Storm Eric arrived with a vengeance. It really needed a name like Titan, or Zeus – somehow the name Eric seemed too gentle for this one. The rain was relentless but that’s ok, we are watertight. It was the wind! Such huge gusts! The well-respected, accurate (and often lifesaving) Shipping Forecast (for inshore waters in this area) advised westerly winds force 6 to gale force 8, occasionally severe gale 9, backing to southwest 5 or 6, then veering northwest 5-7 later. We are fairly sheltered from the north, and a little from the West, though the westerly winds hurtle over the top of the barn and slam down onto the yurt. South-west and North-west winds are really not great, though an Easterly is by far the worst. My farmer friend at the top of the hill says we are sheltered down here, but I’m not so sure. Someone has installed a full-size wind turbine just along the valley a mile or two from us. To spend that kind of money a wind research survey must have supported the prospect of strong winds running along this valley.
The shipping forecast is the ultimate source of information. It has shaped a lot of my life, starting with childhood camping holidays in North Wales, where I learned to milk cows. Later, when I first took Gigman to North Wales and we sat playing monopoly by candlelight (he always won), we would listen to the late night shipping forecast as the wind battered the caravan threatening to tip it over. The 00:48 broadcast starts with the magical notes of Sailing By, giving all those out at sea a clear signal to tune in their radios. For me, even in a tent flapping alarmingly in a rainstorm, it has always instilled a feeling of calm and reassurance of solid information to come. I have often imagined a lonely fisherman sitting on a boat in the middle of the sea finding some warm comfort in those notes, before the announcer starts working their way around the shipping areas; Sea Areas, Inshore waters, and coastal stations (lighthouses etc). It is always in the same familiar order, always simple and clear. Not always good news. Except for somewhere called Lucas, which I have rarely heard described as anything other than calm. I think I want to go there.
Last week we had snow. It came down so fast the whole of the county was caught out. I left for the school run with light flakes drifting down after a morning of torrential rain (and thinking, like everyone else, there was no way it would stick after all that rain). I casually chucked handfuls of salt grit out of the car window as I drove up to the main road, to assist my return journey, just in case. By the time I got to the main road three miles away it was all white. It was a slow but passable drive to school . By the time I’d collected the kids (from a snow-free school), vetoed the back lanes (some of those hills are tricky enough even without snow) and got back on the main road the snow was thick, deep and heavy. Then we reached the bottle-neck we navigate daily with milk tankers, straw-delivering articulated lorries and the occasional Eddie Stobart lorry. (I am from the generation that cheers “Eddie Stobart!!” and chalks up a little mark on my internal eddie-stobart-spotting list. I am training the kids too, though the drivers don’t hoot the lorry horns any more).
We waited to drive up the hill for over an hour, watching the snowfall increase. Loads of lorries were coming down the hill. They seemed to be churning up the snow so I thought we could manage without the snowchains. When, eventually, it was our turn to go and we could finally see up the hill, it was carnage! There were abandoned cars all over the place. Leaving a clear space after the van in front of me, I got traction and put my foot down. We were doing really well, past the halfway mark, when the van slowed and stopped to get around something. I stopped too and then it was all over. There was no grip to be had.
I got the snow chains out but despite having fitted them in the past, I couldn’t get them on. Asking the kids to hold the chain loop while I rolled the car back into the chains was not feeling like something a responsible parent should do. But desperate times and all that, and between lobbing snowballs at stuck cars they did try and help. The snow was getting stuck in the chain holes, freezing the chain and my fingers too. Eventually a kind bloke in a landrover offered us a tow and we slid up the hill behind him, tied together with baler twine. At the top of the hill he went off to catch his sheep who had chosen that moment to escape from their field,. We slid on a bit further before getting stuck again, only now it was dark and we were in the middle of the road. A tractor rescued us and towed us far-enough to get on the level. We slid downhill the rest of the way home, pretty scary but with the kids in the car I was being very brave and trying to explain why you don’t touch the brake on an icy hill…….
We wouldn’t have got home with those tows, and I will be eternally grateful for the help we had. Stories appeared on facebook and local radio of the kindness and generosity of locals: people offering beds and food in their homes to stranded strangers; a well-known pub on the big trunk road offered sanctuary to a few hundred people who had been stuck there for hours; farmers came out to tow stuck cars. It was heartening to hear so many stories of people helping each other out.
We fed the poultry – the chickens weren’t impressed but the ducks didn’t seem to mind too much once their water became water again.
The next morning, what wasn’t snow was ice and we were properly snowed in. We walked up to feed the lambs who are on holiday at the top of the lane. It was rather beautiful. The littlest person got a tow on the sledge most of the way up, but the thaw had started as we came back down again.
Edited to add:
I’ve been trying to find Lucas on the shipping map since I wrote this. It’s no longer used in the shipping forecast and I couldn’t work out why. Lucas, on further investigation, is actually Leuchars, near St Andrews in Scotland. It was an RAF station until 2014 when the last defence squadrons left and then in 2015 it was handed over the the British Army. I’ve not yet been able to find out when it stopped being an coastal weather station, but it seems likely it was around the same time as the handover to the army. I’m still searching……
In the meantine, if you’d like more detail on the magic and tradition of the shipping forecast, I’ve found some here