It always strikes me as odd that the moment winter starts, this country always behaves as though it were the deepest surprise imaginable. Goodness me – snow! And cold winds! The roads become impassable, the railways stop, the airplanes ice up and the Power goes off – and we are astonished, nay, amazed that temperatures can drop so far in this green and pleasant land.
In fact winter hit Caithness in a big way just after New Year with the coldest winds, the severest storms and the heaviest and most damaging hail. Swiney House where Iain and I live was, we know, up and running in 1750 because there is a reference to it in a book about Caithness where a man “comes down the coast to have breakfast with his cousin in his new house at Swiney.” And we know who the cousin was. So the old place has seen some weather in its time and stands remarkably firm, give or take a slate or two or a crack in the stone facings here and there. But when the power goes off, it is a very cold old house. We discovered that there were two fireplaces in the hall, covered up now, of course, and fireplaces in most of the rooms – long hidden beneath plasterboard, alas. When we bought the house we were entranced by the previous inhabitant’s artistic skill in depicting flames rising from the electric wall heaters and cut out birds in another place which was immediately named “the Roasting Robins room”. Thinking back to our childhood, there was, of course,very rarely any central heating in houses and Iain and I recalled darting along glacial corridors to the warmer climes of the sitting rooms. We remembered the agony of hitting your toe on the stone hot-water-bottle put into the end of your bed to warm it and icy linoleum in the bathroom, if you couldn’t find your bedroom slippers. There was always, of course, the kitchen range, hungry for coke (a kind of coal), but reliably providing hot water and a surface to cook on. In this day, I rely on a kettle set on an ancient primus stove for hot water and two mobile gas rings for anything more sophisticated than a boiled egg.
In my childhood, spent in the country in Cumbria, we had a haybox into which went a hot stew or pot of soup to keep up to temperature for the man of the house’s meal. Years later, when in London we suffered under rationed electricity during the ill-fated Miners’ strike, I made another haybox. We cooked when we had power and then stored the result deep in a box lined with the guinea pig’s hay. The guinea pig was elsewhere, I hasten to add. We also used a trick which had been taught to my mother – a Yorkshire woman – by a lace maker. You light a candle and set it at the centre of four filled water glasses. The result of this is to provide four pools of light in which you can work. The children and I used to play cards this way. But, oh the joy when the light came back on and hot baths could be had once more.
And it’s now that we should all be thanking our lucky stars for the intrepid men (and women) who go out in atrocious weather and mend the power lines that are down. We should also be singing the praises of the men with the gritting lorries who keep the roads open for us to creep out and buy the milk. I’m afraid we take it for granted that these things will happen.
So to those of you who, in your own countries, regularly end up under six to ten feet of snow without the same sort of help and without even a grumble, spare a thought for your wimpy friends over here. I don’t think we are programmed to enjoy winter in general. Somehow ski-ing and sledging are so much more fun in the sun. So here’s to Spring. I notice that the bulbs are beginning to come up in the drive – probably a bit too early, but if they can be hopeful, so can we. Happy New Year to you all.