A dangerously intense heatwave across much of Europe has caused record-breaking temperatures in France, Germany and Belgium, impacting rail traffic and sending people in search of shade and water.

Paris saw its hottest ever temperature, breaking a seven-decade record, with 41C recorded in the Montsouris area of the city, turning the UNESCO-listed capital into a baking urban bowl.

The temperature has also reached a record in the Netherlands of 41.7C.

Britain's Met Office predicted a chance that the UK record of 38.5C, which was recorded in Faversham, Kent, in August 2004, would also be exceeded today.

Heathrow Airport recorded a temperature of 36.9C this afternoon and Kew Gardens, west London, has seen the mercury hit 31.7C. 

An all-time record temperature was measured in Germany for the second day running, with 40.9C measured in the northwestern town of Lingen, a spokesman for the German Weather Service said.

Today was forecast to be the peak of Europe's latest heatwave - the second in less than a month and impetus for new focus to be given to climate change.

Cooler weather with rain was expected to provide relief from tomorrow.

The body-sapping, leaden, shrivelling heat was posing difficulties for humans, animals and crops across the continent.

The northern third of France, including Paris, was under a red alert, while the rest of the country had a yellow warning and water-use restrictions in force.

Cyclists in the Tour de France in southern France had to puff their way over the course in well over 30C.

In Pictures: UK and European heatwave
Europe's record-high temperatures

In the Netherlands, farmers have been leaving their cows outside to sleep, rather than bringing them in at night, while Dutch media said hundreds of pigs died when a ventilator failed at Middelharnis.

The southern Dutch town of Gilze-Rijen experienced 38.8C heat yesterday, surpassing a record dating back 75 years.

Belgium registered an all-time high of 40.2C, in the eastern city of Liege - beating a record that dated back to June 1947.

Trains in Britain and France were slowed in response to the extreme weather.

French rail operator SNCF advised travellers in the worst affected areas to delay journeys planned at the peak of the heatwave today.

Thalys and Eurostar train services between Brussels, Paris and London were disrupted yesterday by a failure on an overhead power line, although it was not immediately clear if this was due to the heatwave.

A Eurostar train bound for London tore down part of the cable support just outside Brussels. The 600 passengers were eventually taken back to Brussels, the Belga news agency said.

Across the area affected by the unusually high heat, people tried to cool off in lakes and rivers.

In London, police searching for swimmers who went missing in the River Thames have found three bodies, while three people have drowned in Germany since Tuesday.

France's weather office said the scorching conditions "require particular care, notably for vulnerable or exposed people" with almost the entire country under an orange-level weather alert, the second-highest level.

France, in particular, remains haunted by the early summer of 2003 when 15,000 deaths were blamed on the heat and the authorities were bitterly criticised for not mobilising fast enough.

This summer's second heatwave has amplified concerns in Europe that human activity is heating the planet at a dangerous rate.