I keep hearing that we’re in for a bad winter here in SW France. Apparently locals are beginning to have feelings in their bones/waters/guts…The old saw about the profusion of berries in the hedgerows being the harbinger of this terrible winter-to-be is frequently mentioned despite the fact that, logically, it is the result of the earlier good spring and plenty of blossom.
The miserable wet weather of late resulted in my having a clear-out on my computer. I came across the files for a book I wrote about my life as a hill farmer in the Yorkshire Dales (never to be published). I skimmed through it wondering whether it was worth keeping and came across the chapter about the winter of 1978/9. I thought I would share it with you and give you some survival tips. Admittedly some might need adapting for those who pursue a suburban lifestyle!
I moved to the Dales in spring 1978, to a small isolated cottage in the middle of an old stone quarry, 900 feet up a hillside and a mile off the tarmac. It had land with it and I had been bitten by the self-sufficiency bug induced by too much reading of the books by the then s-s guru, John Seymour.
Tip 1 – do not believe a word the so-called experts say. It is likely their ‘wisdom’ comes to you from an armchair and a book they once read or read once.
Christmas 1978 approached and whilst inside my cottage I made merry with friends and family, outside, winter stole in. The sky grew leaden and heavy. By dusk snow was falling; light, fluffy, twirling flakes like you see in a Walt Disney movie but without the singing. My sheep were already covered in a fine dusting of snow.
‘Ah it won’t last’ I said to myself with the confidence that comes from sheer ignorance.
Tip 2 – do not fall for the schmalzy snow stuff they put in the movies and remember that innocence is no excuse for ignorance.
In the morning it was a changed world, a dazzling white scene. There were none of the familiar rocks and hummocks to be seen. All was a smooth icy white sheet. The sheep – my Hells Angels – (they could go very fast; over, under or round any obstacle and made a lot of noise) found themselves well and truly blocked in down the hillside. They bleated and blared, marooned up to their bellies in snow. The Great Winter was beginning.
Tip 3 – keep your sheep close (or anything else you value – car, spouse, partner, kids, Fred the Ferret) and your shovel closer.
Looking back, I shudder to remember how unprepared I was to face the 78/79 winter. Fuel stocks were low; the freezer nearly empty; dwindling hay, straw and feed for the animals whose appetites seemed to double overnight. The relentless white stuff just kept coming. My little lane filled up and I spent most of my time dragging a sledge with hay bales, sacks of coal or whatever was required. I dressed in treble layers of woollies and a large shovel became my new best friend.
Tip 4 – take the mattresses from your beds – you will not have time to sleep. Turn them into sledges for all the family. Be careful any broken springs do not cut you. However if they do, the cold will keep the pain away.
Everything was held in a painful icy grip. The hens kept to their hut. The few eggs that came usually cracked in the cold. Even the geese the most hardy of creatures, sought shelter. In the metallic half-light of morning, Gulliver goose and Mrs G would waddle out from under a gorse bush and follow me to the feed store. He would tap angrily at the door and hiss.
“Hello ugly” I would greet him
“Shiss, shiss” was the invariable reply, before spitting rudely at me and rattling his feathers, coated with ice droplets like a thousand tiny sequins.
Tip 5 – Do not piss off your goose, just cook it for Christmas instead. Better still, be resourceful; hide your own and nick your neighbour’s.
In the garden all the winter cabbages and broccoli disappeared under the snow. I’d netted them against the rabbits but times were so hard for them that they tunnelled under the snow, nibbled a neat hole in the net and then chewed their way through the frozen leaves. When, eventually, the thaw came, all that was left was a tangled collection of holey netting, rows of smelly cabbage stumps and suspicious heaps of round black pellets.
Tip 6 – Be kind to the wildlife; they have to survive too. Nor should you eat your pets or family members. However you may wish to take the opportunity of ridding yourself of some of your less-than-satisfactory neighbours – although long, slow cooking is recommended.
After about a month of this hard freeze, it started to blizzard again and the east wind howled bringing down a maelstrom of swirling snow and ice.
By this time I had managed to get my car to a neighbour’s house where I parked it. Foolishly I decided to try my luck at driving it home along the lane. Halfway, I ran out of luck and straight into a massive snow drift. I pushed, stomped, crawled for half a mile to reach the cottage, carrying a precious bundle of supplies on my back. (You have to remember this was forty years ago. I wasn’t as doddery as I am now!). It was a complete white-out; road, walls, fields and the sky itself merged; no boundaries, no landmarks to guide me. Sharp spicules of ice cut my face and the shrieking wind deafened me. Sheer stubbornness and bad-temper kept me going (and still do) until I finally made it to the cottage. In my kitchen warmth enveloped me, steaming up my specs and melting the snow and ice from my clothes. I staggered to the nearest chair, dripping pools of water and too exhausted to care.
Tip 7 – cultivate the right attitude. Bloody-mindedness is always of benefit. The deeply philosophical phrase “Oh bugger” uttered at intervals is also most helpful.
The arctic winter dragged on well into the New Year 1979 and the lane to the cottage remained impassable.
There was a savage beauty in the surroundings but for those who had to get to work and earn a living it was a very difficult time indeed. I became accustomed to floundering through the snow and ice, carting supplies, cutting logs and on one or two occasions helping to dig neighbours’ sheep out of drifts or fodder their outlying cattle. Anyone foolhardy enough to want to visit this winter wonderland, was press- ganged into carrying small parcels of vital supplies such as chocolate or ciggies.
Tip 8 – Make an unbreakable rule: all visitors must come armed with luxury goods as defined by you and must bring their own shovels and snow-shoes.
The weather did bring out a sort of community spirit. My nearest neighbour lived about a mile and half away alongside a cleared road. He took in deliveries of feedstuffs for all the cut-off outlying farms. The telephone kiosk at the side of that road became the location for a drugs drop whenever the vets could not get to a farm.
Tip 10 – only make use of your neighbours if you can be sure they will not run off with the stash.
The icy surface of the snow could be positively dangerous. Once as I made my way across the sloping side of a drift at the top of the quarry, I lost my footing and began sliding helplessly towards the quarry edge and a seventy foot drop. I thrashed around helpless; dug my heels into the frozen crust, but to no avail. It was sheer luck that at one point the drift did cave in underneath me bringing my slide to a snowy stop and I was able to creep away to safer ground.
Tip 11 – ‘Exercise’ is unnecessary. It is a much over-rated activity and you will get enough of it just trying to get through the day.
By March cruel, icy winds swept across the lying snow and the water supply to my cottage and barns froze. The water came from a spring a little way up the hillside. My days were filled lugging water to the animals and into the house. Inevitably, I slipped on the ice. It was three strikes and I was out. Legs shot out in front, head shot back and the precious water shot all over me. Result – concussion and a chipped elbow bone.
Tip 12 – fill whatever you have with drinkable water to tide you over. If you have paddling pool fill it – ignore the kids’ protests. Fill every possible available container you can find. Store outside and you will have ready-made ice to act in lieu of your freezer when the electricity is cut off. Be frugal – the less water you have, the more you will want.
Eventually, in early April the icy grip on the land began to loosen as a westerly wind gusted in. It was still cold; hailstorms and showers pelted down with monotonous regularity. But the snow drifts shrank and retreated from the milder air. Most welcome of all was the return of running water. The days of a discreet tiddle in the bushes were over. The old familiar landscape re-appeared, washed-out and drab and I picked up the threads of a more ‘normal’ life.
Tip 13 – Run away! Run away! Find somewhere warm to hang out until it is all over. You can send postcards to all your friends saying how hot and sunny it is. They will not be delivered of course. But think of the smug satisfaction that will envelop you.
That was my first taste of a Dales winter. Now, some forty years on and armed with this experience, if there is to be something similar as the Jeremiah’s predict, I shall do things differently. I shall turn my back on it all, lock the doors, close the shutters, put on numerous layers of mismatched garments, get under several duvets and hibernate. Possibly I may see you all when spring is sprung. Possibly you may think I am dead but more likely I will just smell funny.