Monday, 3 November 2008

Weather wisdom

Saturday night was just a bit too exciting - not the nightlife, of which there is little in the middle of a field, but the consequences of the weather. The wind was rather more than our porch awning was made to cope with, and poles snapped, allowing the porch to collapse against the caravan door - trapping us inside! Jeffery managed to force the door open, as the roof fabric ripped across, and he re-arranged the guy ropes to hold things open, while he removed the broken poles - after we had rescued all the washing, and food, stored in the porch! It was great fun, in the pitch dark, with a manic porch trying to entrap us in its folds. Yesterday my heroic husband managed to mend the poles (narrowly avoiding losing a tooth in the process) and replace them, so our porch still stands, if somewhat the worse for wear. If we continue to be beset with strong winds, I have no great hopes for its longevity, but in the meantime we hope for a dry weekend, to try and repair the rips. The episode set me thinking about other times when the weather has played havoc with my life, and made me realise how very lucky I have been in that regard - I can only recall one serious re-arrangement of life due to the weather.

In 1977, when we had first moved to Orkney, the Islands had their worst winter for many years. Orkney is a glorious place, and I am still homesick, despite having left in 1982. It is a place of sweeping vistas, awe-inspiring skies, and relentless winds - I can remember, on one occasion, having to turn my back to the wind, and put my hand over my face in order to be able to breathe out, the wind was so determined to go UP my nose! Once you have been there a little while, you either get used to, and enjoy the wind, or you have a breakdown - or leave! I learned to love the wind, but that first winter I also learned never to underestimate it, you learn quickly when you make the mistake of opening a car door with one hand and have it torn from your grip, taking skin with it, and nearly tearing the door from the car itself.

I and my children had been living in a lovely static caravan, parked in the shelter of the disused deep-litter chicken house where my partner at the time had his pottery. As winter approached, we thought that it might be wise to rent something a bit more sturdy for the winter, so we rented a bungalow from a friend. The bungalow was usually a holiday let, and was very luxurious after the caravan, it was all electric, with plenty of heating and space. We had a cosy Christmas, cooking lots of lovely Orkney produce in the spacious kitchen, and enjoying the long nights with the Aurora Borealis to make us gasp. However, come the New Year, 1978, the weather started to get worse, and finally we had warnings of severe weather on its way - and in Orkney, you take such warnings very seriously. Very shortly, we had blizzards confining us to the house, and then the power went off. This is a risk you take for granted in such windy country, and you have alternative sources of light, heat and cooking to see you through a day or two - the engineers are very experienced, and don’t take long to get things up and running again.

This time, things were different - there were impassable snow drifts even on major roads, and the phone wires were strung with HORIZONTAL icicles! All the water pipes were frozen, no-one was likely to have electricity for weeks and almost everyone was completely snowed in. Well, there was plenty of pristine snow to melt for water supplies, and the children were delighted not to be able to go to school - or anywhere, much, in fact! We had given my eldest daughter a sled for Christmas, which came into its own, carrying all sorts of supplies across the sparkling white fields, but we only had limited non-electrical heat and cooking supplies, and the bungalow was rapidly becoming a miserable place to be. The caravan had ample gas supplies, and was a smaller place to keep warm, so the sled was pressed into service to transport all our possessions back to the caravan!

It was certainly a wise move, as we were cut off for quite a long time -2 snow ploughs broke their drive chains trying to clear the road at the bottom of the drive, and eventually it was cleared with shovels and man-power! In the mean time, I had still 2 children to care for, including a little girl who was still in terry nappies at night - you have no idea how much snow it takes to wash just one nappy! We have a few pictures, still, of 2 swaddled children, and a sled, grinning in the snow, oblivious to the struggle it took to keep them warm, dry and fed!

Some years later, coincidentally when we left Orkney, in 1982, we encountered similarly determined snowy weather - we very nearly didn’t mange to get off the islands, and when we reached the mainland we had an epic journey south on the train. We rode through dramatic snowscapes, with more and more frequent weather-induced stops as we went further south. Eventually we reached Hereford - and got no further for a couple of days. The buses weren’t running and the roads outside the city were barely passable, so we were stuck in a hotel for a couple of days - the cat didn’t think much of it all! Eventually we found a taxi driver who was willing to try and take us to Hay - another epic journey! When we arrived at Jeffery’s little cottage, we found the back door completely blocked by snow - the whole alley was full to the tops of the doors, and snow drifts in the loft.

As I look back at these memories, I find I am deeply grateful. Not only did we survive, but we had fun, and we all came to have a new appreciation of how lucky we are to live in modern times, with so much protection from the dangers and discomforts that nature assault us with! What has made human beings so powerful is our resourcefulness, and these episodes make me glad to still have a bit of that left.

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