Weather in my life – James Rothwell


How did your interest in weather start?


My interest in weather began when a heavy snowfall occurred one night during the very cold winter of 1939/1940. Public forecasts were not issued during the Second World War, so this snowfall appeared as if by magic – especially to a nine year-old. We lived near Coventry and were soon to experience some very scary nights when snow was not the only thing to fall, but luckily the bombs missed our house.

Describe for us some of your earliest memories of weather events

The long and often cold winters of the 1940s, and some spectacular overnight thunderstorms, ensured my interest in the weather grew. I left school in 1945 at the age of 14 with no academic qualifications and started my working life on the local newspaper The Bedfordshire Times, so I was always closely involved with any local news regarding the weather. By 1947 I had moved to Bedford and that winter really sealed my future: it was the snowiest since at least 1814 and ended with a three-day blizzard in early March with level snow depths of over 25 cm and huge drifts, even in the town. A rapid thaw soon followed, leading to widespread severe flooding from the River Great Ouse which became three miles wide in places: it was the worst flooding the town had ever known. A day or two later, there was a severe gale in which gusts reached 81kn at RAF Cardington; with the soil still saturated from the thaw and flooding, a great many trees were blown down. It was a disastrous ending to a winter to remember.

How did your career in meteorology work out?

I joined the Meteorological Office as a Scientific Assistant (Observer) in the early 1950s, and took my initial course at the Training School which was then located in Adastral House (Kingsway, London). During this course I made weather observations from the then famous ‘Air Ministry Roof’, with visibility points such as St Paul's Cathedral. My first posting was to Cranfield (the College of Aeronautics), near Bedford, and I worked here until its closure in December 1955. I then went to the Met Office Research Station at Cardington, a very interesting place to work as routine ascents from the ground to 4000 ft were made every six hours using a barrage balloon of the type used during the war. These ascents involved temperature, humidity and wind speed readings every 250 ft, and were very useful for outstations in the forecasting of fog and low cloud. There was also detailed measurement of heavy rain during the summer months using 24 automatic rain-gauges, with the assistance of an RAF Landrover and driver. During my time here, I obtained five O Levels, and A Levels in Maths and Physics, and in 1961 I was promoted to forecaster.

My first posting as a forecaster was to RAF Swinderby, near Newark (Nottinghamshire). The training of pilots with vampire aircraft took place here: they were good aircraft but their duration of flight was limited. One evening in July 1963 the students were making their first night-flying exercise, and the flying conditions had to be good. A few thundery showers had died out and the weather seemed to be ideal but no weather radar was then available. On looking outside for a moment I then directly advised Air Traffic Control to recall the aircraft immediately as I considered that a thunderstorm was about to develop near or over the airfield. The last aircraft had only just landed when the runway lighting was struck by lightning! Swinderby closed in 1964 and I was then posted to RAF Waddington, near Lincoln, where in July 1965 I was involved in the making of the James Bond film Thunderball. I then went to Cyprus for three years and then back to the UK to RAF Finningley, near Doncaster. In 1980 I was promoted to senior forecaster and posted to Pitreavie Castle in Scotland, where I worked with the Navy at Northern Maritime HQ, providing forecasts for the sea areas fringing the Arctic. After a year I then went to Gibraltar for six years, where one evening I had to use the local media to prevent a mass panic of the local population due to rumours that a tsunami was about to hit Gibraltar; next morning I was told that the Spanish had evacuated the town of Tarifa (population 25 000 people) and removed many ships from the port of Cadiz . My final posting was to Cardiff Weather Centre in 1986 from where I retired after 38 years in the Met Office.

Describe the project you have been working on in your retirement

My particular interest since then has been to put together what is probably the longest historical climatological series in existence.  It contains monthly climatological summaries for ‘Greater Central England’ back to the mid-eighteenth century, non-instrumental summaries for every summer and winter back to 1167 and intermittent records back to Roman times. I was lucky in having Hubert Lamb and Gordon Manley as interested advisers back in the 1950s, when I was working on the Cardington records taken by one of the RMetS's first Presidents. All the records have been carefully cross-checked and much of the data has been shown to be closely correlated with Manley's Central England Temperature series.

This extensive series proved to be of considerable interest in the national and local press and media last year; it will eventually be stored in the National Meteorological Archives at Exeter.

I have had a long and most interesting career and still keep in touch with present-day meteorology as a member of the Editorial Board of Weather.