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Thursday 1 February 2024

Thoughts from a Devonshire Farmhouse - February 2024

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...or maybe not

As I write this (30th January 2024) it hasn't snowed yet in my part of Devon. We've had frost and a bitter cold wind, and storm Isha recently made an unwelcome visit. Now, here at the end of January (thank goodness - what a long month January is!) the days are getting longer, the weather seems a bit brighter, but for how long will this last, who knows?

I’m quite happy to look at snow – from the warmth of indoors. I didn’t used to mind donning thick socks, wellington boots, bobble hat, scarf, gloves, warm coat and going for a fun walk in it, that crunch, crunch underfoot can be quite exhilarating. But I said used to... alas what with arthritis in knee and hip, combined with my wonky sight, snow no longer has that same appeal. I fall over in it (on it?) too often.

According to statistics, in England we are likely to get more snow at Easter than we are at Christmas, with the traditional Christmas card scene showing robins or whatever knee deep in snow being a remnant from the Victorian era when there was likely to be snow at Christmas. Even the Thames froze over in the 1800s. So maybe we should have snowy bunnies and snowy chocolate eggs? Doesn't quite go with the celebration of spring though does it?

Whatever month it arrives, to watch snow actually falling can be magical, seeing the world turn silently white before your very eyes. The wonder all depends on where you are and what needs to be done. Tucked safe indoors with no need to go anywhere or do anything particular – to sit before a cosy fire and relax is fine. The Sugar Plum Fairy outside, touching everything with her wand, turning all into a landscape of glistening, sparkling charm. Need to get to work, travel, shop for essentials or one of any number of important things, then snow takes on a different, malevolent incarnation. The evil Snow Queen, the White Witch from Narnia where it is always winter but never Christmas. Frankly... not for me!

Our snowy fields

Snow is not for the elderly. I don’t like to think of myself as elderly, but I am 71 this year and the body is definitely not as sprightly as it once was, or as mobile as my mind (sort of) is. I’ve had too many falls on un-snowy ground to risk more on icy surfaces. Ice is, of course, far worse. Unless it's in cubes and destined for a gin and tonic.

I worry about the car skidding, or the horses slipping, or my daughter or husband coming a-cropper. I managed to get myself stuck the year we had The Beast From The East. I’d gone to check that Wonky Donk (sadly no longer with us,) was warm and snug in his stable across the lane in the old dairy – and to give him one of his favourites, a Hobnob biscuit. All was well with him. Especially biscuit-wise.

Wonky Donk

The lane is narrow, about a lorry-width across, a private access leading to our house and one neighbour further on down the hill. The hill is the problem, it’s quite a steep hill, part of the rolling slopes that form the Taw Valley here in North Devon. I guess our house is about ¾ of the way up between  the valley bottom where the river Taw meanders along, and the top of the  ridge where the village is situated, I think about 520 feet above sea level (a rough guess) which would make our house about the 375 feet mark – again a rough guess so no corrections or grumbling responses please.

 I swear the lane wasn’t as steep when we moved here in January 2013.

The Dairy

Having given Wonky Donk his Hobnob, I put one foot on the concrete of the lane and realised that it was a solid sheet of black ice. How I’d managed to cross the lane in the first place is a mystery. I walked – gingerly – a little further down. No go. Thick ice. What to do? I shouted for help. No one indoors heard. The TV was on. I shouted again, and again. Eventually (it seemed like hours, but was probably only ten minutes,) someone came to investigate. Although not out of concern for me, Husband was letting Doggo out for a wee, and had only then heard me shouting.

The only good thing about the whole episode was that we only had the ice, not snow as well, although we did have snow but I can’t remember if that was before or after that bitter east wind that blasted in from Siberia to freeze everything solid. The snow that year wasn’t the white, fluffy stuff, but had a thick crust of ice on top, which made walking in it rather hard, and was no good for snowballs or snowman building. Would have been fine to build an igloo though - solid ice blocks.

Not that we build snowmen. My daughter doesn’t like them. When she was little we used to build snow cats or dogs, never a snow man. Raymond Briggs is to blame. Most of us think his snowman story is charming – I love it, but it freaks Daughter out. She has a phobia against snowmen, for snowmen, she maintains, are not to be trusted. They take children away. Grab hold and fly off with them to who knows where? Santa Land? Pah, that’s a tall story. “Paedophiles, the lot of them.” No idea how or when she came to that conclusion. 

I can see her point though.

We moved into our Devon farmhouse in the snow. January 2013. The forecast was for snow at about 3 a.m. on the Friday morning, the 18th. My husband and I had left London on the Thursday and were staying in the village hotel. I got up every hour to peep out. 2 a.m. No snow. 3 a.m., 3.30 – much to my relief, no snow. 

4 a.m. It was snowing. Flutters only, it didn’t look too bad. 5 a.m. still not too bad. By 7.30 there was a blanket of about 1 foot deep. We discovered that the hotel’s chef couldn’t get to the village, so the restaurant was closed – no breakfast –  but the owners had their own live-in chef and invited us to breakfast with them. Meanwhile I phoned the removal men.

The Gaffer was reassuring. “Give it an hour, I’ll see what the roads are like. We have snow tyres and chains. It’s our problem to get you in, not yours, but I advise you to book the hotel for yourselves tonight, just in case.”

Cut a long story short, the removal guys were wonderful and got us half moved in that day. Husband and I locked the house up as it grew dark, boxes everywhere, furniture haphazardly arranged. Problem. I hadn’t thought to look where the switches to the outdoor lights were. Nor did I have a torch. Our first experience of pitch blackness. Step by slow step, feeling our way, we found the car – Let There Be Light!

Back at the hotel the owners, again, invited us to join them for dinner. So kind of them (and they didn’t charge us anything!) but we were dressed in very old clothes, had nothing even semi-posh to change into. Well you don’t pack evening wear into an overnight bag when moving house do you?

Next day, the Saturday, we finished the move. It hadn’t snowed again and all went well, except halfway through the morning I realised the house was freezing. No central heating radiators were on. I’d paid for the oil tank to be refilled a few days before we’d moved in, so I knew that wasn’t a problem. We fiddled with the Redfyre (same as an Aga but different make,) we fiddled with the thermostat. Nothing. Everything was dead.

Then I had a brainwave. (I get them occasionally.) When we’d positioned the fridge-freezer and plugged it in, I’d... Had I? I went to investigate. Yes, I’d switched that other switch, the one that I had no idea what it did, off. Clicked it on. The Redfyre burst into life, and once the removal men took their leave the house soon warmed up – especially when we also lit the cosy log burner. Our first night, a microwave ready meal on a tray in front of the blazing fire, TV plugged in and working (thanks to the removal men) bed made up upstairs, hot water bottles filled and warming the sheets. Ah, contentment.

The only other fly in the ointment, Daughter Kathy was still in London and was supposed to be coming down the next day with the horses. I had to tell her to stay put for she’d never get the horsebox down the lane. By the time the snow had cleared here on the Wednesday, she was  snowed-in in London, so she didn’t get here until the following Saturday.

We had our dog, Rum with us though. 'Rum' for the colour of his coat. He was old, we knew he wouldn't be with us for much longer. He'd been a rescue dog, badly treated for the first four years of his life (kicked and beaten, poor boy). When he came to us he was so excited to find himself with humans who loved him. The pads of his paws were still smooth - he was four years old and had never been out for a walk.


We soon changed all that. He loved the car, loved the countryside, loved romping in the woods chasing squirrels and bunnies. If I'd known about his large floppy ears - how they flapped in the breeze like the floppy flaps on a WWII pilot's hat, I might have been tempted to call him Biggles.

In old age his joints had arthritis, his sight was blurred and his hearing had gone. This posed a problem for walkies as he loved to run off the lead but I was scared of losing him, so I came up with the idea of attaching a couple of small cow bells to his collar, that way I could always hear where he was.

Rum and Ron in the snowy lane

Rum had always loved romping in the snow. That first week in Devon was a joy as the three of us explored the garden and the lane. I will never forget the laughter on dear old Rummie's face as he tried to prance about in the snow.

not a clear photo, but Rum really
was laughing as he romped about

He died a few weeks later, happy, content and knowing that he was very, very much loved. We have Baz now, another rescued dog who is now getting old, but is, equally very much loved.

A year after moving in I met up with a chap whose hobby was painting portraits of old cottages. I commissioned one for my husband's birthday and had the house pets added - including Rum, although he was no longer with us. That's him, sitting in the sunshine by the front door.

Looking back, moving in was an adventure. But I’m still not fond of snow.

Our Eddie enjoying himself in the snow
snow ponies

lege feliciter
(read happily)

Thoughts from a Devonshire Farmhouse 
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  1. Love the story of your move. Life is really the best story, isn't it?

  2. I've just realised you must have moved into your cottage the same day that our cat Dorothy moved in with us! I know the date because it happened to be my birthday, and the village school was closed due to snow. Dorothy was a stray, found by neighbours in their garage, and they couldn't keep her as their dogs would have been upset. By the time the snow had all gone, we had fallen in love with Dorothy, and although we put up posters to try to find her original owner, we were very glad when no-one claimed her!

    That portrait of your cottage is beautiful, Helen - what a treasure!

    1. I had similar back in Walthamstow in the late 1970s - my cat Poppy was a stray and she adopted me, I was so pleased that no one claimed her. Expect her story to appear in one of my Jan Christopher mysteries (although I've already used the name so I'll have to give her a different one.)

  3. Such a charming story - now that you are cozily ensconced and fond memories have taken the icy edges off.

    1. Well, I clicked "Google Account" to comment; it still came up Anonymous...


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