CHIPPING CAMPDEN, England —
Every summer, thousands of British city slickers escape to the countryside to enjoy the fairy-tale-like “green and pleasant land” that poet William Blake once praised. But Jessica Dillard and her mother fled from London to this picturesque village in the rural Cotswolds for a different reason altogether.
“We came here for the hotel with air-con,” she said simply.
The United Kingdom is experiencing a historic heat wave. On Tuesday, the country provisionally logged a temperature of nearly 104.4 degrees at London’s Heathrow Airport, breaking the record of 101.8 degrees set just three years ago.
And it’s not just Britain. Swaths of the Continent are in the grip of a heat surge like no other.
Portugal’s inland town of Pinhao, near Porto, sweltered at a history-making 116 degrees last week. In Madrid, Barajas airport recently hit 108 degrees for the first time. In other parts of Spain and in France, an early wildfire season along with the intense heat has led to more than 1,100 deaths.
The scorching temperatures in the U.K. are a shock to Americans who often come to this country to escape the heat back home, where triple-digit temps are becoming more frequent.
“I grew up in California, but even this is hot for me,” said Veronica Miller, who was visiting Chipping Campden from Texas. “I was here a few years ago in July and I wore a light jacket. So, yes, this year feels different.”
Stores, daycare centers and pubs across Britain were shuttered. “So sorry, shop is closed Monday + Tuesday due to weather and staff shortage due to COVID. We will reopen on Wednesday,” said a handwritten sign on the door of the Oxfam charity shop in Hackney, an eastern borough of London.
Train operators canceled some services and advised passengers of possible disruptions from warped tracks. The power went out in parts of London early Tuesday afternoon but was soon restored.
As the Sun tabloid declared on its front page: “Britain is melting.”
The heat wave’s culprit: increasing temperatures from climate change coupled with hot air being pumped north from Africa.
“I’ve been a qualified meteorologist for 10 years, and telling people about 41 C. [106 degrees Fahrenheit] in the U.K. doesn’t seem real,” said Luke Miall of the Met Office, the British weather agency. On Monday, the office recorded the highest overnight temperature ever in Britain at 77 degrees, beating the previous record set in 1990 and making trying to sleep a torment.
The agency issued its first-ever “red alert” this week warning not just vulnerable Britons but the entire population of the perils of the extreme heat, including “potential serious illness or danger to life.”
In a nation where few homes have air-conditioning and infrastructure such as railways were built two centuries ago, the sticky and hot air has caused havoc. One of Britain’s biggest airports, London Luton, which is popular with budget travelers, briefly shut down Monday as it buckled — literally — under the heat.
“Flights are temporarily suspended to allow for an essential runway repair after high surface temperatures caused a small section to lift,” the airport tweeted.
Sky News on Monday reported that the ground at a base for Britain’s Royal Air Force was cooked to the point that tar was sticking to the feet of workers. The defense ministry did not confirm the report but tweeted that “aircraft are using alternative airfields in line with a long established plan” because of the “extreme temperature.”
Around London, despite officials warning residents to stay indoors and offices re-instituting work-from-home policies, hordes of Britons fled for beaches and the countryside to seek a slight respite from urban temperatures — though the difference was only a few degrees.
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“Why not make a holiday of it?” said Dillard, 36, who enjoyed Chipping Campden primarily by not going out into the village at all but instead taking advantage of her hotel’s air-conditioning.
That kind of luxury is a rarity. Less than 5% of homes in the U.K. have air-conditioning. Only about 40% of London’s sprawling subway system is climate-controlled.
Although the heat is expected to begin easing Tuesday night, experts are warning Britons to brace for more hot days and sustained high temperatures in the future, possibly this summer and certainly in the coming years.
“We’ve got a very severe heat wave at the moment, and all the evidence that we have is that they’re going to get worse,” Nigel Arnell, a professor at the University of Reading, told the BBC.
The rest of Europe is on notice as well.
France recently recorded its hottest May on record, and it was hit again in June by a heat wave that spread west to Spain and east to Italy. Poland has also seen unusually high temperatures. Fires have broken out in the Balkans. In Croatia, one erupted last week near the seaside vacation town of Zadar.
“We are not just glimpsing climate change — it’s being shoved in our faces,” Jean-Luc Gleyze, president of the Gironde region near Bordeaux in France, told the Financial Times. A fire is tearing through pine forest in the nation’s southwest. More than 15,000 recreational visitors have evacuated.
In Spain, firefighters have been dispatched to Castille, Castilla y León, Galicia, Andalusia and Extremadura as flames have engulfed the land.
“Evidently, climate change kills,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who on Monday was in Extremadura, a southwest region bordering Portugal. “It kills people, kills our ecosystem, the biodiversity.”
In London, where the cold and dark winters regularly bring volunteers and city workers out to assist the homeless and poor residents, Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a similar emergency alert this week because of the heat. On Tuesday, workers passed out water and sunscreen and gave directions to public water fountains.
A photo of a police officer giving a drink of water to one of the Buckingham Palace guards, who was wearing a traditional bearskin hat in the wilting heat, hit websites and newspapers around the world. The palace guards are healthy young men who stand upright and still for hours.
“This ongoing heat wave could be dangerous for anyone,” Khan said.