Beauty and The Beast

 

Snow descended upon most of the UK this past week.  The last icy blast of winter?  This season may feel like it will never end, but I know from experience the days will soon grow longer and beneath that blanket of snow, the snowdrops and daffodils will push up through the ground announcing the coming of spring.

After two months of rain and mud, I welcome the freezing temperatures carried by The Beast from The East (the name given to the arctic temperatures which recently came from Siberia).  Typically, English winters seem damp and temperate, but this unusually crisp, dry and cold atmosphere reminds me of winters in the States.  So cold it felt like my eyeballs might freeze.

The Beast surprised us on its first day:  We awoke to find no water due to a frozen pipe.  Armed with a hairdryer and determination, Roger made quick work to restore our water.   After that, we began leaving a tap on to prevent another pipe freeze.  We were somewhat loath to do this as the water pump working in the night might require the generator to start or drain our storage batteries.  However, we could not afford to have frozen pipes and their attendant problems.  Wisely, Roger started manually running our 30-year old Lister generator each evening to keep it from struggling to start in such cold conditions.  This simple act kept the batteries topped up through the night.

As we adjusted to hard ground, frozen sections of the river, and keeping everything ticking over, we found ourselves waiting for the arrival of Storm Emma.   We felt certain it would be as if we were collateral damage during a match-up of Marvel Comic characters.  And we were.  Emma’s arrival brought fifty-mile an hour wind gusts hurtling down the valley from the north and a dumping of snow.  Each walk with Millie felt like a polar expedition as we made our way through the growing drifts of snow.

Living in a rural area, Roger and I naturally worry about our supplies of food and fuel and the welfare of the hens.   Before Emma and The Beast coupled, we had wisely secured plenty of food, wine, firewood, books and went so far as to bring inside all the watering cans, and filling water bottles should we have another pipe freeze too big for our little hairdryer.  Battened down and ready:  Bring it on Winter!

Looking out the window to the blizzard and all too aware that we could be snow-bound for a few days, my thoughts drift to childhood memories of sledding, building snowmen and snow caves and hoping school would be closed.  The snow outside transforms the meaning of home inside, where we stoke the fire, listen more intensely to the radio, and remind one another of the various tasks to keep ourselves safe and Crockern operational.  We may be considered remote, but in truth we are generally self-sufficient and could easily manage a week or two of isolation.

But, not if we had an emergency!  With equal measurements of sensibility and adventure, Millie and I started up the Land Rover and drove down the track.  There were several large drifts across the track, but the snow was light and fluffy and I was in a four-wheel drive.  I drove through these with glee!   But at the end of our track, there was a drift about 4 feet high, blocking access through the gate.  I grabbed my shovel, and began to dig.  As this was Millie’s first snow, she realised she too could help rid the drift with her digging.  In no time, the two of us cleared a path.

We were lucky.  Some of our neighbours were stuck as there were no passable roads to their houses.  A friend’s generator wouldn’t start leaving him without electricity, which meant no heat or water.  Many friends and neighbours had no water as pipes were frozen; while nearby, a neighbour had leaking in the house from a ruptured pipe.

After the storm abated, most of the landscape was dressed in soft, virgin snow.  It’s magical appearance a reminder of the power of nature.  Across the country, traffic came to a standstill.  Trains were cancelled or delayed by several hours.  Plans to see friends aborted.  When my schedule is disrupted by the weather, I only pretend frustration. Mostly, I sigh with relief: the world has stopped.  When I look at our calendar and all the things I have had to cancel, suddenly many of them don’t seem so important.  Winter slows our pace, disrupts the business of schedules and appointments and reminds us to re-organize priorities.

It’s true, winter gets into our bones and at times can seem interminable, tedious and brutal.   But as the snow transforms the previously muddy landscape, this cold reminds me of the visceral comfort of a warm fire, a glass of wine, rest and a good book.  Hunkering down takes on greater joy!  So too, I am reminded of that sense of excitement and boundless energy to get outside and enjoy the snow.  Shovelling is not a chore, it’s playtime!  Tossing snowballs into drifts for Millie to locate becomes the height of mischief for both of us.

Shortly on the heels of the snow fall, arrived the freezing rain.  Our track was clear of snow drifts, but it was beginning to become ice.  The wind was gathering strength and generating a deafening sound, which all but muffled the moan of tree branches under the new weight of 3 centimetres of ice.

Soon, all the snow will melt, and it of course will mean the return of mud.  But this dreamy-blizzardy-back-drop, sandwiched between the rain and mud of winter, has helped restore a sense of what matters most.

 

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Winter on Dartmoor can easily evoke images of a barren and soggy country-side.  Walking across what best matches a lunar landscape this time of year is to lean into the gusty winds that shoot up the valleys.  The sheep, cattle and ponies all know the sheltered bits of terrain, and if you look through the gorse and rushes, it’s easy to spot the drier paths as the grazing livestock have laced their way across the land.   On many winter days, fogs as thick as cotton can descend without warning.  It’s easy to get lost and every year, some walkers do.

But I don’t mind the weather here.  I like how changeable it is.  Nothing beats coming in from a long walk, to cosy up next to the wood burner and contemplate my next move.  Somehow, this year it has been different.  The weather hasn’t been changeable.  It has been grey, rainy, and windy without relief.  The damp, moist atmosphere has been endless and so too has the mud.

For weeks the clouds have continued to gather, promising rain, rain, rain with seemingly no end in sight.  I don’t know if this has been the wettest winter on Dartmoor, but it certainly has felt like it.  For most of 2018, weather reports predicted more rain, mist, or fog, but nothing to indicate cold, dry or frosty.  Meanwhile, the potholes on the track grew deeper, wider and more plentiful.  Our newly planted hedgerow often looked as if it could be washed away any moment.  And, my mud caked boots felt slightly damp when I put them on to set out for another soggy walk with Millie.  As this wet winter raged on, I felt I had reached my saturation point.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

What’s happened?  As a child, I was drawn to the stuff.  Some of my fondest childhood memories saw me covered head to toe in mud.   I was busy making mud pies, jumping in puddles, or digging in the local creek to find “clay” to make some naïve pottery.   Playing in mud was just good, dirty fun.  I was indifferent to this grubby, gooey and sticky substance.  All grown up, I don’t mind getting dirty when Roger and I are building, digging, gardening, or most recently, filling potholes.  There is something satisfying to working hard and having the filth to prove it.

But after weeks and weeks of relentless mud and wet, it’s safe to say I’m fed up.  I don’t want to go slip sliding away.   One recent morning, as the coffee was brewing, I headed outside to let the chickens out for the day.  Still in my pyjamas, I carefully made my way down the hill to the chicken coop when both feet slipped out from underneath me, and I landed on the ground sliding a few feet further.   Covered in mud, this was not the way to start my day.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

As I righted myself from this soggy patch of ground, I considered the many places in the world devastated by mud, so who am I to complain?    However, days and days of wind and rain, without relief, were making me feel curMUDgeonly.  Struggling to find the glass half full approach, I reflect that there are spas where people pay good money for a mud bath and I’ve just taken one for free in my own back yard.   Mud-runs are all the rage, too.  With a bounty of websites extolling the curative effects of bathing, eating, standing, and sleeping in glorious mud, perhaps I should be more open minded.  As they say, there’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.  Hmmmm.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.  Enough!

Mercifully, we’re now having a few consecutive days of dry and cold weather and with it blazing sunshine and a hard ground underfoot.  These few crisp and cold winter days are welcome by all.  With a break from the relentless rain and wet, the snowdrops and daffodils are all bursting from the ground showing signs of spring to come.  The chickens are happily scratching all about the yard hunting bugs and worms before settling down to spread their wings in the warming rays of the sun.

Walks are becoming less treacherous and the river has returned to a fordable body of water.   At night, the moon glow casts a silvery light across the landscape.  One of the fabulous things about living in the country-side is there is almost no light pollution.  On a foggy, overcast night, it can be pitch black outside.  But when the moon peaks out, or the stars are in full splendour, it is eerie how far the eye can see.   I imagine if all the rain we’ve had were instead a blanket of snow, the moon glow would provide dramatic scene lighting on the stage set of our surroundings.

Our wet winter has left our track in horrible condition.  Roger and I have spent the past few days working to fill the potholes which have grown large in the past months.  Our bodies ache, but we feel satisfied with our progress.  As the day draws to a close, there’s not a cloud above and the sun set is casting a rosy glow in the western sky.  While I am watching the light change, Roger is mixing us gin and tonics to put a close to a hard day’s work.   “Here’s mud in your eye!”

 

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Selfie with Millie as we take a break during a rare dry-day walk.

A NoTORious Challenge

It’s mid-may and we have lit a fire just to take some of the chill out of the air.  As I sit inside warm, dry and questioning the logic of this season called spring, I can’t help but wonder how those teenagers managed the Ten Tors Challenge which brought many of them walking past our house this past weekend, some hiking over 55 miles in two days.

Every May, 2,400 teenagers, in teams of 6 people, aged between 14 and 20, take part in an annual two-day event across the forbidding terrain of Dartmoor following one of 26 different routes.   Without adult supervision, the groups set out to face the challenges of navigation, bivouacking and field cooking all the while, attempting to visit the checkpoints of Ten Tors that are staffed by volunteers in order to get their route cards stamped.   These kids have to be self sufficient while on the moor and so each team member carries his or her own tent and provisions, such as food, clothing, stoves, fuel, navigation equipment, maps, emergency rations and first aid kits.

The event is organized by the British Army and is about more than just physical endurance and hardship; it’s about teamwork!  And it would have to be as there is no satellite navigation, just an Ordnance Survey map, compass and good sense.  Even on a clear day, navigation is difficult on Dartmoor, let alone the challenges faced in low cloud or at night.

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Sam heading towards a tor on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is one of the last wildernesses in England and this national park occupies 368 square miles of hills, many of which are topped by spectacular granite outcrops called ‘tors’.  At its lowest point Dartmoor touches 325 feet and 2,018 feet at its highest. The valleys between the hills carry streams and rivers that can rise swiftly following rain.  The land is peppered with bogs that can trick the unaware walker into danger.

In addition to the challenging terrain, the potential of the extreme weather conditions Dartmoor has on offer is significant.  While the sun may help navigation, it drains energy and burns exposed body parts.  The mist hides landmarks, easily disorientating the less capable navigator.  Gentle rain can be refreshing, but, when it becomes heavy, it can swell rivers so that they cease to be fordable and, when accompanied by dense mist and gale force wind, can even become life threatening.  During the 1996 Ten Tors Challenge, a snowstorm and sleet showers resulted in poor visibility and freezing temperatures, necessitating a mass emergency evacuation of the teams.  In contrast, in 1998 the temperatures rose above 26ºC and many of the teams suffered from dehydration.  While I sit inside with the wind and rain hammering our newly planted vegetable garden, I am mindful of the group of seven boys from Wiltshire who were airlifted off the moor after becoming disoriented and lost in low cloud and worsening conditions in April this year during a practice trek for this challenge.

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Fog Rolling in on Dartmoor

This past autumn, I set out with Sam to do a long hike in an area I hadn’t yet explored.  This was not going to be anything like the Ten Tors experience mind you, but still a small challenge, as I prefer to explore with Roger who is an excellent map reader!  The weather prediction was “cloudy with sun” and not too cold.  Given that the previous few days had seen heavy rain, the promise of a dry day held out hopes for a good walk.  With a positive forecast, I packed provisions, including the OS map, and headed a short distance away by car to begin my walk.

I’ve never been fabulous with directions, but I do okay.  My straightforward plan was to head north for about 4 miles along a bridle path and then circle round a valley back to where I parked.  Generally bridal paths in Dartmoor are friendly under foot, clearly marked and often have groups of all ages walking along them, many of whom have no intention of consulting a map.  About 30 minutes into the walk, I noticed that what should have been a clear path seemed faint to the point of being non-existent.  I stopped to consult the map.  What I discovered is that somehow, I had lost the path and Sam and I were on the wrong side of the river.  Oops.  Heading down a steep and rocky hill, I elected to not retrace my steps and instead, cross the river.

Rivers in Dartmoor are bipolar when it comes to rain.  One day a river is a beautiful babbling bit of water, spilling over boulders, accompanying the birdsong in the air.  On another, that same body of water becomes a raging torrent of deep, cold, fast moving power.  Crossing the river seemed a sensible decision at the time.  After all, it would save me time and get me quickly back on the right path.  As Sam and I cautiously made our way through the deep water, I slipped on a moss covered stone and got soaking wet.  What had seemed such a good idea quickly became a misery and we were forced to abandon our walk and head back to the car.  By Ten Tors standards, this was not an auspicious start.

The great thing about the Ten Tors Challenge is that it is a walking activity.  But, it is also a team event that demands strong leadership, spirited companionship, fitness, skillful navigation, focused determination, and a dose of luck.  Every year teams of teenagers join the Ten Tors challenge and it is an impressive accomplishment, I think, to decide to participate, let alone complete it.   When we moved to Dartmoor and took on the projects at Crockern, we knew we were moving to a wild and rugged landscape that would provide challenges.  The team approach is key and I don’t think Roger or I could pull this off without the other.   For me, when Roger is around I know if I get soaked from a misstep in the river, he’ll listen to me moan and then prepare me a nice hot beverage while I dry my socks.

After a fall in the river

When Roger fell in the river in Scotland, I took this picture!