Monday, 30 July 2007

And the rain came.

And the rain came. I watched the news whenever I could and my heart ached in sympathy for those that had lost their homes to the water, and in one case that I saw, a lady had lost her two cats and her grief made me cry.

Tewkesbury and Gloucester aren’t that far away from me and I watched as the water levels rose, from the safety of my own home. Jimmy had to go down to London on the Friday (20 July) and as I was going away the next day, I spent the afternoon doing my housework and getting packed. The sky was leaden grey and I lit the fire when I had finished and sat staring into the flames, hoping that Jimmy was ok. He’d left at 5.30am and I hadn’t heard from him for a while and I felt the butterflies in the base of my stomach that I always do when he is on the road. The flames curled around the logs and I just sat and stared, willing him to phone me.

The sharp ringing jolted through me and I leapt up for the phone and felt the relief coursing through me at his voice saying “Hello, honey. I’m on my way home but it will be late. Probably around 11pm – traffic is hell and so are the roads.” I always say the same thing – it’s a bit of a ritual with me: “Drive carefully, love, please. Watch out for the nutters and stay off your phone!” He’s got hands free but I still think you’re not concentrating if your yacking to someone, and he hates been alone on long journeys as he is such a chatty person, by nature.

I knew I wouldn’t settle properly until he came home, so had a bath and put my dressing gown on. Dinner was an “open the fridge door and gaze inside” kind of affair, as I’d meant to be going to see Jess in her school play and having dinner at mum’s. The weather had seen the play cancelled and I didn’t fancy the fifteen minute journey in torrential downpours and mum had said to stay at home and keep safe. Little did I know how good that advice would be.

There was no letting up in the rain, and I could hear it running through the drain from the guttering into the soak-away at the front, praying that it could take that volume of water. We’re lucky that our cottage is on the brow of a hill and raised up from the lane. I stood at the bedroom window and watched the river of water flowing down the lane and knowing exactly where it would pool into a reservoir at the bottom. Time ticked on slowly and 11pm came and went. There was no way I could go to bed until he was in. I drank more tea and fed another log to the fire.

Quarter past midnight and he rang. He’d started off on the M4 (he usually gets off at Swindon and drives the rest of the way on the A419/417) but the traffic had come to a standstill. He’d found out there’d been a land-slide and managed to get off and go on the M40 to Oxford. More grid-lock. He’d grabbed a kebab (don’t go there!!) and then got on the A40 towards Cheltenham. He had no idea how fast the water was rising around him, and I told him the roads that I knew were closed from the internet and Ceefax. We plotted his journey home and I rang him with regular updates. Sod the “no phone” rule – this was serious.

Eventually, he got to Gloucester but, of course, this was flooded and he had to negotiate the back-doubles to get in the right direction for home. By the time he had arrived at Corse/Staunton he was faced with a sea of water and abandoned cars loomed out of the darkness at him. He turned around and tried to get across country but was faced with a pond of grey, swirling water wherever he looked. There was no choice but to go back to Gloucester and try another way – via Newent.

By the time he had reached Dymock it was gone 2am and I couldn’t face another cup of tea. The fire was holding on by its teeth and I refused to add more wood. He’d be home soon and all he’d want was a shower and bed.

2.15am and he rang again. The Leadon had burst its banks and taken the little hump-backed bridge with it. He’d tried to get into Ledbury to come around from the other angle but everywhere was closed. He’d come all that way and was stranded five minutes from home.

The wonderful landlords at the Beauchamp Arms had got the pub open all night and were serving hot drinks, sausage/bacon baps and offering the floor to anyone who needed it. It was packed with stranded travellers and locals alike, who just couldn’t get round the broken River Leadon. “I’m okay, love, try and get some sleep. Somehow I’ll get home in the morning – even if I have to swim.” Sleep? Yeah, right! But at least he was safe – in the warm and dry.

I was up early and rang mum. How on earth were we going to go to Devon today, with all this going on? I couldn’t leave without Jimmy being home. We couldn’t get out of the village last night, but I had no idea what the local roads were like this morning. Mum, being mum, got her beast of a Discovery out and said she would come out and see for herself. There’s no telling her. She’s ex-army and thinks she can take on the world, even if she is 60!

I was amazed when I heard her pulling on the drive. She told me the top road was clear now but that there were loads of abandoned cars. It was spooky – like the end of the world or some sci-fi film where vehicles littered the empty roads as if some great plague had befallen man-kind. The bottom of our lane was still like a reservoir, but passable with care in a 4x4. She’d spoken to a bus driver on the Gloucester route, and he’d said the A38 was clear so, if we went to Devon, that was the way to go. But there was no way we were going until Jimmy was safe and sound at home. If we could get out to go at all, that is.

Alfie barked and I shushed him, but then nearly fell over when Jimmy walked in. He was ashen but smiling his twinkly smile and we hugged. He’d set off on foot – trousers rolled up to his knees and tried to walk home. The Leadon was running far too fast and he knew he’d get swept away so turned back again towards Dymock. Then, he set off towards Ledbury, wading along the road past the golf club which was completely under water. A huge Somerfield lorry appeared from nowhere (well, Gloucester actually) and offered him a lift into Ledbury. This sized vehicle was probably all that could get through so he thought he’d go to my mum’s but once in Ledbury, he saw a farmer he knew out with his pick-up. To cut a long story short, he got a lift back to the village hall and was home.

We’ve been lucky. So many have lost their homes and some have lost their lives. But the community spirit that has come out from this leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy – a bit like in the war, I’d guess. People pulling together, working towards the same thing and offering shelter and help where they can. How it should be.

The job of cleaning up and rebuilding looms ahead. It won’t happen overnight and the scars will show for a long time. When I was in Devon, we went to Boscastle and saw the rejuvenated village, still being worked on but bustling once more. Jimmy had to go on his bike to collect the van as it was the only way round 2 days later, once the water had subsided enough to cross the broken bridge, with extreme care. The road is closed to motor vehicles so he had to go round to Ledbury to bring it home along the top road. By the time I came back from Devon, a week later, I still couldn’t use the bridge, but was able to get across at the next little hamlet. The bottom of our lane is scarred with silt and debris, but is passable once more.

The sun shone yesterday and is shining today. A simple thing, sunshine, as is the rain. Simple but powerful – too much or too little and countries can be brought to their knees. Whether you agree with climate change or not, one thing is for sure: Mother Nature demands respect and I hope that the “powers that be” take note of this latest reprimand and pull together to look after this wonderful planet.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

5 pick-me-ups and a week away

Ages ago I was tagged for 5 pick-me-ups and what with running the B&B with my mum, then house-sitting for a friend and being away in Devon…………blah, blah. So here goes:

1. Working in my garden and feeling the soil with my bare hands.
2. Having a soak in a hot bath with no light other than candles.
3. Having a foot rub.
4. Taking the dogs for a run over the field.
5. In the winter: curling up in front of the open fire and watching the flames with a glass of wine or cup of tea (depending on the time of day!!) – no music or TV, just the crackle of the flames and scent of wood smoke. In the summer: sitting out in the garden, listening to the birds and remembering how lucky I am to be here.

Five things aren’t really enough, though, are they? So many things can give me a lift – an unexpected visitor turning up for a cuppa and chat; curling up on the sofa and nattering to my best friend from “down south” always leaves me with a warm a fuzzy feeling after we hang up; catching sight of a vole or mouse foraging under the bird feeder when I’m stood at the kitchen sink; hearing the owls at night when I put the milk bottles out; watching my nephews and niece charging around the garden and swinging on the tyre in the eucalyptus tree; going for a cycle round “the block”; watching the buzzards and hearing their cry as they circle above the garden; seeing the flock of long-tailed tits returning to their roosting trees in the evening and listening to their delightful noise. I could go on and on – it really is the simplest of things that make me smile in delight.

I have just returned from my week in Devon with my mum, dad and niece. J stayed at home to do demolition jobs on the house as the extension works are finally due to start (weather permitting!). The weather wasn’t always the best but we got to take Jess to the beach for body-boarding and on the worst weather day, we went to see Harry Potter in Barnstaple. We stayed in a barn near Hartland Point ( and were delighted with the peaceful location and lovely accommodation. Each night we watched the barn owls returning and once we had a hare run past the French doors! We had a paddock to ourselves and sat out on a few evenings with a glass or two of wine and watched Jess hurling herself onto hay bales.

We went to the usual tourist places – Boscastle, Port Isaac, Tintagel, Instow, Appledore, and ate far too many cream teas (one of dad’s vices!). It was totally relaxing but I missed sharing it with J. We’ve been to all these places before together, but my mind kept straying to home and wondering how he was getting on, and just wishing he was with me. He’d have loved the barn and especially that you can take dogs, as we always leave ours behind with mum. We spoke twice a day (mobile signal permitting!) and he seemed a million miles away.

And then, suddenly, it was time to come home. I’d taken my own car down separately, as mum and co had luggage, body board, food and wine supplies (not much room left there then!) plus their large dog (a Chow), and also because I wanted some independence when we were there. So, we left a little apart (I hate driving in convoy) but the traffic was absolutely awful. I stuck it out for a while, but as soon as I could, I turned off and cut across country, through Exmoor. Familiar place names pulled me along, and soon I was back on the outskirts of Tiverton, ready to head back on the M5. I saw the sign to Dulverton and thought of Jane with a smile, knowing she had mirrored my journey on her way north last week. Eventually, I neared home but had to get off the M5 at Gloucester because it was grid-locked, and then had the fun of navigating around the closed roads, due to all the flooding. (I’ve got a totally separate blog to write about the floods, and J’s night on the floor of a local pub as our village was surrounded by a ring of water and he couldn’t get home.)

At last, I was reversing on the drive and could hear the dogs barking as they recognized the sound of my engine. They all came to the gate and J had to move them out of my way, a huge smile of welcome on his face. And then I was wrapped in his bear hug and he was telling me he’d missed me and I was so glad to be home. He’d vacuumed and done the ironing and the kettle was boiling for my mug of tea. I gave him a watery smile over the rim and sighed a contented sigh. It has been a good week but it's wonderful to be back.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Fawlty Towers - eat your heart out!

I have always wanted to run a B&B. It has been an unfulfilled dream for many years and when we moved to the country, as much as I adored my little cottage, there was a tinge of regret that it wasn’t a rambling farmhouse that I could open up to paying guests. And so, when the opportunity came, two weeks ago, to help my mum run a local “country house” B&B, I jumped at the chance. It was all arranged so quickly, I didn’t even have time to ask Headmistress for an absence pass!

Mum works there part-time helping the owners to get ready for large house-parties and weddings – preparing rooms, helping with breakfasts and even waitressing of an evening if a meal is provided as part of the package. She could now run the place blind-fold and the owners took the opportunity to slope off for a long weekend, knowing that mum would look after the 9 guests. My job was “support” – running the tea/coffee/extra toast in to the breakfast room, clearing up and making beds.

We arrived on the Friday, an hour before the guests came, and settled ourselves into the room up in the attics. The house is a romantic, 4 storey (including cellars) 15th century dream. There are paneled rooms, creaking, wide elm floorboards, nooks and crannies galore, a “servants’ staircase” complete with green baize door and a huge kitchen with a solid fuel, cream Aga. My idea of total bliss.

There are four letting rooms in the house, each complete with its own ensuite, two holiday cottages plus a further two letting rooms in the grounds. Two of the rooms are four poster and they are all furnished with antiques sourced at Tewkesbury auction rooms. The beds are traditionally made up with sheets, blankets and eiderdowns – just as I like them! And, of course, there is the obligatory tea tray and homemade biscuits or shortbread.

After we settled ourselves, we greeted the guests and showed them to their rooms. They had made dinner arrangements in Ledbury and so mum and I cooked our own supper and opened a bottle of wine (as you do!). It was a little chilly and the huge inglenook fireplace looked stark and empty without a fire, so we lit it and settled down to gossip and flip through the pile of magazines on the table – Country Homes & Interiors, Herefordshire Life, Period Living & Traditional Homes, Horse & Hound (oh, yes, really!).

We were a little perturbed when we heard some of the guests return, what we considered to be, a little too early. They went back up to their rooms and then as we shrugged and settled back down, we were amazed when the kitchen door opened and one of them was stood in the private lounge. They wanted water from the kitchen tap, but instead of coming down the front stairs and knocking at the lounge door, they walked around the back “servants corridor” and in through the kitchen and then into the lounge. We jumped out of our skin! This was to set the tone of the next 3 days.

Whenever we have stayed in B&B’s, it has always been that we vacate after breakfast and then go out for the day and return after 4pm, in order for the owners to do bedrooms, clean and prepare for next morning. Hotels are a different matter, but when you are staying in someone’s home it is polite to give them some space – well, that’s the way we have always viewed it. These guests, however, went out for about an hour and half after breakfast and then came back and hung around their rooms all day. We just had time to make beds, clean bathrooms, tidy up after breakfast and pop back to our own homes for half an hour, when they were wanting more hot water for baths at 2pm!

On our doorstep we have the Malvern Hills, the Wye Valley, the Vale of Evesham, the Cotswolds, Cheltenham, Worcester, Hereford, and a little further on (just over an hour) Stratford-upon-Avon. A tourists dream location – or so you would have thought. But, no, these ones just wanted to stay in, and the weather was nice then too!

Two of the bedrooms were just one night bookings and so on Saturday morning we had to do a full change-over after breakfast. We didn’t stop all morning and just had time to pop into Ledbury for some extra supplies before getting back to the house to be on duty for 4pm.

I knew it was hard work running a B&B, but I really had no idea how hard! By Monday morning, when we had waved the last of the guests off, we then did a full strip out and remake, clean, bedding wash and general tidy up before leaving to go home, eventually, at 3pm. We were both exhausted and felt absolutely no guilt at leaving the ironing for the owners to return to! Well, they do have one of those fandangly industrial press irons and they hadn’t asked us to do the washing, so that was a bonus!

That evening, I told J if ever I banged on about not fulfilling my lifelong ambition to run a B&B, he was to remind me of this weekend. I’m glad I did it. It was an eye-opener and my respect has grown ten-fold for those that embark on this venture. But now I am glad that our home is just that. Ours.