Friday, November 9, 2007

Under the influence

News today of the tidal surge in the North Sea and its flood potential reminds me of the Great Flood of Carlisle in January 2005.

It also brings to mind a local furore about the alleged baleful influence of the Cursing Stone of Carlisle; erected in a local subway to celebrate the Millennium, this is 14 tonnes of polished granite with an incised copy of a comprehensive curse, which had been proclaimed on the local “Border Reivers” in 1525 by Gavin Dunbar, the Archbishop of Glasgow. But more of this later, when I’ve told you about the storm.

My husband had gone to work well before dawn, to deliver fertiliser with his 24-tonne wagon. Living as we do on a Northern rural hilltop, high winds and lashing rain are nothing unusual, but he says, looking back, that the weather when he left home was calm. I was snoozing in bed around 5 am when I began to be disturbed by the sound of the wind. It grew, and grew, and I woke fully to realise that the crashing noises mingling with screaming air meant something very dangerous was happening. As I huddled under the bedclothes, the crashing was studded with clanging, and something heavy hit the stone wall just below the bedroom window, so hard that the old house shuddered. I dismissed right then any thoughts of going outside. I stayed in bed and listened to the gale until day broke.

The electricity had been cut off. However, the wind and rain had eased a little, so I decided to go out and feed the ponies who were in the adjoining stone stable block. I dressed and went downstairs and opened the back door.

Well, exit that way was impossible. A thirty foot pine branch (the heavy “something” that had hit the house) had been hurled over the top of my Transit-van sized horsebox from the other side of the yard. It had crashed through the perspex roof of the passageway and was hanging over the outside loo. Other branches and a sheet of roofing tin blocked the steps up from the back door to the yard.

I retreated and went out through the front door, on the sheltered side of the house. At the bottom of the field, the beck ran at twice its normal width. The fenceposts had vanished in the flood and all the riverside trees stood waist-deep in angry brown water.

I covered my mouth and nose with my hand, and braced myself to go round the end of the barn into the battering of the rain and wind. I hung in their grasp for a moment like a kite poised to take off, then forced myself round to the stable door. Something must have hit the roof hard, because all the slates were askew, but the door was shut and the rafters and battens had held, and the ponies, though nervous, were unharmed. I picked my way through the debris to the feed bins and back, and gave up any thoughts of shovel and muckbarrow. Later, perhaps, when the wind died down a bit more.

Once I had fed the dog and the ponies, I started to take stock. The clanging noises of the dawn explained themselves: all the twelve-foot long corrugated roofing sheets from the hay store lay, twisted, among the trees, and down the yard, and over the roadside fence in the field a hundred yards away. The fallen pine branches in the yard paled into insignificance when I looked through the driving rain and saw that in the wood seven magnificent spruce trees had been snapped off, as though a giant hand had seized a tuft of grass and wrenched it; the trunks were split and twisted at ten feet from the ground, and the tops cast away, one perched on another to make a 40-foot T, while a dark and tangled mass of wood and broken stone blocked the river bridge. Thank God our little road is a quiet one; between flying steel and falling wood, the pre-dawn hours had been lethal.

I dragged away the branches and tin blocking the back door steps, and went into the house to dry out and make some breakfast.

Lack of electricity is no great hardship to our remote household, because power cuts have always been a possibility in winter. It is only forty years since “the electric” was provided to this area; we are always prepared to manage without it with candles and matches, torches, batteries and fuel. (In fact with the tonnes of wood that had been felled in the last few hours, we were going to have more fuel than we could comfortably deal with for several years.) The Rayburn stove was fairly sizzling from the draught in the chimney, and the bottled propane hummed through to the gas burners, so breakfast was no trouble.

Although the radio batteries hadn’t been renewed for some years, they didn’t fail me; Radio Cumbria came through loud and strong. Over the next two days the BBC staff at Carlisle – stranded by floodwater themselves – kept the county abreast of the storm damage, warned of impassable roads and informed those flooded out where refuge centres were being set up. They deserved medals as big as dinner plates for their cheerful endurance. You couldn’t blame them for making the most of the funnier stories that appeared: for instance, who could identify the goldfish that had been found swimming in the penalty area of Carlisle United’s football pitch?

Warwick road and much of Carlisle was flooded six feet deep; Hardwicke Circus and its underpasses became a lake, with traffic lights up to their necks in dirty water. Gangs of Council workers armed with chainsaws spent the next month snarling their way through hundreds of country roads blocked by fallen trees.

2005 was a dreary year for Carlisle. Hardly any of the flooded houses were habitable again in that time. In March, certain foolish remarks by Councillor Jim Tootle (you couldn’t make it up) made national news: “A local council is to debate whether to remove a huge stone from the city because it is thought to be cursed. The 'Cursing Stone' in Carlisle was made to mark the millennium, but it's being blamed for a string of bad luck that's met the city since. Fires, floods, foot and mouth disease and even a famine of goals for Carlisle United have convinced locals that the stone has to be moved or destroyed.” (

Those of us who laughed sardonically at the idea are now vindicated: the stone remained, all 14 tonnes of it. The 2007 foot and mouth outbreak didn’t reach Carlisle, we haven’t had any more floods, and Carlisle United leapt through two divisions in two years and from being relegated to the Conference League they are now topping Division 1.

Under the influence? I don’t think so. East Coast, keep your pecker up and don't throw away any stones.


Mary Witzl said...

My God, Sue, what a story! The part that really got me was the bit about the twelve-foot corrugated roofing sheets from the hay store lying twisted among the trees. That's not something you want to see flying at you, is it? We live just up the road from Carlisle and I remember that we got a fair amount of rain during that time. But you really had it bad. And Mr Tootle and that wholly appropriate name of his, honestly!

I used to have an aunt in Florida who secretly loved hurricaines and the sense of drama and togetherness they brought. She always felt awful in her guilty appreciation of them, knowing how cruelly destructive they were. But the candles, the huddling around kerosene heaters, the romance and excitement of the storm always made her feel so alive. said...

yThe only great flood that lies in my personal experience was the one at Maitland on the Hunter River. It features in the Oz film Newsreel . I remember being on the train coming down from my university as it rolled through it; and the stench!

We have what is known as willy willies ,small dust storms like miniature tornadoes that usually sweep the dusty plains. I have seen one ,though, race up alongside a house near ours and twist the top off a fruit tree, and one that left a huge flattened swathe down a hillside. There must once have been one in the gully at Dondingalong while I was away, too, as quite a few trees had come down.
Most impressive , though, was the waterspout that I watched travel up the bays, a couple of hundred yards off Coogee Beach.

And not even a curse stone in sight !


Sue Millard said...

From the way that the tin sheets were found in the following week, the wind must have travelled like a twister that morning - some went north, some east, and the trees certainly seemed to have been wrenched around. It really was a nasty storm - local wind gauges measured over 140 mph.

Incidentally Britain is said to have the largest number of whirlwinds/tornados of anywhere in the world - it's just that ours are much smaller and thus less destructive. I know of two that passed within 2 miles of our house in the past few years. (and have photos of the result of one to prove it!)

Mary Witzl said...

That is amazing, and I had no idea. Next time I talk to anyone from the American Midwest I will be sure to mention this!

We saw a tornado from a distance once when we were travelling through Iowa. Even from many miles away it was a scary sight: a great, purple-black column of smoke pointing down to the earth like a witch's finger.