Weathervanes can be useful, beautiful and symbolic. Vanes help designers make gardens which respond to the weather. Links between an enclosed garden and the wide world can be observed in other ways: the effect of a hard frost; a midwinter spring; a drought; the rich downpour after an electric storm. Some plants need a position where their leaves dry quickly and roots can grow into peaty soil, as happens on an alpine ledge. The weather can lead one into a design. Weathervanes point the way.
Winds come from afar, light from an immense distance. Careful observation yields information that is both useful and interesting. In the south of England, I like to know that a particular wind comes from the steppes of Central Asia, from the western Channel approaches or from Southern Europe. Windvanes, like sundials, give a perspective on the planet. The smallest garden becomes a vantage point from which to contemplate the world. The vast dimensions of weather are surely one explanation of why "When two Englishmen meet, they first talk about the weather', as Dr Johnson observed. Gardeners need to be weatherwise. Weathervanes help. Seeds can be sown when warm damp weather is forecast. Plants that have been moved like a heavy shower after planting. The hoe works best when hot dry weather is coming. Tender plants need protection from icy winds. Gardeners have, therefore, been avid collectors of weather lore and antique weathervanes..
Pliny advised us not to "sow in a north wind, or graft when the wind is in the south'. Francis Bacon believed "wet weather with an east wind continues longer than with a west'. Most of the advice is anonymous:
"When the wind is in the south, the rain is in its mouth.
In April, if there be a north wind, expect rain.
If the wind blow from north east in winter, expect frost.
If the north wind remains steady for two or three days, it is a sign of fine weather."
Theophrastus had the caution of modern forecasters, and surely owned a weathervane: "If there be within four, five, or six days two or three changes of wind from the north, through east without much rain and wind, and thence again through the west to the north with rain or wind, expect continued showery weather."
The "vane' in weathervane derives from the Greek penos, meaning cloth. Sailors fastened cloths to masts, as weathervanes, to show the wind direction. Soldiers, not wanting to charge into wind and dust, fixed coloured cloths to tall spears, as weathervanes. Before the days of military uniform, the cloth also served as a regimental sign, sometimes emblazoned with the commander's coat of arms. Crusader tents were topped with pennants and weathervanes. Knights were honoured with the right to place heraldic weathervanes on their castles. French commoners were not granted the right to put up weathervanes until 1659.
The three classic weathervane designs are the arrow, the pennant and the cockerel. It is said that a ninth century papal bull required a weathercock to be fixed to every church and monastery. The cock was the emblem of St Peter and a symbolic reminder of the need for vigilance. St Mark (xiv 30) relates that:
"And Jesus saith unto him, Verily
I say unto thee, That this day, even
in this night, before the cock crow
twice, thou shalt deny me thrice."
As well as being places of worship, the churches of the Middle Ages were concert halls, art galleries, museums, meeting houses, and weather stations too. Every church had a sundial and a weathervane. For farmers and gardeners, weathervanes were meteorological instruments. This is why they are often called "weather' rather than "wind' vanes. Since The Times began publishing them in 1860, weather forecasts have been freely available.Information is now passed from satellite to televisions in every home, and the weathervane is regarded as an obsolete decoration. But they still have a role. Even when the forecasters are correct that "a south westerly airflow will bring rain to most areas', it is useful for the gardener to see when the wind veers into the west. A weathervane makes the satellite picture of planetary airflows specific to your garden.
The oldest written description of a weathervane is that of the Tower of Winds in Athens. Vitruvius describes it as follows: "On the several sides of the octagon he [Andronicus of Cyrrhus] executed reliefs representing the several winds, each facing the point from which it blows; and on top of the tower he set a conical shaped piece of marble and on this a bronze Triton with a rod outstretched in its right hand. It was so contrived as to go round with the wind, always stopping to face the breeze and holding its rod as a pointer directly over the representation of the wind that was blowing." (Vitruvius, 1914 edn)
In the Middle Ages, weathervanes were influenced by religious and military associations. But as the world became less governed by Church and Sword, the symbolic potential of weathervanes came to be used for other purposes. Gresham had a grasshopper vane erected on London's Royal Exchange, to commemorate the grasshopper that drew an old lady's attention to his ancestor, a foundling babe. The Accountants Hall used a model of the Golden Hind in the design of a weathervane. Billingsgate Fish Market put up a fish on its weathervane. Paston School put a model of the Victory on their weathervane to commemorate their most famous pupil, Admiral Lord Nelson. Another ship was placed, as a weathervane, on the observatory in Greenwich, to mark the importance of Greenwich Meridian for world shipping. A railway company, in York, used a steam engine on the vane on its headquarters. Following these secular precedents, weathervanes took on something of the role of inn signs and trade signs during the nineteenth century. Weathervanes became domesticated. The owners of a sheep farm, a racing stable or the Dog and Fox Inn had little difficulty in thinking of emblems for their weathervanes. Countrymen used weathervanes to advertise their trade.