A Hurricane in a Teacup

With much of Britain recovering from the effects of three storms – Dudley, Eunice and Franklin – within ten days and Storm Gladys about to arrive, it seems appropriate to have some up-to-date thoughts on the time when we England experienced a hurricane. Or did we experience one? After the ridicule that poor Michael Fish, the weatherman, had to endure after he proclaimed in 1987 that “Britain doesn’t have hurricanes” only for the nation to wake up to find itself flattened, the forecasters have avoided using the ‘H’ word. Instead we have storms that are now named in the same way as hurricanes. Even more recently still, we are told we have ‘red alert’ storms. So, were these latest storms hurricanes or in reality were they, as my late father would have said, “just a bit of a blow?”

I wrote the thoughts below many years ago when pondering on the English Hurricane and the later 1990 storm. That wasn’t officially a hurricane either but did far more damage – hurricane-like damage, in fact. The only thing that this and these latest storms prove is that the debate hasn’t moved on very much over the intervening years…

The dangerous work of reconnecting electricity continues through the night

English people constantly talk about weather. It’s in our makeup, our genes – we can’t possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can’t help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn’t that interested (or, for that matter, even if they don’t speak English, when we madly gesticulate skywards). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. So, in the spirit of being a true Englishman, despite my part-Polish ancestry, I’m just going to mention that we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.

I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where’s our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.

The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. I lived at that time in the middle of one of these woodlands and am frequently reminded that, as the rest of the world cowered in their beds and the trees came crashing down all around our house, I woke up to say “a bit windy out there” before falling asleep again. As dawn broke the true damage to the landscape (but fortunately not our home) could be seen.

It is now over thirty years since that storm and the woodands have been transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move – time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their ‘roof’ of mosses.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don’t forget to tell the next person you meet!

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The Boy from London

I am a hills person.  I love walking – or even better – cross-country skiing in the mountains. I can also admire the huge skies and vistas of flat country.  However, it is with hills that I have always strongly identified with.  So, when I’m asked “where was home for you?” it isn’t the county of Buckinghamshire, or even the village I was brought up in that I respond with, it is the hills and the Chiltern Hills in particular.

A country lane in the Chiltern Hills winds its way through dense woodland

As a child, I lived on the very edge of the village and not being schooled locally and with no children of my own age nearby anyway, I learnt to spend many hours on my own during the lengthy holidays. Although our house was close to the River Thames I found fishing of limited interest preferring always to be out walking or cycling.  As I grew older I travelled further afield exploring the lanes, fields and woodlands, learning all the time about the ways of nature.  Back in the fifties and early sixties people seemed to have more time to answer inquisitive children about these things or, perhaps, it was just that in those days people were more connected with the natural world so were able to answer their questions.  Whatever the reason, I became more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about country ways than I ever did with schoolwork.  A consequence of this is, when asked the question, “where are you from?” I respond without hesitation (and with a certain degree of pride), “I’m a Chilterns man.”

A childhood spent exploring the fields and woodlands that surrounded home

It was not until I reached the ripe old age of 49 that I moved away from the Chilterns to start a new life in the Cotswolds.  Although as the crow flies, the Cotswolds are not many miles away (I can even see the distant Chilterns from the top of my lane) they are very different in character, the former being chalk and flint country, the latter limestone.  But it wasn’t the exchange of deep, wooded valleys with few, if any, streams for a landscape of far-reaching views, fast-running brooks and drystone walls that I noticed most of all, it was the language.  When I moved to this then unfashionable part of the Cotswolds twenty years ago it was still a forgotten corner of the world where, even if the local dialect had mostly died out, the twang of local accent hadn’t.  It reminded me of, for it is related to, the south-western tongue spoken by many of my country cousins and also by my friends further west still.   So, when I gave my usual response to the question, I was rather peeved to hear it acknowledged by the words, “so you come from London way, then.” 

A Chilterns cottage built using the local flint
Cotswold cottages look very different and are made with local limestone

Now, I hasten to say, that there is nothing wrong about being referred to as a Londoner.  It’s just that our capital city is as much a foreign land to me as it would be to an overseas visitor.  Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but somehow, I just don’t relate to city life despite my mother being born and raised in London’s West End.  She had come to the Chilterns as an evacuee from WW2 through her war work and there met my father, a local boy – but that’s another story.  Suffice to say, that I am a child of two halves – I have country family and I have city family much in the same way as I am a child of two cultures and two religions.  Despite my relating to country ways and to complicate matters further, (although I should be used to it by now), it is to my mother’s culture and religion that I feel a closer affinity to.  It still grates, ‘though, when I’m thought of as a townie.

City girl sophistication meets country gent: my parents soon after marriage

As I mentioned earlier, school life didn’t hold much appeal and so I persuaded my parents that I should leave aged sixteen.  As soon as I could, I took myself off on my bicycle to holiday in Devon.  Leaving Exeter with tent, camping gas stove and billy cans loosely tied to the crossbar I clanked and clattered my way along the lanes of Dartmoor.   At the end of each day I would pitch my tent wherever I could and reflect with delight upon all the new experiences that had come my way.  Getting hopelessly lost, I ended up at Westward Ho!, a small seaside town on on the north Devon coast.  From there I travelled east finding the hills becoming ever steeper and the villages further and further apart.  One day, I ended up on a remote farm on Exmoor where I decided I would spend two days to recuperate before heading for home.  It didn’t happen. 

The 16 year old hits the road!
Remote hill farm, Brendon Barton where I intended to stay for only two days

Looking back, I can’t imagine what my poor parents were thinking for there were no mobile phones or credit card statements for them to track my progress or whereabouts.  I would telephone them occasionally or send a postcard always being deliberately vague as to where I was staying.  In the meantime, I remained at the farm working – at first for food then, as I became more established and with the tent discarded, for a bedroom and beer money.  By the time my parents turned up at the door several months later (after some shrewd detective work) I had settled into my new life and rapidly adopting the ways of the hard but exhilarating Exmoor life.  Dragged back home to “get a proper job” I never completely left Exmoor behind.  Every spare moment was spent on the farm and, as regular readers of my blog will know, I still spend as much time on Exmoor as possible.  Being a National Park, the landscape and buildings of Exmoor haven’t changed very much over the 50+ years since I turned up on Lorna and Dick French’s doorstep although they have, as have most of the others I knew in those early days, since died.  To my dismay, there is one other thing that hasn’t changed at all: when I respond proudly to the inevitable question with “I’m a Chilterns man”, their response remains the same: “So up-country then?  London?”  Over the years, the ‘boy from London’ has become ‘the man from London.’    And I’m sorry, Londoners, Mum and cousins – I don’t like the label!

Dick & Lorna French who welcomed me into their lives and in the process changed mine