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The power of a storm

You can just picture it. A Victorian scene in rural Northumberland. In the distance the Cheviots are shining brilliant white having donned their winter mantle with the first real snow of the season.

The lack of clouds tells you it will be chilly and any jobs need to be done before the sun, which has barely skimmed the hilltops throughout the day, now sinks below the horizon. It is only afternoon yet it's time to light a fire and some candles. A soothing warmth and light to cut through a winter's night.

You can just picture it. I am living it.

This isn’t a romantic take on Victorian Britain, but fully fledged Covid-ridden England in the aftermath of Storm Arwen.

The winds have passed but the power that had been cut, was briefly restored, is now off again. There’s no sign of the brave and beleaguered electrical engineers prioritising this part of Northumberland for repair.

We had been lulled into a false sense of security.

The previous evening had been partly spent mopping up the kitchen floor as rain whipped into a frenzy by the storm found each and every crevice of our north facing door and gleefully found refuge with us inside.

Lots of towels were deployed in the knowledge this was nothing more than futile damage limitation in the face of angry nature.

As the storm raged, registering 98 mph at Brizlee Wood near Alnwick, the TV went black, along with the lights. We’d anticipated as much. All it really meant was an early night with candles casting a dance of shadows on the ceiling as we tried to ignore the howling winds and hope the improvised towel barrier downstairs was holding.

Dawn, and the pool on the kitchen floor was nothing a mop and bucket couldn't deal with. The power was back on and a busy round of clock resetting ensued. As always, understanding the microwave was impossible but random button pushing unexpectedly bore fruit.

The television however had not survived. A power surge or similar rendered the smart TV dumb. With all other electronics working, a new TV had been researched, ordered and was ready for collection in Alnwick by 10 am.

With winds abating we headed off to North Northumberland’s metropolis. Fallen trees littered the road, but chainsaws and heavy equipment had made it passable. Sometimes through a chicane of once proud timber. One car however lay crushed beneath a fir. The front end looked intact. We thanked our lucky stars.

New TV in the boot, a message pinged my mobile. Northern Powergrid informed me of an unexpected power failure in my area. I’d had one the night before as the mobile network had somehow managed to escape the power cuts and at first I assumed this was just a repeat message from the earlier adventures.

But no. This was a new outage and power was estimated to be off until 11pm - a full 12 hours later. With the thought of no hot meal anytime soon we paid an emergency visit to a well known North East bakery chain. At this point even a luke-warm savoury was as tempting as something straight out of a gourmet recipe book.

Once home the priority was the lighting of the wood burner.

Thank heaven we’d replaced the Victorian fireplace which sent all the heat up the chimney with a non coal-based alternative.

That left just enough room to strategically place some saucepans on the top.

If all else failed we'd be able to be fully British and have a cup of tea in the face of adversity.

In the now dry kitchen we had another weapon. A truly Victorian wood-fired stove with an oven. A magnificent Heath-Robinson contraption with cast iron levers. Probably a merely aesthetic addition installed by the previous owners, we had once tested its capabilities and had to abandon the house for a couple of hours while the smoke cleared. Online research revealed it was a Glaswegian design most usually found in the wiles of South Africa. A veritable antique from the days of the empire and wonderfully temperamental.

But I had mastered it once before and felt certain I could turn this ornament into an implement. I was fired up and soon enough so was the stove. A torchlight inspection of the oven revealed a resident spider. A chase with a dustpan brush proved ineffective. I resolved myself to its inevitable fate and hoped it would be but ashes and heading up the chimney long before I put our tin tray ready-meal in to cook.

Would a chicken dish reach the temperature required by the sleeve? The wood burner’s removable thermometer was requisitioned. A target of 170’c fan seemed ambitious as the gauge hovered just above 100’c on the oven exterior.

And so we wait. The local mobile phone mast that had kept going despite the first power cut has now given up the ghost. With no communication with the outside world we resort to a battery powered radio and conversation.

No social media, no pings and rings on the phone, no ability to check who liked my past post. Instead, the flickering of candles and shadows are our offline friends and constant companions in the dark.

For a split second the lights came on and went back off. A momentary glimmer of hope that the ever so slow cooking chicken dish might get a proper roasting in the electric oven faded.

The battery of my laptop is allowing me to write this tale. But it too only has so much life in it. A neat deadline pressure in what is now becoming an eternity without power.

Strange that I am writing this wondering if it will ever see an audience, either because by the time it is uploaded it’s past its sell by date or perhaps the undercooked chicken will take its toll.

I don’t really care if this sees the light of day, because I’ve rather enjoyed the challenges of this Victorian experience…. probably because I have warmth and the loo still flushes. Some modern day comforts I will not give up.

I am however aware that elsewhere out in the darkness, there are people on their own, perhaps vulnerable and no way of heating food or drink.

With no distractions the unexpected peace and quiet allows a moment to reflect.

That new TV, by the way, is still in its box. I haven’t missed it. I wonder if the store does a refund?


Addendum: Since writing that last night, the power remains off and will be for for quite some time. Thea advice from Northern Powergrid is to decamp if at all possible. We have found refuge elsewhere and hence this blog did in fact see the light of day.

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