By “The Photographer’s Assistant”
It is the autumn of 1987 and the Photographer is celebrating a hard year of restoration work on a run down modernist house under the South Downs. He has brought his mother to live here together with his children. He wants his family to enjoy real rural life. The children can run and play where they couldn’t before. The whole family can enjoy a whiff of freedom.
For once the Photographer has not had to go abroad and he is expecting a double glazing salesman to arrive at any minute. He is however, uneasy, the whole atmosphere is laden with the sort of heat he usually only experienced abroad, and the sky is a strange orange colour.
The salesman arrives. The children put themselves to bed, while the Photographer, his wife and his mother discuss the double glazing with the salesman. During the evening a strong wind arises gradually until, when darkness has descended, even the Photographer’s mother, who is very deaf, can hear the noise. Fearing that all is not well outside, the salesman has to leave amidst fears that the weather has taken a turn for the worst.
Outside, the trees are blowing uncontrollably, like small twigs in the wind. The one great oak is unsteady and has begun to look as if it is under siege. It is puzzling that the wind continually increases. Thinking that the wind can only improve, the family retire to bed.
Everyone drops off to sleep. A small child wakes the parents up.They are frightened. The wind is the loudest that anyone has ever heard. The noise is beyond description. The Photographer investigates with a great torch and finds that all is not well outside. He is worried. The house is full of plate glass windows. He can see that these are under threat. This is an extraordinary and unbelievable situation. His mother is strolling in a muddled way about the hall and he ushers her back to bed. He makes sure that she has taken her hearing aids out and tells her to stay in her room, which is at the back of the house. All the time, the wind is increasing and the family can hardly hear one another.
Outside, all the garden furniture and loose items, such as watering cans, are blowing about high in the air. The Assistant stays with the children while the Photographer piles the furniture at the back of the house. He is frightened that it will break the windows. The children huddle together in a corridor without glass. They normally sleep upstairs under the great oak tree next to the biggest window in the house, which now flexes in its frame. They are taken down to their parents bedroom, where there are the fewest and smallest windows in the house. During the night, a bump on the roof directly overhead of the bedroom heralds the falling of a huge branch. There is a deep breath, but the branch stays steady. Everyone tries to pretend that all will be well. We all want daylight to come.
In the morning, there is no electricity or phone. The landscape has changed beyond recognition. We have lost countless trees in the garden. Our neighbours have damaged roofs and houses. The houses literally have bits hanging off them. Television aerials dangle dangerously above the road and there are countless pieces of wood and debris lying about. The roads are covered in large fallen trees. There is no way out or in.
Just as the Photographer was regretting his lack of a chainsaw, some of the farmers from the hills appeared in the lane. There were a large number of them and these were the fathers of our children’s friends. Wordlessly, they climbed onto our roof and, all as one, pushed the large branch off. They would bring chain saws down to the village, to clear ways and make things safe.
Two days later, as the freezer, full of food for the winter, began to fail, the Photographer’s motor cycling friend appeared hauling a generator, which was being delivered on rotation to those who needed it. There were countless acts of kindness amidst the confusion.
During the days to come the Photographer worked tirelessly on the mess outside and the children went back to school. No one talked about the storm.
What has this got to do with Dartmoor? It is one of the reasons that we live here. With no exaggeration, the event changed our lives for ever. The Photographer decided that when he bought his next home, it would be safe, but it was many years before he could achieve it. He had always loved Dartmoor and he loved the little town for its fortress like and secure appearance.When he managed, at last,to come here,he bought a house with thick walls and small windows. Above all, there are no great trees overhanging the house and because he had had one experience with what he fervently believed to be climate change, he made sure that it was almost impossible for a river to invade his house. He was sure that the rivers would rise and refused to buy one house that was later flooded.
What about the effect on the children. They never felt easy with the wind again and learned that nature was a great force mostly beyond our control. The eldest child took two degrees based on environmental studies and has worked in the environment for many years now. The youngest grew up to work for a private company specialising in the care of the environment. They both live in the West Country, one in a house with thick walls in the little town, and the other near the River Severn and its flood defences. They both feel for the children who, like them, have found out recently what the weather can do when it comes to call.