The things that Arwen taught me

From the 25th to the 27th November 2021, our house was buffeted by a named storm: Arwen.

We’ve weathered storms before – lost power, lost water, lost light in the winter dark. I’ve been in homes where the central heating has failed completely in the snow and we’ve huddled together for warmth – pressing our hands against the vents of feeble laptop fans in an effort to win back some feeling.

But those times were nothing like this. This was brutal in a way that the weather hasn’t been to me before.

But first, let’s head back to July, 2021…

One morning, beneath a sky of swallows, the components of a greenhouse that I’d waited a literal decade for arrived on the back of a trailer. We’d planned to purchase one in 2020, but because of the pandemic, prices rocketed and supplies dwindled as the UK took up gardening. A greenhouse couldn’t be had for love nor money.

Finally, that July, having saved up for eight years to buy one, they were finally in stock at our chosen retailer. It was my turn to own a greenhouse.

But…

Concrete shortages as a result of both Brexit and the pandemic delayed the process, and so the structure sat in pieces in my shed and I was forced to be patient for a little longer. In the end, the farmer helped us to secure and install offcuts of a flatpack concrete barn as flooring – oversized tongue and groove panels, hoisted over the hedge by friends and received by my brother and husband – crowbarring the three one-tonne slabs into place. Finally, on November the 23rd, the structure stood proud in the most sheltered part of the garden.

You all know where this story is going. I’ll spare you the details.

This wall should be vertical…

In short, one pane smashed, warping the frame at around noon on the 25th. We fought it until we couldn’t any more – packing plastic covered cardboard over the hole and using three rolls of tape in the process. The frame had warped too much though, and by the time the children had been rescued from school, we’d lost the doors.

At this point, it was no longer safe outside and so we retreated indoors – every glance at the garden revealing new devastation.

Then we lost the light.

And the power.

And part of a bedroom window.

Overnight, we lost the water supply to the house too.

We shut the cat-flap and made makeshift litter from a plant pot’s drip tray and some newspaper. With great trepidation, Husband braved the weather to take the dog out for the night. Then we withdrew to our room, children gathered in and around our little double bed as best as I could make us all fit.

The next day, the true extent of the devastation revealed itself – not only had we lost the greenhouse and some of the window casing, but we’d also lost over 20 of the trees which flanked the road to the farm – ancient beech giants which had stood like a guard of honour since at least the 1800s when they first featured on an early Ordinance Survey map.

After villagers attempted to saw through to reach us.

I wish I could show you more pictures of the devastation but the children are in most of them and I’m not keen to post their likeness online. If you look at the above image though, and imagine a full 7 trees down across the road, with a further three fallen, but balancing over the throughway against the branches on the other side, you can start to get an idea for the loss.

Messaging friends over the mountain, it became evident that we weren’t the only ones impacted. One of the parents at school had a tree fall not only on their conservatory, but also on their oil tank – the fuel contaminating the whole garden and seeping under the garage, necessitating its demolition for decontamination. My parents ended up being without power for 70+ hours, my brother for over 100+. Their cars kept them warm, as they drove to collect fish and chips from food vans provided by the council and the power company.

We hung my bike lamp in the living room for light, and cooked on a combination of the log-burner and the gas hob. Growing up in the North East at the start of the oil boom has distilled in me a ritual for when the power fails – a fossil in my habits from before the infrastructure here could cope with the number of houses being built.

If the lights go off, I fill every vessel which can hold water, close the curtains, and shut off any room I won’t use.

With the water gone and no way to get out for more, I was grateful for my sometimes icy childhood. We invited the neighbours round to share our fire, knowing they had none, and we spent the morning chatting, as on top of the previous night’s foul weather, we watched snow fall.

After forty-eight hours – longer than the greenhouse stood – the power flickered back to life.

Relaying it now, it’s evident that this occurred over an incredibly short time, all things considered, but I feel like it was something of a seismic event in my life, for multiple reasons.

Since the storm, I’ve been so grateful for things I previously took for granted – running water, for one. I I’ve always been conceptually thankful for it, but having to flush the toilet with buckets of freezing rain from the one water-butt which remained standing has a real way of highlighting what a luxury a flushing loo really is. I’m grateful that not everything in the house runs on electricity – ironically something I was trying to remedy in an effort to be more ‘green’. Our gas hob burns fossil fuel, yes, but it meant that we could eat during the power outage – something we wouldn’t have been able to do had we not had it. The fallen trees meant we couldn’t do what other people did, and utilise food vans or delivery services. I venture we’d have found a way, but to not have to think about that on top of everything else was a luxury I was glad of. I was grateful for the Bluetooth speaker and the ability to charge Husband’s phone via its USB port. I was grateful for my bike light, and the mountain of ‘decorative’ candles we inherited from my mother in law.

I was also acutely aware of how exhausting it is to be cold. The house I lived in growing up, and which used to lose power with reasonable regularity, was a 1970s bungalow which my parents had insulated, and which housed an oil-fired Aga at its heart. Even in the coldest of power cuts, we could huddle around the huge iron block of an oven, enjoying tea and toast at regular intervals. My house is not a 1970s bungalow – it is a 1901 farm-workers’ cottage. It is cobbled together from stones picked off the field. If it ever was insulated, the moths and mice have scurried the wool or straw away through generations of pests and we are left with granite. And only granite. One little Danish log-burner couldn’t hope to combat a storm like this – not alone. When unemployment hit us, it did so at the start of the summer and though it ate through our savings, we didn’t have to think about how we were going to heat the place. Hearing about fuel poverty now feels like a visceral dagger – that people have to experience bone grating cold when it is preventable leaves me awake at night. I know I need to find some way to help.

The farm sold off the trees it needed to clear and for months, our weekends sounded like chainsaws. Groups of people from the village came with trailers and equipment and left with firewood. The quantity they took was staggering. The wood in this picture is what was left from one tree – the people who bought it thought that this wasn’t worth taking with them. I am so, so grateful that the farm lent us their trailer so we could bring it home. Some I’ll season and burn, and some I’ll hopefully craft with.
The volume is greater than that of my car by at least 50%.

Less than two months after Arwen we suffered two more storms in close succession – Storm Malik, and then Storm Corrie. The power remained off for even longer this time but I knew I could survive them. Arwen hardened something in my soul.

I’m still waiting for another greenhouse, and it was still too high a price to pay for that tempering, but I’m grateful all the same. Because I know know, beyond doubt, that I am strong and resourceful.

The frame and remaining glass, incidentally, was collected last month by someone who found me via Freecycle. She took the panes to mend her neighbour’s greenhouse, and the metal of the frame to make an enormous chicken run. We received a dozen eggs in return, and it feels like a good trade.