Country Matters: First the deluge, then the whiteout

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THE BOOKIES may have tried to quibble about the lack of snow - but we surely could have defeated any objection by sticking to the letter of the bet. There was no real argument about it: against long odds we got that elusive phenomenon, a white Christmas.

We awoke to find every twig, every blade of grass, every roof tile and wall top so thickly coated with hoarfrost that the whole valley lay transformed. Alas, it also lay fogbound, for a blanket of freezing mist had rolled in on us three days before and refused to move. Not till the morning of Boxing Day, when I and a friend took an eight-mile walk across country, did a keen east wind spring up to push that obdurate cloud back down the Bristol Channel.

This meant that our Christmas church-and partygoing took place in a whiteout; but the effect of it, though gloomy in one way, was to concentrate attention on bright lights and roaring fires indoors, and so to increase the atmosphere of festivity. At least, I thought gratefully, we were no longer being drowned by deluges of the kind that made the beginning of December so miserable.

Casting back over the year's meteorological highlights, I realised how nervous - not to say obsessed - we have become about the weather. It has long been true that our volatile climate always gives people something to talk about, and that if our weather remained constant for long periods, we should be deprived of our principal topic of conversation. Yet in the past few years scares about depletion of the ozone layer have gained such a hold that it takes only a couple of weeks without rain to set off fears that the greenhouse effect may indeed be getting a grip.

I suffer as badly as anyone from mild meteorological panic. In those blazing hot days of May and June, I began to think that we should never again get enough rain to make vegetables and crops grow properly. The ground was so parched that there seemed to be no possibility of the heavens being able to assuage its thirst. When a storm did at last blow up, its output was pathetically small; hard as we willed the drops to intensify and grow bigger, the shower barely laid the dust.

I became convinced that global warming had set in even faster than the gloomiest pundits had predicted. I was therefore incredulous when, during July, real rain set in. 'When it clears up, we'll have a party on the lawn,' we told ourselves. But the hot weather never returned, and after phenomenal honey production in the first half of the summer, the bees had a struggle to keep going through a rotten autumn.

Wet as it had been in July, nothing prepared us for the monsoon of December. It must have been weather like that which set Noah to building his ark. Never had we known downpours so heavy and continuous: three times it rained for 18 hours on end, and it was no surprise to hear that on each of those days in parts of South Wales (from where our weather was coming) four inches of rain had fallen. Our own tally cannot have been much lower.

Thank goodness, we live on the side of a hill, and so were not threatened by floods; even so, our environment became extremely disagreeable. Farmers were obliged to suspend all operations on the land; cultivated fields degenerated into seas of porridge, which threatened to swallow any vehicle venturing upon them. Even meadows were almost impossible to walk over, so sodden had they become.

The amount of water falling on the land was prodigious. One inch of rain delivers 22,000 gallons per acre. Four inches of rain in a day meant that every acre had had nearly 100,000 gallons, or four tons, dumped on it. Small wonder that springs burst out where none had run for years, and that every little dip in the ground turned into a runnel, pouring down towards the river.

In such conditions, one could see the process of erosion being demonstrated all too clearly. The cataract hurtling down our lane was loaded with mud washed off the banks, and a carpet of sludge two inches thick formed over the lay-by at the bottom of the hill.

The worst culprits were the forestry tracks coming down out of the woods, where timber extraction had left the ground raw. Every wheel rut ran with mulligatawny soup as the subsoil went downhill by the ton, and in many places underlying rock was left showing through.

In the middle of that great flood it was fascinating to slither and scrabble up the course of the stream to its source on top of the escarpment. Normally the water is clear all the way down; but in those days, on the lower reaches, the torrent took on the colour (and almost the consistency) of melted milk chocolate, a saturated solution of earth washed off the fields. At one low point it burst its banks and cut across the corner of a meadow, dragging out tons of soil and sand.

Yet the higher one climbed, the purer the stream became, for more and more of it derived from the springs that well up out of the subterranean strata. The source itself - the highest spring of all - was bubbling up furiously, but it was still crystal clear, demonstrating the efficiency with which nature cleans and filters if left to its own devices.

The sight of all that good water going to waste, at the rate of millions of gallons a day down one little river alone, set me thinking about the inadequacies of our present storage and conservation systems. Had not the regional authorities in the South-east so depleted underground aquifers in the past few years that numerous small rivers entirely dried up? Were many counties not still officially drought-bound?

A call to the National Rivers Authority proved by no means reassuring. In our district - Severn and Trent - the aquifers were already full, a spokesman said, but there was still some way to go in the east. In that case, I asked, was any research being done into ways of replenishing aquifers artificially, in times of plenty? 'Oh no,' said the official loftily. 'Aquifers are replenished naturally by rainfall.'

The complacency of that remark left me dumbfounded. Aquifers have always been replenished in the past, it is true, but there is no guarantee that nature will go on being so bountiful. If recent dry years are indicative of things to come, the NRA had better get off its backside and devise means of shifting water from the north and west, where most falls and least is used, to the South-east, where least falls and consumption is highest . . .

The turning point of our weather seemed to come, appropriately enough, on 21 December, the winter solstice. If that milestone of a day dawns fine, it gives a powerful psychological boost to country dwellers - and 21 December 1992 was glorious, with a cracking frost and no cloud in the sky. Dawn and dusk were magnificently crimson, and as I witnessed both from deep in the woods, I reckon I made the most of them.

The fact that the old year went out with frost and snow has restored a veneer of normality, as though our weather were settling back into its usual pattern. It may be. But I, as I say, remain on my guard, unable to rid myself of the notion that catastrophic changes may be on their way.

'Further Country Matters', by Duff Hart-Davis, is published by Swan Hill Press, pounds 16.95.