Here in France, thunderstorms are a way of life. Hot air from North Africa meets colder air high above France; with climate change, these storms are getting worse. Not only are they more violent, they produce huge downfalls of rain and hail, called grêle. The stones can be up to the size of an orange, smashing roofs, buildings, vehicles and stripping grapevines in seconds. The national grid is not resilient to lightning surges, so everyone has to disconnect routers, computers and TVs.
Do you find thunderstorms exciting or frightening or somehow beautiful? Do they conjure up spooky images of strange happenings from the power of the weather?
Time to get pen to paper!
I thought it was about time I did some writing – it’s been too long! So here’s my response, Nigel.
“On the 15th January 1952, winds stronger than any recorded in Britain before came roaring in from the south-west. The wind had reached gale force by 3 am and kept rising, peaking about three hours later.”
So begins a report on the terrible hurricane that hit Orkney in 1952.
A serviceman arrived in Orkney during WWII had written to his mother a decade before expressing surprise that army huts were wired to the ground, cows tethered to graze, and when we visited Orkney for the first time the place where we stayed for a few days on the south coast of Orkney at Orphir, had its summer house firmly tethered by wires that were concreted below ground level.
It reminded me of our experience in West Wales a good dozen miles in from the coast. When we had arrived at our twenty acre smallholding on our moving day, with 6 goats, 2 cats, a sheepdog, six chickens, a teenage son and one of seven, on the shortest day of the year just as night was falling, we had to build a stall around the goats in the barn, the darkness lit only by torchlight. The cats were fed in their travelling box and the dog tethered in the open barn for the night before we unpacked the hay lorry we’d moved in. All our furniture and worldly possessions were put into the cow shed. Then we thanked our farmer neighbour from our old place, for all his help bringing the livestock and the kitchen butler sink and so much else that his trailer grounded on Devil’s bridge, and turned in, in our uninsulated fourteen foot caravan, bought sight unseen to give us some sort of roof over our heads.
Mark went back the sixty-five miles to fetch the second load of our chattels next morning, whilst the boys and I took water from the standpipe, sorted out the kettle and sterilised, milked the goats, made ourselves some breakfast with the eggs and the milk we’d had that morning. There were no fences, but our goats were so used to orange electric netting that we strung up some orange baler twine and let them out in the space enclosed by that, and they happily stayed within its confines. We’d not got any electricity, hence the deception. We spent the next days looking for work, mending rooves and walls, and generally making the stalls goat proof – no mean feat. I found work plucking chickens for the Christmas period, just a few days, but it helped pay our way. A sack full of apples brought with us, meat which our kind new neighbours stored in their freezer for us, orange juice bought in bulk and for some reason a sack of raisins, and flour brought with us, gradually could be expanded with some bought fresh vegetables.
Things went well until Mark started building a stall for the stud male goat we’d buy in the summer. He built using hollow concrete double skin blocks, threading pipes through to hold the roof securely in place.
When the hurricane struck the Tregaron area in July, our caravan, head into the wind, rode out the storm like a ship on the sea, bucking and rearing. In the morning we heard that all the fifty odd caravans in the caravan site in Tregaron had been destroyed. We were lucky, but Mark’s building work not so much. The roof had flown off, complete with metal rods and attached concrete blocks and smashed the only good roofing on the goat stalling in the barn.
I imagined that the Orkney storm was of this nature. But the hundred and twenty miles per hour winds of 1952 had made people homeless, and the initial costs were estimated to be one million pounds. Amongst the casualties the entire population of a thriving egg industry that supplied most of Scotland and much beyond too, had gone. The chickens and hen houses were smashed, and blown out to sea. Fishermen heard chickens squawking in henhouses far out to sea. A year later on 31st January 1953 a crisp calm morning belied the chaos that was to follow.
The sea wall washed away entirely within three hours, the water main was moved cutting off water to the largest town Kirkwall, and flooding one of the main roads to a depth of three feet. The windspeeds reached a hundred and twenty five miles per hour.
I love the power of storms, thunder and lightning don’t frighten me despite my older son being hit by lightning when he was seventeen, and the sea in a storm is a sight to behold. But I must admit, that sleeping in the north west corner of a very old house here in Orkney, I do close the blind if there is a big storm, to avoid being showered with glass, if the window shatters,. There are nights when I lie awake listening to the power of nature. I’m not a true Orcadian, as it’s said the children sleep soundly when the wind roars down the lum.
wind shrieks in the lum
shells rattle on the roof slabs ~
bairns snug dream in bed.
*(Lum is the Orcadian word for a large open chimney.)
Great topic Nigel!
And a powerful response Gill.
The worst storm I’ve ever known hit us three months after moving to France. Being newbies, we didn’t appreciate the power of a French ‘orage’.
About an hour before it struck, a friend called to warn us that a big one was coming. At the time, we had relatives with small children staying with us. We put inside anything that might blow away. As we had no garage, both our cars were outside.
The first sign of the onslaught was a yellow, darkening sky. Then came the wind, a howling banshee reaching over 100mph and driving before it hail like pieces of broken pond ice. It was so dark as to be like night.
Our tough old house withstood it all, save for a broken window – right where the internet router sat! The children were really scared and were sick.
After half an hour or so, it blew over and we ventured outdoors. One car had dents and broken mirrors, the other, a nearly new model, suffered grievous bodily harm. It was peppered with tiny dents, the lights and mirrors were smashed and trim covered in scratches. It cost the insurance company €4,500 in repairs.
At the bottom of the garden, a massive oak had been wrested from the embankment and lay across the road. Luckily, our farmer neighbours are contracted to keep local roads clear and swiftly appeared with chainsaws and a tractor. As they worked, their mobile rang off the hook and the farmer’s wife fielded numerous calls about more fallen trees.
Others nearby took far worse punishment, with entire roofs blown off and serious damage to property. Our roofer had a year’s work in one village alone.
Since then, we’ve kept an eagle eye on the weather forecasts and take precautions whenever a storm is threatened. Another kindly neighbour offered space in a barn for the cars. But we’ve also come to accept that thunderstorms are endemic in France. C’est la vie!