The year with no summer


IT HAS been a pretty cold winter so far in Lancashire, with night temperatures regularly down to about minus 8 deg C and staying at freezing point during the day. The plumbing to our downstairs loo, which uses a Saniflo pump, was frozen for several days, though this may have been partly due to the fact that we hadn’t noticed our labrador pup had chewed chunks of the insulation off the pipes outdoors. One morning it was both frosty and foggy, and when the sun came out it revealed that every twig of every tree was delicately coated in ice.

However it isn’t often as pretty as that, and it is at this time of year that I start longing for summer.

I am sure they felt the same in January 1816, but something strange happened and there was no summer. Apparently this year is sometimes called ‘Eighteen Hundred and Nearly Frozen to Death’. 

At the time, Earth was in the concluding decades of the Little Ice Age, due to a period of relatively low solar activity from 1790 to 1830 known as the Dalton Minimum, when temperatures were lower than average. In April 1815 the 14,000ft volcano Mt Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) blasted into action after several centuries of dormancy. It was one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in history, heard thousands of miles away. Here is a picture of the present-day caldera, at 4.5 miles across and 2,200ft deep one of the largest in the world.

The top 5,000ft of the mountain disappeared in the eruption, and the amount of rock blown into the air is variously estimated at between ten and 50 cubic miles. An immense amount of volcanic ash was projected into the upper atmosphere, where it was carried around the world by the jet stream, dimming the sun and causing brilliantly coloured sunsets. The following year, 1816, the sun was said to appear as if it was ‘in a cloud of smoke’. There was also a huge cloud of sulphur which acted as a barrier to the sun’s rays.

The unusual cold played havoc with agricultural production in many parts of the world, causing wholesale crop failures, dramatic increases in food prices, famines, cultural disruptions, and epidemics of cholera and other diseases. It is estimated that 11,000 lives were lost in the eruption and resulting tsunami, and possibly 70,000 more died from indirect effects.  

These were worst in America. Snow fell in New York in June and there was frost for five nights in July in New Jersey. As far south as Virginia there was frost in August. On September 13, a Virginia newspaper reported that corn crops would be one half to two-thirds short and lamented that ‘the cold as well as the drought has nipt the buds of hope’.

In China the monsoon season was disrupted, resulting in overwhelming floods and ruined harvests.

Summer temperatures in Europe were the coldest on record between the years of 1766–2000. There were riots and looting in many cities. Harvests in Britain failed and there was widespread starvation. The bad weather in England drove a group of writers to head for Switzerland. On arrival, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his 18-year-old lover, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), enjoyed a few days of good weather before being driven indoors by storms and rain.

Mary Shelley wrote later: ‘It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. “We will each write a ghost story,” said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.’

As a result, Mary began work on Frankenstein which was published two years later.


Wheels of the Week

This magnificent machine is a 1974 Harley Davidson Electra Glide owned by TCW reader Derek Reynolds. I will hand over to him this week:

Harley Davidson has a history that goes back to 1903 when Arthur and Walter Davidson and Bill Harley built a machine from patterns created by Art and built by Walter in their shed not much more than 20 feet square. It was a spindly machine with a single cylinder engine of De Dion manufacture, but soon friends asked if they could have one, and so manufacturing began. It wasn’t long before they hit on the idea that another cylinder tacked on to the back of the crankcase making a ‘V’ twin would improve pulling power, and so the range of ‘V’ twins began. Early engines were side valves, until the first overhead valve engine was brought into production in 1936. It was known as the ‘Knucklehead’ because the overhead valve rocker cover looked like a pair of knuckles. This bike was superseded by the ‘Panhead’ (it looked like upturned cooking pans), then by the ‘Shovelhead’: you can guess why. This ran through to the 1980s until the next generation came along called the ‘Evo’ for Evolution.

Many improvements were made from the early days: the solid rear end (the hard-tail with no springing, which customisers often like for the purity of design though it does little for comfort!) and ‘Castle’ type springer front forks, soon had the front forks changed to telescopic forks in 1949 with hydraulic front suspension known as the ‘Hydra-Glide’. Then came rear suspension with hydraulically damped rear suspension – the ‘Duo-Glide’ – dual suspension front and rear. In 1964 an electric starter was added and it became the ‘Electra Glide’.

My Harley is a very recent purchase, November 2022, a 1974 model with the Shovelhead engine of 74ci (1200cc) Electra Glide FLH. It is the fulfilment of a dream to own an Electra Glide ever since I became smitten with Harleys in 1965. My Honda 250cc machine was fine, but when I read an article in one of the glossy monthly magazines about a Harley Davidson WL ’45’ in civilian trim (tens of thousands had been built in America for the war effort) I fell in love with the style, a cross between ‘Roy Rogers’ and ‘Union Pacific’ (as in railroad engines). In 1965 I purchased a ‘full dressed’ WL 45, the 45 relating to the cubic capacity of the engine in inches (750cc). This picture was taken in 1966 when I was 19.

I rode it everywhere; it was my sole form of transport. In 1967 it took myself and fianceé to the Isle of Man for the TT races. Regrettably I sold it in the early seventies. But the dream and fascination of owning another never died.

Harleys seldom stay as they leave a showroom:they are possibly the most changed and modified motorcycles ever produced. This has been encouraged by the H-D motor corporation, as they produce their own catalogue of accessories and clothing to this day. The bike I now have has been modified by previous owners, mainly by changing the standard exhausts for short ‘drag pipes’, which make for a lighter set-up, give more access to the left-hand side and primary transmission, and sound very ‘throaty’. Motorcyclists love the sound of their exhausts! Some minor attention is needed to electrics (headlight dead), and the windscreen needs a new top half as a former owner had the existing one cut down. That’s about it.

Minolta DSC

Top speed? Who cares. It’s what is generally called a ‘cruiser’, built for long-distance comfort. These bikes are happiest at around 60 – 70mph, though they can be tuned to go much faster. But it is the ‘presence’ that they are known for, standing out from the crowd in the glory of ‘size matters’. They may appear ponderous around town, but once moving, the weight is not felt very much. They are docile in traffic and easy to manage. It’s only when you get off to manoeuvre the bike in a garage that you know you have some weight there!

With ownership of barely two months and winter upon us, my travels have yet to begin. Spring is not so far away, and there are lanes and highways to explore. And then there’s the fettling. Nothing pleases more than a bit of fettling. The cleaning, polishing, and looking to improve certain aspects, however small.

Ed: I’d love to hear from other readers about their vehicles, if possible with your own pictures.


Sheep of the Week

As promised a couple of weeks ago, today’s sheep is the wonderful Teeswater.

Paul Buckingham Track of Railway, from Ingleby Incline at Bank Foot Farm / 

CC BY-SA 2.0

The breed’s ancestors were brought to Britain by the Romans. There is a good picture and a concise history on this website.

You can also read about them at the Teeswater Sheep Breeders’ Association website.

To state the obvious, the rarer the sheep, the fewer pictures and videos I can find, but I was pleased to come up with this fascinating film from America. As the narrator explains, import of live animals is not permitted but by using frozen semen in a ‘breed-up’ programme they have achieved a more or less pure-bred strain of Teeswater. The lustrous fleece is gorgeous.

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