It also took a supreme act of willpower. John has a phobia about deep, out-of-control water and for more than a month his home has been cut off by floods. He and Sally run the Yew Tree Inn by the side of the river Severn at Chaceley Stock, near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. On 14 December, heavy rain gushed down from the Welsh hills, causing the river to burst its banks and spill over the fields and lanes. The Yew Tree is now almost an island, with the river on one side and a vast lake on the other.
Some 24 regulars from the village of Chaceley, a mile away, have crossed the lake for a pint or two without fear of being stopped for drinking and rowing. One 63-year- old retired headteacher has made it three times a week for Theakston's bitter drawn from a slowly diminishing 11-gallon barrel.
Rowing across is not an option for either John or Sally. His phobia kept him marooned until the 28th day when he took advantage of a slight fall in the water level to walk to his car in Chaceley. He had to walk a mile or so down the bank to wade through 'the lake' at a shallow point. Total journey to his car: about three miles. Sally's weight (around 14 stone) would make progress in a boat somewhat hazardous. The depth varies between five feet and five inches.
I was rowed across by the genial Roger Thomas, who describes himself as 'the lodger and barman- cum-bottle washer'. For the past month he has pulled more on oars than pumps. 'I'm fit as a butcher's dog now,' he said. Hedge tops were barely visible. One minute we were passing a road-sign, protruding about a foot above the water line, the next we were running aground on a hump-backed bridge.
'Don't worry,' said Roger, who is becoming used to ferrying media folk across. Two of the Sun's finest arrived with a hamper and a magnum of champagne (empty, but it looked good in the picture) to pretend they were on a mission of mercy to relieve a siege.
In fact, food and booze is the last thing needed at the Yew Tree. The pub was well stocked up for Christmas when the floods came. The freezer is still packed with pheasant, grouse and venison brought in for the restaurant. Knives, forks and paper napkins remain neatly laid out on white lace tablecloths. Carpets and rugs are rolled up and laid along rows of empty chairs.
'We've lost thousands,' said Sally. 'But it's no good getting depressed. It's just an occupational hazard living here. Mind you, I did feel fed up on New Year's Eve. I was in bed by 11.'
She and John took over the Yew Tree in April. It has been cut off by flood water before but never to this extent. At least they can look forward to a busy summer, when the river is a magnet for anglers, tourists and dinghy sailors. Meanwhile, Sally has been sitting in front of a roaring fire in the bar, doing jigsaws and painting watercolours of watery landscapes. 'I'm on my 14th now,' she said.
The Yew Tree is also home to four large dogs, five ducks, a ram and a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig called Priscilla. 'At least the ducks have been happy,' said Sally. 'Priscilla has a flood-proof pen and we've been able to exercise the dogs since the water level dropped. At one time it was over the car park, gushing past the front door and bubbling under the floor.'
She broke off to go and make us a sandwich with the last of the Sun's ham. We ate under the baleful glare of a German shepherd dog. Sally munched reflectively and considered the good things that had come out of their ordeal.
She had given up cigarettes. 'It's so much easier when nobody's smoking around you.' And John had overcome his phobia. 'I knew it would kill or cure him. When this water's all gone, we're going to get the decorations out again and have a proper Christmas party.'
As she spoke, it started to rain again.
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