Windswill be Southwest and Blustery – a celebration of UK weather pages in the TODAY newspaper, 1986-87

The TODAY newspaper was the first one to be printed in colour in the UK on a daily basis, launching on 4th March 1986. And from the start the daily weather feature made good use of this colour –occupying nearly an entire page (two pages on Sundays for the first few months), with a map of Britain in colour, another map of Europe with colours to show the predicted temperatures, and more colours for the textual content … a yellow text box for the forecast, blue for city forecasts, green for yesterday's temperatures across Britain, and pink for world temperatures. I don’t think I have ever seen newspaper weather reports since that are so eye-catching.

Philip Eden, who sadly passed away in 2018, did most of the forecasts. His style was warm and chatty, making the forecasts easy reading. There is evidence that he had a preference for hot weather, as evidenced in the forecast for the hot day of 29th June 1986: “enjoy, enjoy!”. A preference for Fahrenheit over Celsius as “real temperature” was also hinted at.
The weather pages weren't free of editorial errors. Sometimes tables of data and/or graphics were repeated from the previous day instead of refreshed. And the temperature maps of Europe, impressive as they were in full colour, could sometimes go awry: the wrong colours might be shown, contrast between colours was sometimes poor, or the legend (key) would not fully match the map.

It was also clear that the computer at the newspaper offices didn't always co-operate, with evidence that the space bar sometimes failed – "Windswill be southwest and blustery" in the forecast of 25th May 1986. Typing errors were not uncommon either, e.g. "CRAWLEYE" in West Sussex on 2nd September, or "SPILT" in what was then the country of Yugoslavia (and now Croatia) on 18th September.

But I loved these weather pages, especially the splash of rich purple across the hottest areas of the temperature map each day of summer 1986, and was very much saddened when the weather report contracted into a fraction of its previous format in July 1987, without even any colour. As a 10-11 year-old, they started off my interest in both the weather and in data analysis, and while I went rather over the top in analysing the data every way I could find – using pen and paper, as computers were very basic then – it was excellent practice for my future life as a data analyst and amateur weather observer. They also gave me a good geographical knowledge of the UK and Europe. The resort of Eilat in Israel nearly always seemed to have the hottest temperature, especially in summer. Incidentally, the same shade of rich purple was also utilised for indicating the coldest spots during the winter reports, as the banner at the top of this article shows.

The period 1986-87 was not generally a warm one. Spring 1986 wasn't warm or very settled –the outlook for the weekend on 18th April began "I wish you hadn't asked!". Summer 1986 was a little cooler than average too, although with a couple of hot spells, most notably in late June. The first half of September was the coldest since 1931, and although autumn 1986 was on the mild side, January 1987 had one of the coldest periods of the last 50 years (i.e. since after 1963). The most memorable weather of 1987 was of course, at least from the point of view of southern England, the ‘Great Storm’ of 16th October which caused great damage and cost several lives.

I started to collect the daily weather reports from the TODAY on 2nd October 1986; I therefore must thank the Bodleian Library in Oxford for allowing me access to the TODAY newspaper archives for the period March-October 1986. Below I give a summary of the weather through these wonderful newspaper reports that underwent several changes in format over the months before their sudden demise in summer 1987. Enjoy.

The first ever TODAY newspaper weather page, 4th March 1986. The severe cold of February that year had just ended.

May Day Bank Holiday, 1986. Rain was forecast for much of the country, with maximum temperatures in low double figures °C. The format of the weather page is settling down, though at this stage the world weather is still in temperature order rather than A-Z order.

… and not much better luck with the weather for the late summer Bank Holiday on 25th August 1986. But further south in north Africa and the Middle East, there is plenty of purple on the map indicating areas where the temperature was forecast to exceed 35°C; also Eilat reported a temperature in the forties °C. These are my abiding memories from TODAY weather pages of summer 1986, and August in particular.

In late October, the layout of the weather page was revised a little. Also, as temperatures cooled, the colour key for the temperature map was shifted, which gave an opportunity to represent southern England in a warm-looking orange in this report of 19th December 1986, even though this only indicated temperatures of 5-10°C with a forecast for wintry showers for most of the UK. The man in the photo may be Steve Davenport, or it may not, as the names and photos were often mixed up.

On 12th January 1987 the layout changed again, and shrank a little to just over half a page. This change coincided with the peak of the cold snap that month: lunchtime weather reports from the UK the previous day ranging from -10 to -1°C; -4°C maximum forecast for London on 13th, -6°C for Birmingham and -5°C for Manchester. Helsinki reported -30°C from the previous day. On the temperature map, white represents -10°C and below; purple is for -10 to -5°C.

After just a few weeks, the layout of the weather report was changed again on 15th February 1987, but it then stayed in this format until early July. Here is the page from 28th April, during a period of fine and warm weather.

Yet another tweak to the format which made the weather report take up a little less room once again. Summer 1987 was quite average overall, but this was a hot day from July. But this layout was also to last for only a few weeks…

This is the weather forecast for the day of the Great Storm in southern England – 16th October 1987. But what has happened to the format? Gone are the colourful temperature maps and the reports from around Britain, leaving only a shadow of the weather page’s former self. This was the new format from 27th July 1987, occupying only a small space at the bottom of the page, and this is how it remained ever afterwards. Well, it was good while it lasted.

Text © Matthew Eagles, September 2019