'One lightning bolt exploded beside the church. It looked as though the Almighty had scored an own goal'
Saturday 22 July 1995
Unable to stand the suspense any longer, I set off for a walk wearing only a T-shirt, swimming shorts and trainers. My hope was that the mere act of going out so ill-protected might bring on a storm - and before I had progressed a couple of hundred yards, the first scattered drops were falling.
As I passed the cottage on the bend of the lane, David, the owner, threw open a window and called, only half in jest, "Would you like an umbrella?"
"No thanks," I replied. "I've come out for an al fresco shower."
Hardly had I spoken, when hot lumps of water the size of marbles began to splatter down. I turned up my face to the downpour, rejoicing in the sudden release from drought. I felt that life was returning to earth from the sky and I understood why, in Africa, chimpanzees dance when they sense the approach of rain.
In a few moments, however, the deluge turned cold. With my clothes soaked through, water began running down off my fingers as though a tap had been turned on at each elbow. No matter, I thought: all I need do is walk fast and keep warm.
Up a steep grass bank, the formula worked fine; but at the top I was hit by the full force of a gale. Up there the rain was not merely torrential, but horizontal, too. If I had jumped into the stream, I would not have been any wetter. Rapidly curtailing my plans for a wider circuit, I cut back right-handed for the top of the wood.
Crash by crash, the thunder built up. Again and again the clouds were split by stabs of lightning. I counted the seconds between flash and bang: five, then four, then three. The storm seemed to have multiple heads and soon they were all round me.
My feelings about lightning fluctuate. Sometimes I think that if one is going to be struck, one is going to be struck, and that is it. Nevertheless, there is no point in taking unnecessary risks. By then the water had turned me into a mobile lightning conductor, and things had become so violent that I took care neither to touch the barbed wire as I crossed a fence, nor to linger under tall trees.
At the bottom edge of the wood, fantastic scenes greeted me. The sky was inky, the valley blotted-out by sweeping curtains of rain. Down through them, one after another, right to ground level, shot jagged white shafts of lightning.
Crackles of electrical discharge were instantly followed by thunder cannonades. One bolt blazed down perilously close to our house, below me to the right. Then, straight beyond it, a still fiercer one exploded with an earth-shaking crash right on, or beside, the church. It looked dreadfully as if the Almighty had scored an own goal.
As the storm rumbled away towards the north-east, I squelched back to base. Safely home, but leaving a trail of water behind me across the floors, I found the power off and rang David to see if he, too, had a cut. He had - but he was too excited to worry.
"That big bolt," he said. "We've never seen anything like it. It hit a tree just above the church - blew it to bits."
Inspection showed that he did not exaggerate. A 100ft cedar, on the upper edge of the churchyard, had been split straight down the middle as if by a celestial axe. One side of the trunk had burst into substantial pieces, some of which had been thrown 100 yards up the field.
The power of that one explosion was terrifying - and in the past half- hour hundreds like it had rolled over us. Later I heard that a horse and two ponies had been killed by lightning just along the hill.
The stricken tree was dangerously unstable: it had to be felled - and some job that proved. The expert who did it reckoned that the trunk alone weighed 20 tons, and he counted 157 growth rings at its base. This meant that the cedar must have started life in 1838 or maybe 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne.
Looking back over the events of the evening, I see that I could have chosen a safer moment at which to go for a stroll.
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