02 December 2010


Yes, as everybody knows, we are snowed in in Northumberland. It happened last winter, and at the time the local council explained away its not coping, assuring us that next time they would be better prepared for extreme weather. Well, this winter came early and is much worse than the last, but relief is less in evidence. 
The road to Bellingham has been treacherous - I skidded off it last week, and didn’t stop until a hawthorn stopped my descent, leaving my car badly scratched. It took two kindly locals to pull me out, one with with her four-by-four and the other barking out instructions with mildly suppressed impatience at my poor understanding of the  emergency motoring lexicon. That was last week.  For the last three days this road has remained innocent of grit or snowplough, leaving its users to our own devices. My own device has been to leave the scratched vehicle parked past the bridge to avoid last year’s doomed struggles on the battlefield of my drive and the communal private road. From this vantage point I was able to dig it out for a slog to Bellingham to get supplies - such as they were - three days ago. Since then my raked vehicle has stood at the bridge gathering snow, resembling more and more an overiced birthday cake. Fresh attempts to break a path out for it have been greeted with the mockery of Nature, who would proceed to cover the grooves of my shovel with plentiful new waves of snow, even as I shovelled. 
Which is why last night, when I followed the Bouvier on his final outing, I was struck by an eerie stillness where all commotion had ceased. The snow had settled, the wind had stopped, the air had a cruel clarity to it, and the sky was the starriest I remember. Each star was making a textbook display of itself, lacking only the name tags for the astral ignoramuses like me. The constellations outlined themselves with such incandescence that you could read in them any form, not just the requisite Orion with his belt, but the features of your own imagining, your own unbridled dream. You had to admit that Nature knew how to inspire as much as how to punish. At least when it chose to. And, for a moment, you had to forget all the harm, all the hassle, and be thankful for the beauty. 

12 November 2010


In an unwelcome contrast to sunny Cochabamba, the Northumbrian heavens have been open almost all the time since my return, and without a moment’s pause in the last four days. 
The unsightly stables on the side of the house have now been dismantled, allowing an unobstructed view of the river. This in most circumstances would be a highly aesthetic experience, but in the present weather conditions it is a stark reminder of nature’s ferocity. Over twice its usual height and width, the river flows with vertiginous speed towards its confluence only a few hundred yards away. Its usual murmur is a prominent part of our quotidian soundscape, but what we now hear is something different: a roar of intimidating fierceness.   
If I hadn’t come to trust the wisdom of the ancient builders of Northumberland, and if this trust were not often reinforced by the savvy locals - “they knew how to build houses then, and where” - I would be living in fear of being swept away in my sleep, family and dog and cats included. But I have come to trust this place. The weather has changed around here thousands of times before, whipping this land without mercy, but the house has stood its ground. 
I live within yards of a river, surrounded by tall trees, flanked by a hill at touching distance, and with no neighbours to shield me from the forces of heaven. When nature chooses to unleash its power, these are its tools to wield it. They are the executors of its might. Sometimes their actions make me feel nature’s destructive breath on my face, and hear the swoosh of its claws just missing my head. But history suggests that I, my family and our surroundings will survive this test too.