The Great Storm of 1703

Storm CloudsLiving in Somerset makes one acutely aware of not only how extensive the flooding in the county is, particularly around the Somerset Levels, but also of the extraordinary duration of the flooding. It was on Christmas Eve 2013 that the area experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall when the flooding commenced and now, six weeks later little has changed in this aquatic landscape, leaving one with a literal sinking feeling the Somerset Levels are becoming tiny semi-permanent atolls of habitation. It is little wonder that Alfred the Great chose this area as a safe and impenetrable retreat to initial flee from and then fight the Viking invaders.

At long last following tremendous pressure  from the triple verbal onslaught of local Members of Parliament, farmers and residents, the Government has agreed that finally local rivers will be dredged to alleviate future flooding, the very point that locals have been campaigning to achieve for years. The problem is that dredging operations cannot take place until the riverbanks are dry and firm enough to safely support the weight of dredging equipment. With a seemingly constant bombardment of storms rolling off the Atlantic Ocean, one cannot help but wonder if that may be some time away and will the Levels remain under water for months to come?

The prolonged flooding and storms triggered a distant historical memory of a natural disaster now known as the Great Storm of 1703 which befell the UK. The storm produced a exceptionally low atmospheric centre with observers noting readings of only 973 millibars but it is thought that atmospheric pressure may have fallen as low as 950 millibars over the centre of the country.

Thanks the inspiration of the author Daniel Defoe, he advertised nationally for people to write to him with their personal accounts of the storm. It was the first time such a national reckoning of a disaster event and it’s aftermath had been accurately recorded. The thousands of letters he received led Defoe to write his renown book “The Storm”. It was calculated that between 8,000 and 15,000 lives were lost overall. The West Country of England was badly effected particularly around Bristol. Hundreds of people died on the Somerset Levels, the very area which is flooded today, along with thousands of sheep and cattle. The ferocity of the storm was so great that one ship was found 15 miles inland. Across the country storm damage was extensive with over 2,000 massive chimney stacks blown down and over 400 windmills destroyed. Many vessels were lost at sea.

Clearly natural disasters are nothing new, some like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes are difficult to take advance preventative measures against, but effective advance planning can help reduce the loss of life, damage to property, livelihoods and transport.. One hopes that the preventative measures promised for the Somerset Levels are not a one-off operation but part of a sustained effort for the future. Perhaps Somerset’s global mini-disaster will prove to be something of a wake-up call that maintenance in all its forms is something that cannot be neglected in the future.

September 2012

Stag’s Head Inn, Yarlington, Somerset

One of the nice things I find in life is both living in Somerset and now being retired. The latter now gives my wife and I great opportunity to explore in-depth the former. Quite frequently we go for a drive either in Somerset or elsewhere in the West Country with no particular destination in mind other than where the winds and fate takes us. Normally we take a Sat-Nav with us on these trips, not to take us anywhere but to ensure we can always find the way home again.

I find Somerset is something like a jewel encrusted treasured crown. The gems are places, history, myth, scenery and people.  I have never been a believer in the magical connotations of mythology but I do love history and recognise that history does form the basis and half-truths of much myth.

One such gem we recently encountered was the Stag’s Head Inn at Yarlington. Accessed via hilly twisting and definitely one vehicle width only, narrow country lanes, the tiny village of Yarlington  is set on the crossroads of four such thoroughfares. Small as it is, Yarlington was mentioned in the Domesday book under the name Gerlincgetuna meaning the settlement of Gerla’s people.

The  Stag’s Head Inn is thought to have been established in the 1850’s replacing two independent ale houses. The lunch time menu was surprisingly varied with a good choice of modesty priced inclusive meals including tea or coffee representing exceptional value for money. Neither service or food could not be faulted and the decor quiet and tasteful. I liked the centre table which incorporated  the workings of an old cider press. Although I did not venture into the public bar, it could be observed on entry and reminded me of a very comfortable and delightful old time “snug” which seem to have died out out of fashion in most public houses.

Even when settling the bill with a well-sated appetite I was presented with a further two chocolate mints with my receipt. As a member of staff said, they did not like customers leaving still feeling hungry. At that moment hunger was the last thing on my mind and I gratefully pocketed the mints for another occasion. I find it is little touches such as this that make life so pleasant and worthwhile and I certainly will be visiting this little gem again.

18th Sep 2012

IMGP1594September started with a visit to the Dorset County Show held on the outskirts of pleasant town of Dorchester. The day was warm and sunny with a fortunate brief dry spell before the show ensuring the ground did not become a mud bath. The showground has a number of arenas allowing for the simultaneous display of the many and diverse activities one would expect of a mainly rural county. Equestrian competitions, livestock events, trade and handicrafts, farming as well as popular attractions just to name a few of the events going on throughout the day.

By midday many thousands of visitors were onsite milling around the numerous marquees and exhibitions. Various food halls always prove to be something of a magnet for the crowds with their vast array of delicious delicacies all begging to be sampled. This years mouth-watering display of produce proved no exception.

Displays of what can now be considered historical tractors are always a popular crowd puller as well as their more modern descendants which now tower above mere mortals.

IMGP1601Amongst the popular attractions was a daredevil stunt show which included car crushing monsters of vehicles and Titan the robot. Titan toured the large showground on a specialised vehicle stopping at random location to put on a show of singing, dancing and off-beat comedy to the delight of young and old alike.

IMGP1606Christian Moullec

Also flying above the shows at various times during the day in a micro-light aircraft was the Frenchman Christian Moullec accompanied by his gaggle of flying geese. All the geese raised by Christian since birth consider him to be their ‘mother’ and follow him everywhere he goes even in the air.

By the end of the day, all of my friends who were with me including myself were feeling very weary and footsore as a result of touring this most enjoyable of large county shows. Carrying heavy bags each filled with half a lamb bought at greatly reduced prices from a local butcher exhibiting at the show back our cars greatly added to our satisfied and pleased weariness. Saturday evening was certainly one for a hot bath and feet-up relaxation period.

IMGP1588 Titan the Robot

March 2012

Spring has Sprung – A new life has begun

The lambing season is now in full swing and the field next to my garden is used for lambing at this time of the year. The weather this weekend is very warm making mowing one of my laws a pleasant task. By perchance I noticed a sudden movement in the adjoining field close to my fence as a ewe gave birth to a lamb. I ceased my mowing, grabbed my camera and took a the pictures below. The lamb in the photographs is only a few minutes old. With that I went back to my mowing with the strangely pleasant feeling that a new life had just come into the world.


DSCF0250This year March has arrived not in keeping with the traditional saying of coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, but with rather a very unseasonal, yet still very welcome burst of warm sunshine. This unseasonal warmth has caused the daffodils to burst into flower earlier than normal and the profusion of bright yellow everywhere is a feast for the eyes as the drab winter draws to a close. The warmth has brought forward traditional chores like mowing the grass earlier than anticipated. I have three lawns at my home plus an additional grass strip, all far larger than the more traditional lawns found in many suburban homes. While this sea of green has a comforting restfulness on the eye, there is still a price to pay in the additional workload of keeping it under control. In the West Country where my home is located, grass grows far more profusely than Eastern England mainly due to warmth and plentiful moisture than abounds in this region. It is one of the reasons that the dairy industry flourished in this part of the country.

A few new-born lambs can already be seen in the fields but in the next few weeks as the lambing season is in full swing, great flocks of lambs and their mother ewes will be seen everywhere. This great seasonal explosion of new life is also a noisy time with the bleating cries of thousands of hungry lambs calling out to their mothers. As the years have passed, I have become accustomed to watching the habits of newly born lambs in the fields around me. For about the first two weeks they will not venture from their mothers side. Every footstep the mother takes is immediately replicated by her offspring ensuring they remain in close physical contact. After these initial two weeks, the lambs tend to take notice their fellow lambs in the flock and as their strength and confidence grows, gangs of lambs can be seen chasing around the fields. Frequently a lamb will attempt to suckle from a strange ewe but they are always brushed aside. Ewes know which lamb is their offspring by scent alone and will let none other feed from them.

Kingsdon Inn 2

In the village where I live, a number of our friends have formed a birthday luncheon club. As our birthdays tend to be spread throughout the year we usually go out once a month for a pub lunch with the celebrant choosing the venue. The celebrant also pays for the drinks while everyone pays for their own meals. Last month we went to a local pub called the Kingsdon Inn. This is a 300 year old thatched pub located in the village of Kingsdon which I can see on a distant hill from my home. I had not been to the Kingsdon Inn for some time due to a fire destroying not only the thatched roof but much of the upper floor too. Fortunately their were no injuries and extensive refurbishment is now complete. We have many similar pubs in this part of the country where very goods meals are served at modest rates. Most of these local pubs are family businesses with a superb welcoming atmosphere. Service is usually friendly, personal and swift in contrast to the atmospheres I have sometimes experienced in some of the more commercially owned chains of public houses.

I will be making a trip back to the “Big Smoke” of London in the forthcoming week for the funeral of my last aunt. Every time I return to London it seems to have changed once again and it is not a place I now particularly enjoy visiting. All my life until a few weeks ago there has always been an older generation in my family. Now with the passing of my aunt that older generation is no more.  It is a strange feeling that I am now the older generation. It is also a strange feeling that overnight I became the patriarch of my greater family.

Although born and bred in London, the greatest enjoyment I now get from the place is when I leave it. My journey home normally takes me south along the M3 motorway before joining the start of the A303 to the West Country which then takes me all the way home. Once pass the outer ring of the M25 motorway, buildings rapidly melt away giving ground to the open countryside that I now find so reassuring. As the journey continues, the volume of traffic also rapidly decreases as motorway turn-offs to the various towns are reached. I normally find that as I approach and then pass Andover, traffic volume is whittled down to almost nothing. It is as if the various turn-offs that line the road around Andover act as a great sponge, mopping up most traffic that has journeyed that far from London. Beyond Andover the scenery gives way to the great rolling countryside of Salisbury Plain. As we climb the hills of this plateau, we near Beacon Hill which was a designated spot for a great fiery beacon to give warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Beacon Hill sticks out like a sentinel guarding the approach to the West Country before we soon pass Stonehenge with its many visitors, providing there is still light to view this monolithic structure. To me apart from its fascinating and controversially debated history, Stonehenge is also a milepost signalling that Somerset and home is only another 40 miles away.

January 2012

January has arrived heralding the start of a new Somerset Year. Christmas and New Year celebrations despite their recentness are now rapidly receding into the depths of memory for the next 11 months before the whole festive process like the fabled self-resurrecting Roc, once again arise anew from the ashes.

Many holiday visitors to Somerset or anywhere in the West Country have lingering thoughts of warm halcyon days spent on beaches, walking the lush fields or visiting seemingly exotic places of interest. It’s strange how the further away a location is from where we live, the more exotic places appear to become. The New Year has become something of a tradition when people start to think about their next Summer vacation made even more endearing by the bleakness of winter. At the moment, although temperatures are nowhere near freezing, outside is grey, damp and windy making thoughts of the next holiday even more desirable. While many people have travelled abroad for holidays, with current economic uncertainties both at home and abroad it is likely that many more people will this year seek what has become known as a Staycation where people stay at home and take short breaks away.

It is likely the forthcoming Olympics will also have a major impact on summer holiday plans. I have many friends who live in Newham, the London borough that is hosting the bulk of the Olympics. Many are tired of the on-going upheaval caused by preparations for the Olympics and who want to get away from the area for the duration of the games. None of my Newham friends has tickets for any Olympic event or are aware of other locals who have any, either through self-choice or the inability to obtain any.

Weymouth is another location much closer to home that will be hosting the sailing arm of the Olympics. Weymouth has always been a popular seaside town based on the Jurassic coast that survived the decline many similar seaside towns suffered. There is a possibility the Olympics may discourage more regular holiday makers from staying there this year. The concern of possible increased hotel and parking charges plus additional traffic and any other temporary restrictions that may be imposed, especially at a time of severe financial restraint, can be strong deterrents to the average holiday maker whether they actually materialise or not.

Outside these potential problems, the magnetic allure of the West Country is still strong for people wanting to get away from it all, even if for just a short break. The population of Somerset for instance is only just over half a million compared to about eight million for a much more condensed area like Greater London. It is little wonder for those whose everyday vista is confined to terraced housing on the opposite side of the road with similar visually restricting rooftops behind them, the urge to get away grows by the day.

As for myself I was London born and bred and have personally experienced these escapist feelings. Now after living more than twenty years in Somerset I certainly know I will never be going back.

12/01/2012 Update

Cheer the Olympic Flame but not with flags

During the early Summer, the Olympic Flame is due to wend its way throughout the length and breath of the United Kingdom. Three of the locations the flame is due to pass through are all within a ten minute drive of my home, Yeovil, Ilchester and Somerton. The main event although likely to be relatively brief at each location will never-the-less to engender something of a carnival atmosphere wherever the Olympic flame passes.

Whenever semi-public events like street party takes place, lamp posts and houses suddenly become decked with bunting which seeming miraculously appears from nowhere giving the location a festive ambience. However the question of cost of providing official Olympic bunting for this event has caused great concern on each of the three local councils who all came to the same conclusion they simply could not afford it.

One local council claims the cost of official Olympic bunting is £92 for 20 metres plus there are also unspecified restrictions on its use. If correct, this does seem an extraordinary high price. A quick internet search shows a UK bunting supplier who can supply the same length of long lasting Union Jack bunting for 10% of that price. Bunting of less complicated design and print processes costs even less.

Two of the councils have already opted to decorate using bunting designed by local schoolchildren.

It makes one wonder just how many other councils throughout the UK may shortly come to similar decisions?

March 2011

Yes March is finally here.

March has at long last arrived much to my great pleasure. The weather in March is not normally something to shout about, however to me it is a much looked forward to transitional month. A month where winter gradually slips away and the emergent spring gives way to warmer climes. Daffodils are already open adding a first welcome slash of colour to the garden and grass is showing its first tentative signs of waking from its winter slumber. March is normally a busy time in the garden undertaking initial grooming and tidying up after the ravages of winter. The March winds are already here but I know they will subside as the month progresses, hence the saying, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

In the West Country where I live, grass grows lush and profusely and is the reason why so much of the dairy industry is based here.

March also holds the potential promise of six months of good weather ahead. It remains to be seen if the British summer months fulfils that promise. Light in the evenings is already noticeably lengthening by about 2 minutes a day and I swear the psychological effect of lengthening days helps sap begin to rise in humans as well as the trees. I have been in tropical areas during most seasonal periods throughout a year although there, the seasons mainly seem to consist of either wet or dry and hot or hotter. There is little variation is daylight times and about 6pm every evening, the day rapidly gives way to night. Evening meals are normally eaten in the dark in the tropics. My Filipino mother-in-law once stayed at my home during the summer months and as we prepared to eat dinner about 8pm, she said she could not eat as it was still light. She would prefer wait until it got dark. When my mother-in-law was advised that she would be waiting until after 11pm to eat, she rapidly learnt the meaning of  the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In this case it was when in England, eat while it is still light in the summer months.

March is also marks starters orders for outdoor activities be they domestic, social or sporting. The Grand National is the starting gun for national sporting events. It is the last race to be run jumping over hurdles or “sticks” as they are often known. The hurdles of the Grand National are however gargantuan by comparison and I often think the jockeys must have nerves of steel as the approach each jump in turn  to see what must appear a solid wall rapidly looming in front of them. There is little room for the jockeys to manoeuvre as they are hemmed in by the massed numbers of horses surrounding them on all sides. March is the last practicable month to run this race after which the ground begins to harden increasing the risk of serious injury to both horse and rider.

Yes March is finally here, let outdoor festivities at long last commence.

%d bloggers like this: