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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

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Britons bask in a wee heat wave

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, JULY 30. Britain is sizzling, with temperatures touching 28 degree C - and rising. Claims that it is getting hotter than Hawaii might be exaggerated but clearly it is hot enough for frosty upper lips to melt into a semblance of a smile, and for those dripping raincoats to be laid to rest.

Instead, it's minimalist bikinis, sun tan cream and beach umbrellas: sales of cool drinks are soaring and there is a run on electric fans. The Big British Summer is here - not a patch on the Indian summer but good enough to beat the stuffiness out of those months spent behind closed doors.

Sunday was believed to be the hottest day of the season, and weather ``pundits'' predicted a heatwave which could break a ten- year-old record.

Europe was clearly in the shade as Britain baked in scorching sun prompting comparisons with some of the hotter spots in America. ``Hastings Hotter than Hawaii as Sun Bursts out in U.K.'', proclaimed a newspaper headline over a story of mixed blessings: good cheer marred by traffic snarls on motorways; holiday resorts running out of ice cream and cold beer; and a sea monster raising its head just long enough to send shivers down naked spines.

Nearly 100,000 holidaymakers descended on Brighton beach turning it into a ``sea'' of suntanned bodies making hay while the sun shone.

Huge traffic jams were reported as people in cars, caravans and trailers headed out to weekend resorts - and at some places queues stretched for as long as 30 miles. Even early starters found themselves stuck behind bumper-to-bumper traffic and some roads had ``long tailbacks by 7 a.m.'', according to one newspaper. ``Sun, Sand, Traffic Jams, Pollution - Now We Know Summer's Arrived'' is how The Observer summed up the scene. Major train delays occurred as railway authorities imposed speed restrictions on some lines fearing that heat might cause metal tracks to expand dangerously. Northern Ireland, always at the receiving end, was the worst-affected because of bomb alerts which led to serious disruption of both rail and road transport services.

Britons bound for holidays abroad felt cheated at the unexpectedly good turn in domestic weather, and for once the ones who were staying back - either because they couldn't afford a foreign holiday or had been just too lazy to book early - were having the last laugh. Reports of indifferent weather in France and bomb threats in Spain - the two most-favoured destinations - added insult to the injury felt by overseas-bound holidaymakers. But they tried to put on a brave face. ``Well, you can't depend on English weather, can you?'' said one tourist waiting at an airport to check in. Another had a more logical explanation when asked if he regretted going to Spain in view of the bomb alerts. ``If we stayed away it would be a bit like people not coming to England because of the IRA,'' he said.

Airport lounges were crowded as over a million Britons prepared to fly abroad - stripped to their shorts, loaded with stuff and things, and many wishing they had stayed back. The local tourist authorities certainly wished that many more had stayed home and contributed to the domestic kitty. Thanks to the foot-and-mouth outbreak, this has been the worst year for British tourism and for the first time in months, hoteliers, restaurant owners, tour operators, guides are smiling. For many, it is still not good enough but so long as the sun is shining there is yet hope of better things to come. And they have learnt not to look the gift horse in the mouth.

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