It’s Raining… Snails!

While sales of umbrellas and rain coats may have soared in recent weeks in view of the wet weather we’ve been experiencing, the heavy downpours of late have nothing on the mysterious meteorological event that occasioned the fall of something far more unusual than raindrops from the skies over Weymouth in 1635.

When the 17th century travel writer Peter Mundy arrived in the town as part of his tour of Dorset and Wiltshire, he’d just missed what must rank as one of the most curious cloud-bursts in Weymouth’s history, as apparently it had been raining snails!

According to Mundy, "When I came over to Weymouth side, I found there on the grass a multitude of small coulord shell snailes”.

Described as 'half as big as a pea', the good people of Weymouth reported that the tiny gastropods had dropped out of the air so plentifully that they collected in the brims of their hats!

Of course, accounts of the bizarre phenomenon of creatures raining from the sky, termed as ‘animal rain’, are found throughout history - the first century Roman writer Pliny the Elder mentions rain storms of frogs and fish; indeed in 1686 a shower of frogs fell on Lord Aston’s bowling green at Tixall in Staffordshire, while during a thunderstorm in 1881 several tons of hermit crabs and periwinkles fell from the sky onto the city of Worcester. More recently and closer to home in 1948 a shower of herrings falling on a golf course in Bournemouth interrupted play!

While many stories are almost certainly embellished, various scientific explanations have been put forward for such puzzling precipitation, and that currently favoured involves waterspouts.

A particular type of tornado that forms over bodies of water, like the one seen sweeping across Weymouth Bay at the beginning of the mouth.

The waterspout seen in Weymouth on July 31 formed as the area was battered with severe rain.

Tornadic waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water, or move from land to water. They have the same characteristics as a land tornado. They are associated with severe thunderstorms, and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning.

Water spouts are capable of sucking up animals in their path and transporting them high up in the air, when these spouts finally dissipate, their unwilling passengers are released, and often far away from their original habitat, giving the appearance that they are raining down from nowhere.

There was, however, a culinary upside to the legacy of the Weymouth ‘snail shower’. By the late 18th century, the mutton from Portland sheep was feted as a delicacy and sought out by the aristocracy of the time, including King George III and his court, the flavour of the “celebrated Portland mutton” attributed “ great measure... to the vast number of minute snails” which formed part of the diet of the sheep grazing off Portland pastures.

Rather apt then that Portland mutton, which has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late and now officially designated a ‘heritage food’ has been recognised by the International ‘Slow Foods’ Movement!