Arwen and After

Most folk in the north have had a story to tell about Storm Arwen and its aftermath. Here’s ours. Power went off at the Corner House at suppertime on Friday 26th November. The vicious northerly winds howling and screaming around us, with ominous thuds and bangs outside. One of those knocks may‘ve been made by an Amazon driver because later I find the ‘Sorry I missed you’ card which said that a package was ‘In the bin’. Smart move. The big bin was empty of rubbish so able to retrieve the delivery safely. Next morning the same bin had been embedded by the wind into the big hawthorn hedge. The weather had calmed considerably by then but reports were coming in from our postie and over the battery powered radio of catastrophic damage on a vast scale across the north. Having experienced brief outages before we’ve lots of candles in store; plenty of logs for the living room burner, a bunker’s worth of smokeless coal, a recently serviced oil fired Aga to cook on and heat water so the heart of the house can keep on beating. Everything else for the moment has gone. No electricity, internet or mobile connectivity.

Wind speeds of up to 100mph had brought down a vast number of trees, blocking roads and trashing infrastructure. We live a mile from the country’s biggest man made forest. Commercially grown conifers being tall and shallow rooted are more vulnerable to toppling than most deciduous trees. The weekend slips by and nothing happens to reset the situation. Our spur of power, we learn, comes through forest rides (clear areas either side of power lines) where equipment will have been wrecked or sunk in a remote hinterland of peat bogs and dark mires. Reconstruction rather than repair seems to be the order of the day and, given difficulty of access, weather conditions and demands on the emergency crews brought in from all over the country to help out, this will account for the delay in restoring power.

A good quarter of Southridge’s shelterbelt has been bowled over. Three ash trees on their farm road, already earmarked for felling due to die-back, have been smashed by the storm with broken branches threatening to snap off and block access. Kim walked up there to see how our friends were faring. She reports that the menfolk had rigged up a palette on the tractor’s hydraulic forks, raised up and wobbling in the wind, with the younger farmer taking his saw to the offending tree limbs. Perilous but necessary, as there’s no other available mechanical help to hand.  

Water supply is the main domestic challenge for us (see previous posts). Having the electric powered pump out of action means the header tanks for hot and cold up in the loft cannot be refilled from the spring source, so the tedious process of water bearing begins. Most days I fill the plastic 15 litre holders with water from the sealed butts fed by our gutters and downspouts. Plastic ones have tops so one can lower a bucket in each time. The old whisky barrels only work when the weather stays mild as they freeze up at the tap otherwise. Bitterly cold days alternate with wet mild ones that quickly refill the containers. Baths take on extra significance as deeply pleasurable and refreshing experiences. The old bath water then doubles as grey water to flush the adjoining toilet, so nothing wasted. Fortunate that those water butts installed to sustain us through summer droughts are proving just as useful in meeting this winter crisis.

A walk along the long distance path & good chat with our neighbour taking a break from wielding the chainsaw. It takes him five days to clear the row of elders that had been brought down, blocking the path. Meanwhile we’re re-directed through their garden. The days add up to a week and still our postcode batch of properties have not been reconnected. The sympathy and support from family, friends and neighbours increases. AA batteries, LED camping lights, big candles & so on arrive and we make forays out for other supplies or to plug in devices at the local hotel while having a drink or reading. Some locals are having to lodge there (paid for by the power company) but we’ve not got to that stage yet.

Old Bastle Farm, Southridge and us – four households in all – are without power whilst other neighbours just a few fields in either direction were reconnected within a few days of the storm. To make matters worse on Day 5 a Northern Power Grid person rings to say we can expect to be back on the next day, but nothing happens. National news on day 7 tells us re-connection for the 1,500 or so remaining properties & businesses is not likely to be achieved until next week.

The two freezers are being gradually emptied as they thaw out. The one in the garage/workshop the slowest to unfreeze as the low temperature there helps. We get stuck in to making jam from last year’s fruit. There are also hams to be boiled, mince for chilli con carne for selves and neighbours, elderflower cordial to drink etc. Hate waste but become resigned to losing most of our frozen store.

Kim has retained an old analogue phone to replace the non operational digital one so we can receive and make landline calls, which is a real lifeline. Like other rural dwellers we dread the day when BT completes its national scheme to replace all copper wires with digital connectivity, leaving us with no alternative.

Enforced lockdown has incentivised us to make the best of daylight hours. Kim’s home made Christmas cards (already printed), are written, stamped and along with family presents get posted at the village sub PO. I’ve been quarrying for old wall stone at the field’s end to supplement the needs of the dry stone wallers’ rebuilding our field boundary (more in a future post) while Kim has started creating a series of illustrations for a literature and archeology commission, to be completed in a month’s time (Again, more about this project in a future blog).

By night 6, and sorely deprived of visual stimulation we head out to the bright lights of our market town, 15 miles distant, to marvel with childlike wonder at the myriad of snow white Christmas lights decorating the old streets. We then snuggle down in the warmth and comfort of the independently run art deco cinema to see Jane Campion’s latest feature ‘The Power of the Dog’, enhanced by surround-a-sound audio. A visually stunning, emotionally powerful film that took us, enraptured, to another place entirely. The following night we went to see the local amateur dramatics company production of ‘Whisky Galore’ in the big village’s fine town hall. Another triumph of technical excellence creating wonderful set, lighting and effects for the large acting ensemble, ranging in age from 10 to 80. Everyone contributed in creating a cracking night’s entertainment to lift our spirits.

Night 9 and another mighty storm from the north bearing snow. That evening a knock on the door and flashlight around the corner – It’s our friend and local county councillor Nick, calling on afflicted households to check that residents are coping, and bearing batteries, water cans, blankets etc. in his van. We have a catch up chat and he’s away back down the valley for a long delayed meal waiting in the slow oven at home. Later we learn it was a touch and go journey on treacherous roads with another tree down on the highway at one point.

Sunday morning and the usual drive down to the village to pick up papers. Pull over to watch the wheeling flock of fieldfares, recently arrived a few weeks back from the far north, alighting in a ghostly wave to join a score of lapwings quartering a neighbour’s boggy meadow for food. Back at the house, we catch fleeting glimpses most days of the garden’s resident winter birds – dunnock, robin, wren and blackbird. Winter’s onset reveals more previously hidden former nests; a dunnock’s secure in the spikey heart of a pyracantha bush and a pied wagtail’s atop the woody tangle of an old montana rubens clematis.

The 10th day of blackout (Sun 5th December). Driving back in the dark that early evening from friends – where we’d charged batteries and did a load of washing – arrived home to see lights on in the kitchen. Hurray! We’re back in the 21st century after our extended surprise vacation in the 19th. Still no internet but that can wait. (Posting this on a visit back to Lancaster). When we get that compensation from Northern Power it’ll go towards buying a small diesel powered generator and the necessary junction installation so we’ll be as ready as we can be to face future big weather events.

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