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The myth and meteorology of Manchester’s rain
We're known for our drizzle and our downpours. Is that reputation deserved?
As we publish this story, Manchester’s weather is in the global spotlight. Cricket fans across the world are feverishly refreshing their weather apps to divine how many hours of play we might get in today’s crucial test match at Old Trafford — a match England need to win to have a chance of winning this dramatic Ashes series in the final game. Australians, from the beaches of Sydney to the cattle shacks of the Outback, are trying to work out whether the Manchester rain might deliver them from an otherwise certain defeat. “Australia look beaten – only the rain can save them,” says one headline in the Telegraph.
The accuracy of the various weather apps is under intense scrutiny. Sports reporter Sonia Twigg tweeted yesterday:
BBC says rain all day tomorrow, and 70% all day Sunday. Met Office says all day tomorrow and most of Sunday. Apple says all day Saturday but not Sunday and Accu Weather says four hours of rain on Saturday and three on Sunday.
Jokes about our terrible weather have punctuated the match commentary. Everyone takes Manchester’s reputation as some kind of perpetual monsoon city as a given. But should they? Or have we been unfairly maligned by a monstrous rain libel?
After an unusually wet July so far, we asked our data reporter Daniel Timms to study the data and get to the facts. It’s supposed to be raining by the time you read this, so sit yourself in the window with a cup of tea and let’s go on a meteorological journey together.
By Daniel Timms
“The flood increased in depth and power, and at a length swept in a fierce torrent over a large portion of ground apportioned to the Roman Catholics at the Bradford Cemetery, carrying away not only tombstones but actually washing out of their graves, a large number of dead bodies… It is impossible to calculate how many had been swept out of their final resting place but the number is not short of fifty.”
So wrote the Manchester Courier on 15th July 1872, reflecting on what would become known as “the Great Flood”. In two days, enough rain for a month fell. At Clayton Bridge, the river rose by over 12 feet, while downstream in Ancoats, residents had to be rescued from their top floor bedrooms in rafts.
Just over 150 years later, another wet July prompts us to write about an enduring constant of Manchester life: the rain. While much of Europe has experienced dangerously hot temperatures for the last couple of weeks, we’ve been thoroughly rained on. When I contacted the Met Office they confirmed that with 78mm of rain so far in Greater Manchester it’s been a wet one — we’ve already almost hit the July average for rain and we’re only two thirds of the way through the month.
Well, native to this region — how much it actually rains in Manchester is contested. Nobody would deny it’s a huge part of the city’s mythology. Former Manchester United centre back Nemanja Vidić once described Manchester’s best attraction as being “the timetable at the railway station, where trains leave for other, less rainy cities”, while novelist Mhairi McFarlane has described “that special Manchester rain that manages to be both vertical and horizontal at the same time.”
There’s even a website to tell you how many days it’s been since it last rained here. (Currently… zero). The local precipitation is of such cultural importance, it arguably deserves recognition from UNESCO.
But there’s a counter narrative. When I asked my sister (who lives in Castlefield) for her take, she pushed back. “I've lived here three years, and I haven't experienced Manchester as significantly more rainy than anywhere else I've lived”, she told me over WhatsApp. “We've had three lovely summers. Yes, it's wet now, but it was stiflingly hot for six weeks in May and June and that is all but forgotten immediately. I think people know Manchester's reputation for rain, so they notice when it rains, which reinforces the reporting bias.”
Clearly, some data is needed to cut through the noise. I’ve trawled through Met Office datasets, and after extensive analysis, I have concluded that Manchester is…
…fairly rainy, by UK standards. Sorry if that’s boring. But I think it’s accurate.
Look at this map of rainfall in 2019 (a pretty wet year). Clearly the reputation Wales and Scotland have for rain is justified. Manchester is next to a dark blue bit, but not actually in it, so roughly ends up mid-table.
But the difference is stark — and perhaps this is most germane to the city’s reputation — when you compare with London. Most of the capital got less than 700mm of rain in 2019. But in much of Manchester, it was over 1,100mm. That’s not far off being twice as wet (though the difference in long-term averages is more like ⅔ higher). We’re also wetter than that other pretender (in both senses of the word) to the throne of England’s second city: Birmingham.
But that doesn’t make us the UK’s wettest city. If you really want to trudge around a soggy central business district, you’d be best to head for Cardiff or Glasgow. If you’d rather keep dry, why not amble round the sun-soaked streets of Cambridge? Incidentally, these conclusions hold when you look at days of rain instead of the amount of precipitation — that map looks broadly the same.
The other thing that jumps out from the map is that the west coast of Britain is where most of the moistness is. That’s because our prevailing wind comes from this direction (“westerlies”). “Our predominant weather here in the UK is often from the west, with moist, low pressure systems coming in from the Atlantic crossing the UK from west to east bringing wet and windy weather,” says Nicola Maxey from the Met Office. “This means the west side of the UK… sees more rainfall than the east.”
Let’s zoom in on the map above a bit. The heavy rain band looks a bit like a croissant encircling the northern and western edges of the city. That’s no coincidence — it’s where the highest ground is. Indeed, within Greater Manchester the biggest determinant of how much rain you’ll get is how high up you are. As those Atlantic winds hit the hills, the cloud is forced upwards, making it cooler. Colder air can’t hold as much water, so the heavens open.
This proximity to hills is why Manchester is wetter than Liverpool, even though Liverpool is further to the west, and closer to the sea. And on the other side of the peaks, you get a “rain shadow” effect. When the air starts to descend on the far side of the hills (the “leeward side”) it warms up again, allowing it to absorb water. You can see in the top right of the map how Leeds and Wakefield benefit from the protection that the high ground provides.
While what I’ve described above is the “dominant mode” of our weather, it’s more complicated than that. You can think of the UK as something of a battleground between different bodies of air coming from different directions — as well as the westerly Atlantic wind, there’s tropical air coming up from the south, and Arctic air pushing down from the north. The interaction of these different bodies creates conditions that are broadly temperate, and highly changeable. Many, indeed, are the non-Brits who have scoffed at our obsession with the weather, only to move here and realise that there is actually quite a lot to talk about.
Reading the skies in Britain is an art that takes time to master. I remember once doing a hang gliding course in the Peak District, where the instructor would scrutinise the clouds intensely, then tell us roughly how many seconds it would be until the wind would get up. He was always right. As a hang glider, your life could depend on a good reading of the weather, so you have to hone a much more precise understanding of it than your average punter.
Climate change will mean our rain starts to look different. Warmer weather means more evaporation off the sea, and warmer air can hold more water. That means more frequent — and more intense — rainfall, though summers may end up drier overall. The Met Office believes there’s conclusive evidence of changing rain patterns already due to climate change at the global level, though they’re less sure it’s been proven in the UK. But it certainly seems to have been the pattern in recent weeks: dry patches interspersed with sudden, very heavy, downpours.
If that becomes more common in future, flood risk will ratchet up — with flash flooding overwhelming drainage systems. Although we have many more defences now than in 1872, they don’t make us invincible. In 2021, the Mersey came within centimetres of breaking its banks at Didsbury after heavy snow and rain.
So how wet is Manchester? Of course, I’ve answered the question already, but my editor was insistent. It wasn’t enough to analyse the rain data from my ivory tower. I had to get out there and immerse myself in it. I head for those hills around the city, to have a true lived experience of the “clouds rising/cooling/releasing moisture” process.
I catch the train to Godley, where my plan is to walk up over Werneth Low, and down to Romiley in the next valley. Counterintuitively, “low” is an Old English word for “hill”, and it’s here that the largely flat plain Manchester sits on suddenly rises quite sharply up towards the Peak District.
As I get off the train, I’m starting to worry. It’s not raining. BBC Weather had given a solid 90% chance of precipitation. This is the only walk I’ve ever intentionally planned to coincide with rain — will it turn out to be a (not) damp squib? It starts to spit slightly as I set off, so I bide my time on the way, foraging a few bilberries in the woods. The noise of the rain on the leaves grows louder, so I head out onto the exposed hillside.
From here, the towers of Manchester’s skyline are dead ahead, and to my right is the squat rectangle of Ashton’s IKEA. And yes, it’s starting to go for it now. The sky isn’t too dark, but the drops of rain are fat and insistent. I turn into the wind and get out my phone compass — it’s a southwesterly. A bank of cloud sits brooding over the city centre, so I call my colleague Mollie to check if it’s raining at The Mill HQ. It is.
I wander over the hillside and pass a woman walking two champagne-white labradors. Her puffa jacket doesn’t look at all waterproof. “Lovely weather”, I offer. “Gorgeous, isn’t it”, she smiles, restraining one of her energetic dogs. The vegetation around here reflects the amount of moisture this area receives — long grasses, thick bushes — and I see a fair few examples of fungi on the ground, thriving on the decaying leaf matter.
Next, I venture into the Werneth Low Golf Club, and chat to Ben, the club manager, and Chris, the groundsman. I’ve seen a few brave souls on the course, but it seems not much golf is being played today. Ben tells me they would normally have around fifty out on a Tuesday, but today it’s more like ten. Rain is just one of their problems — he also lists wind, frost and snow as meteorological challenges assailing the enthusiasts. Chris tells me that normally you can see the clouds coming in from either Marple (south west) or the Peak District (east). It’s when it’s coming from the Marple direction that you need to be worried.
By now I’m unpleasantly soggy, so I duck into the Hare and Hounds to write up my experiences over a spot of lunch. Fantastic establishment that it is, they provide blankets. It might be mid-July but I’m wet to the skin in several places, and could absolutely use some added warmth.
After a good lunch and a pint, surely, I tell myself, the rain has passed? But it’s not to be. So I make my way through conditions halfway between downpour and drizzle, over the fields that lead down to Romiley.
On the train home, the two people next to me are talking loudly. Instinctively, I put on my headphones and switch on my rain noise app, setting it to the sound of rain on a window. It blocks out the distractions, and it’s strangely comforting. The nicest thing about rain is hearing and watching it from the inside. It’s a pleasure people around here get to enjoy a lot.