signs of stress’. The report warns that the dry spell will hit crop yields, spark wildfires, and may last several months more in some of Europe’s southern regions. The European Commission has warned that preliminary data suggests “the current drought still appears to be the worst since at least 500 years”.

Falling leaves and colour changes are not the only outward signs of the dry fallout of heat wave and drought conditions. For the first time, the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire has dried up; it has shifted from its official start-point outside Cirencester and is now more than five miles downstream. Says Rob Collins of the Rivers Trust: “Following the prolonged dry weather, the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire has dried up, with a weak flow now only just about discernible more than five miles downstream (at Somerford Keynes). Under our changing climate we can anticipate the frequency and severity of such periods of drought and water scarcity to intensify, with increasing competition for a dwindling resource and devastating impacts on aquatic life”. Water scarcity has particularly hit the Northend village in Oxfordshire, where residents were supplied water by tankers and bottles; they say such shortages have become recurrent during hot weather in recent years.

Such conditions and scenes are rarely seen in Britain and western Europe, but as the climate is expected to turn more unpredictable in future, officials are gearing up to put in place adequate response systems. The National Drought Group, made up of senior decision-makers from the Environment Agency, government, water companies and key representative groups, joined by Water Minister Steve Double, recently met to discuss a response to the driest summer in 50 years. The Environment Agency says the trigger threshold had been met to move parts of England into the category of ‘drought’: Devon and Cornwall, Solent and South Downs, Kent and South London (including East Sussex), Herts and North London, East Anglia, Thames, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, East Midlands and Yorkshire.

Says Double, “We are currently experiencing a second heat wave after what was the driest July on record for parts of the country. All water companies have reassured us that essential supplies are still safe, and we have made it clear it is their duty to maintain those supplies. We are better prepared than ever before for periods of dry weather, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation, including impacts on farmers and the environment, and take further action as needed”.

Several water companies have announced ‘hosepipe bans’, which means residents cannot use hosepipes to water gardens or wash cars or any activity that needs a large amount of water, such as fill a paddling or swimming pool, fill a pond or clean walls and windows. The ban is particularly bad news in a country that loves gardening, with the summer months providing good conditions for the passion. Anyone breaking rules faces a fine of up to £1,000. The daily demand for water in England and Wales is around 14 billion litres but the loss through leakage amounts to three billion litres. The companies have issued advisories to people on ways to save water at home, but are already facing public ire over top managers being paid millions of pounds in bonuses on the back of large profits at a time of water scarcity and drought.

There is more public anger over videos and new data of a large amount of seawage being discharged in beaches across England and Wales, with swimmers warned to stay away and pollution alerts issued to beachgoers. The data suggests that storm sewage discharges have taken place in the waters of beaches in Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Essex, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland and Sussex. All of which amounts to a summer of discontent that shows little signs of giving way.


It was a chance discovery the other day. I was meeting a friend in Maidenhead, driving around quiet, idyllic villages, marvelling at the Ye Olde Inn built in 1135 in Hurley, still operating, with a bell by the main door once used by travellers wanting to stay for the night. But that ancient, well preserved inn was not the discovery of the day. Carla Contractor, a local historian in Bristol, had recently mentioned a ‘Maharaja’s Well’ in passing during our chat about how the British Empire was not exactly a one-way street: of the British ‘giving’ to the natives; the British also ‘received’ from the colonies. Unaware of the well’s location, we drove around the Chiltern Hills and soon came across the imposing structure with an impressive history in the village of Stoke Row — standing tall as one of the many less-known aspects of the long encounter between Britain and the Indian sub-continent.

Conditions in Stoke Row in the 19th century when the well was dug were dire: there was no piped water, villagers either drew water from ponds with potential health hazards, or transported water by cart from another polluted source, the Thames, to avoid dying of thirst during periods of drought. The well, completed in 1864, was a gift from what the British then called a ‘native’, and continues to be cherished in the village that has a street named Benares Grove. It is a poignant story to recall when drought has been declared in parts of Britain, the source of the Thames has dried up, and tankers supplied water in a village not far from Stoke Row last week. It is also a story of how some British officials became friends with local elites in colonial India, and how the latter extended help.

In this case, the Maharaja of Benares, Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1822-1889), was so disturbed when Edward Anderton Reade (1807-1886), a civil servant posted in Benares, mentioned acute scarcity of drinking water and drought in the Chiltern Hills that he paid for the construction of a well and a cottage for a warden to look after it (in historical records, the Maharaja’s first name is mentioned as ‘Ishree’). Reade recorded in his exercise book similarities in conditions in Benares and the Chilterns: “The scenery of Keyra Mungrove, which I annually visited (with the Raja) during my five years tenure of office, constantly reminded me of the Chiltern Range and its undulations… (and) recalled my youthful remembrance of the privations of the poor for the lack of water supply in seasons of drought”.

The origin of the well lay in the friendship between Reade and the Maharaja, who was intrigued by tales of miserable conditions of the poor. Reade described the impact of the limited access to clean water on the lives of villagers: “water retained in dirty ponds, and deserted clay pits”, and how, “in the dry season, the water used for cooking in one cottage was passed onto the like office in others, urchins cruelly thumped for furtive quenching’s of thirst, and washing days indefinitely postponed”. Reade recalled an anecdote that moved the Maharaja, about how Reade as a child was looking for cherries on the hills near Stoke Row when he met an ‘urchin’ in tears, beaten up by his mother for taking a drink of water to quench his thirst. When Reade appealed to the mother, he was rudely told: “You be off Master, of I’ll wop you”.

Work on the well began on March 10, 1863, completed in 1864, and in 1865 it was covered with a grand canopy whose unique Anglo-Indian architecture was based on a pavilion at the Maharaja’s palace at Ramnagar, where Reade and the royal conversed on many evenings. A golden elephant was installed on top of Wilder’s deep well winding machinery in 1871.

The well canopy stands at nearly 23 feet high but the real engineering feat is that the well shaft dug by hand by one man at a time, is 368 feet down to the waterline — deeper than St Paul’s Cathedral is high. Earth was removed bucket by bucket, amidst poor light and foul air; if a bucket had fallen it would have meant disaster for the labourer below. The cost of the well and superstructure was £353, 13 shillings and 7 pennies; the winding machinery and elephant £39, 10 shillings; and the Warden’s Cottage nearby £74, 14 shillings and 6 pennies. The well was maintained by the sale of produce from an orchard nearby, called the ‘Ishree Bagh Cherry Orchard’. Reade used Indian names for parts of the site: Muchlee Pokhara, Saya Khoond, Purbhoo Teela and Purbhoo Tal, while symbols associated with the Maharaja and Hinduism were incorporated in various places. The well remained in use as a utility as late as the Second World War.

Ornately decorated with Indian motifs, the well set a trend of wealthy Indians gifting water fountains in Britain, two of them in London: one in Hyde Park (by Mirza Vijiaram Gajapati Raj Manea of Vijianagram in 1867) and another in Regent’s Park (by Cowasjee Jehangir in 1869), and in Ipsden in Oxfordshire (by ‘Rajah Sir Deo Narayun Singh of Seidpor Bittree’ in 1865). The fountain in Regent’s Park continues to quench thirsts, while the one in Hyde Park was removed in 1964. The fountain in Ipsden is next to a parish church, where Reade, the commissioner of Benares Division during the 1857 Uprising, is buried. During Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Benares in 1961, she was presented a marble model of the well, and Prince Philip visited the well in its centenary year of 1964, when water brought from the Ganga in Benares was ceremoniously mixed in the well. A trust continues to maintain the site, explaining its origins in a booklet written by historian Graeme Whitehall, providing a detailed account of one of the reverse colonial influences during the British Empire.

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