‘No romance to reading by candlelight’: in the dark after Storm Arwen

1 month ago

“Anyone who thinks there is romanticism to reading by candlelight needs their head examined,” said 69-year-old Fran Marshall as she braced herself for a sixth night without power. “There is no romance. None whatsoever. It has been freezing cold and it has been miserable.”

Marshall lives in a picture-postcard patch of north Northumberland, her 19th-century stone cottage nestled in a valley below a spectacular hill called Yeavering Bell, or the Hill of the Goats.

On top of the hill are stunning views, the largest iron age hill fort in northern England, and on occasion you might even see friendly groups of wild Cheviot goats. Opposite is a field where once was the royal summer palace of Anglo-Saxon kings and queens of Northumbria.

It must be a such a wonderful place to live. This week it has been awful. “My water comes from a spring which is run by an electricity pump, so I’ve got no water and no heating and no power.”

Marshall was one of tens of thousands of people in a similar situation after Storm Arwen wreaked the worst havoc to power lines for nearly 20 years.

Day by day, more households were switched on but on Friday a small percentage, less than 10,000, were still without power. The army was deployed in Aberdeenshire and Durham to help people affected.

Local radio stations have this week been full of callers telling their stories, from parents guilty at not being able to keep their children warm to others who were just desperate for a hot shower.

Marshall, whose job is helping horse trainers and owners, counts herself as one of the luckier ones.

“Because I am a fairly able person I’ve been getting out. I’m driving around charging my phone, I’m going to the pub for food, but an awful lot of people aren’t. It is so difficult for people living in the valleys without any power ... it is frightening. There are a lot of elderly people in this part of the world.

“I’ve got candles, but I’m getting through them. You try to read a book, but actually you can’t really read a book by candlelight, it’s extremely difficult.

“At least I’ve got an open fire. It’s not brilliant, it heats the chimney rather than the room but it is there.”

Her week has involved going to bed early and not being able to wash properly. Don’t even ask about the toilet. “My deep freeze is a disaster, everyone’s will be. Everything is wasted.”

Her 10-year-old Bedlington terrier Daisy is out of sorts too. “She’s just wondering why it’s dark all of the time.”

Marshall has had no landline and, because masts were brought down too, no mobile signal until she gets in the car and drives to where she can get one.

More than anything, it has been really boring. “We have become so used to putting a switch on, turning the heating up, going online, getting what you want when you want it and none of it is there now.

“I’m fairly resilient in my life, I’ve had to be ... but this is miserable.”

Marshall is one of many people to think that if such power cuts had happened in the south-east it would have been a bigger story, declared a national emergency.

“People don’t understand remoteness in this country,” she said. “People might say, ‘Well you chose to live in the countryside’ … well, farmers do as well, the reason being they have farms and without farms you are not going to eat.”

Marshall said the community spirit, everybody helping each other, had been amazing and humbling. In the Cheviot Centre in nearby Wooler volunteers work long hours coordinating visits to the most vulnerable, a huge team effort involving fire, police, paramedics, mountain rescue and council staff – a picture replicated across affected areas.

Hugh Penney is a potter who lives with his cat Pippikin in a small early 19th-century former miner’s cottage in the village of Waterhouses, County Durham. There are 70 houses in the terrace, all without power for six nights.

He tries to see the funny side, joking that he sells his work at a lot of Christmas fairs, which he finds exhausting and “I sometimes say ‘All I want to do is lie down in a darkened room’… I didn’t know it would be taken literally.

“The first night, it’s a novelty, you get the candles out and it’s all fine. But you don’t realise it’s going to go on for so long and it just got less amusing day by day.

“It just makes life more difficult, that’s all, everything is more difficult. People have been managing but it is very tiring.”

It can be miserable, he said. “In the evening you can sort of make yourself comfortable but it is so boring.”

Penney said there was a real problem with communication. “The worst thing was getting messages that things would be fixed by a certain time and then it didn’t happen. That’s worse than no information. The communication has been bad.”

Both Penney and Marshall’s power came, finally, back on Thursday. “How long I’ve got it I don’t know,” said Marshall. “I’m relieved it’s back but disturbed it has gone on for so long.

“I don’t think people realise what it is like being in the sticks without power for so long, how it affects everybody. It just takes away everything you have.”

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