Over the years Rupert Salmon’s pride and joy, a small weekend retreat in West Sussex, had metamorphosed from farm labourer’s cottage to mini-mansion. One gable wing had been added in the late 1990s, a second five years later, and finally a superb green-oak conservatory that opened on to a generous York-stone terrace was built at the back of the house.
He justified each extension as necessary to accommodate his burgeoning family, and by the time his three sons had reached their teenage years, he could boast a decent manor house set in three acres of land. It lacked only one mod con: an outdoor swimming pool. And it was the blisteringly hot summer of 2006 that decided it; Rupert would rectify this situation and set aside a piece of land adjoining the terrace where he and his family would be able to wallow away summer weekends.
Unfortunately, he was not alone in this wish. Every other Englishman seemed to have commissioned a pool after that sweltering summer, and the earliest date the contractors could start on his 8.5m-long sheet of water, with its curved “Roman steps” was in the spring of the following year.
Objections to planning permission, in particular from envious local residents Harry and Barbara Shawcross, delayed the start a further three months; and it was not until August 2007 that the JCB finally broke ground on his dream. Rupert consoled himself with the thought that the summer had been the wettest since records began – and those freak summer rains had turned much of southern Britain into a swamp, including the land intended for his pool. After the waters subsided, the bulldozers turned it from a swamp into a quagmire, and the site had to be closed until the ground had dried out. And so it was not until the cold, wet summer of 2008 that the empty pool was ready to be filled – although the hut housing the pump and filter system had yet to be finished.
That autumn the contractors put the final touches to the £40,000 watery indulgence, filled it and then told Rupert he should immediately winter-proof it to prevent ice damage. This involved lowering the level of the water he had yet to swim in, adding a special chemical kit, draining the filter and putting a special (and not inexpensive) cover on it all.
He felt vindicated, however, over what his family now described as “Rupe’s folly”, when in April 2009 the Met Office forecasted “a barbecue summer”. This firm prediction of above-average temperatures was the determining factor in Rupert’s decision to save money with a “staycation” and skip the family’s usual 10 days in Barbados.
It was a decision that ultimately went down very badly with Mrs Salmon and the boys, because the summer was a washout; almost a month’s rain fell in the first two weeks of July alone – the very fortnight Rupert had chosen to holiday at home.
The following year’s weather was no better; it turned out to be the coolest August in 17 years, and one of the dullest since records began. Rupert did take the plunge a couple of times that summer, but there was not a single Saturday or Sunday that was warm enough to lounge by the poolside with a cocktail. Rather, he had to wrap himself tightly in a towel when stepping out of the water and run into the house to get warm. He calculated that it had cost him about £10,000 per dip by the end of that summer (not including the costs of fixing the temperamental pump and paying Tom, the local handyman, to clean the damn thing during the week).
But his gloom vanished when a freak heatwave hit Britain in April 2011. He informed the office he was taking a mini-break and sped down to West Sussex for the first proper opportunity to splash about in his bright-blue lagoon, only to find he was not alone in capitalising on the weather, and his largesse: by the side of his pool lay Harry Shawcross, sunbathing on one of his mint loungers, while Barbara was enjoying a dip in the pristine water and Tom appeared just to have emerged – all quite naked.