So if it rains on the 15th July then it’s going to rain for the next forty days. From this one sentence, I’m betting that you can all guess that it’s St Swithun’s Day. The date commemorates the translation in 971 of Swithun’s relics by the then bishop, Æthelwold, from his original, obscure grave outside the north wall of the abbey at Winchester into a shrine in the new cathedral. The origin of the story regarding the weather that has grown up around the saint, however, is rather more difficult to identify. No written accounts of the story exist before the 17th century, although one suggestion is that it reflects Swithun’s dissatisfaction with being moved from his original burial place, while another account links it back to a torrential downpour that happened on St Swithun’s Day in 1315.
There is a, however, a basis in science for the forty days of rain story, since the jet stream, which is a major factor in Britain’s weather, tends to settle into a pattern around the middle of July and generally stays in that pattern until the end of August. If the jet stream is to the north, it pulls in continental air from the south, meaning that days are drier and warmer, whereas a more southerly-located jet stream pulls in cooler, moister air from the north, which means rain and lower temperatures. So maybe Swithun (or his followers) were better meteorologists than we give them credit for!
Deluges aside, very little of St Swithun is known, and he is not mentioned in any texts until nearly one hundred and fifty years after his death, so around 1000, from which point the legends surrounding him start to multiply and are disseminated. Although there are miracle stories associated with him, the most well-known one that is recounted from when he was alive is where he miraculously makes whole a basket of eggs that had been broken by workmen on one of the bridges in Winchester. He was also known for rebuilding decaying and tumbledown churches out of his own funds, as well as consecrating existing ones, during his tenure as bishop of Winchester. There is a pilgrimage route named after him, linking Winchester and Farnham, and which forms part of the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury, so what better way to spend the saint’s day than to walk the path named after him – but if you do decide to do that, don’t forget your brolly!