As this steamy, sticky summer draws to a close and forecasters are predicting an end to the un-British heatwave, some of us are secretly rejoicing. Those of us who don’t thrive when the mercury blisters the thermometer, are apologetic, albeit in a grumpy, beware-of-the-sweaty-person way, as we decline invitations to any and all outdoor activities, exhortations to remove clothing (what do you mean take off my vest?) and enthusiastic proposals to eat and drink outdoors. Who invited the wasps and midgies?
A Scot by birth and a Northerner by every inclination, I’m even less acclimatised to the sunshiney days of a normal southern English summer, never mind this recent Saharan event. Frankie Boyle, on an episode of Mock the Week, was asked – if this is the answer (Up to 18 months) what’s the question? His reply? How long is a Scottish winter? Says it all.
When we left the Yorkshire Dales seven years ago, it was after one of the worst winters for thirty years. Temperatures plummeted routinely between minus ten and minus fifteen degrees and, just after Christmas, the mains water pipes at one end of the village froze, cutting off the supply to a susbstantial number of properties. Internal plumbing froze too and, in unoccupied holiday and weekend homes, burst. Going anywhere in the car involved time-consuming, rigorous scraping of front and rear screens, almost wrenching your arms out of their sockets trying to open frozen doors, industrial quantities of de-icer and then hacking ice-floes from around the wheels, whilst choking on the fumes from a continuously running, warming-up engine. And all the while dressed up like Nanook of the North. There’s a certain wintry panache to the Michelin Man layered look, topped off with a cheeky bobble hat. That’s my story anyway.
The thaw finally came, flooding roads and pasture, turning the already swollen Wharfe into a raging, broiling torrent which overtopped its banks and we found rabbit corpses littering the garden. Starved down from the fells to search for food, they had eaten everything – including a young fig tree which had been gnawed to the ground. But still, there wasn’t enough. The winter of 2010/11 decimated the wild rabbit population of Upper Wharfedale and they, in turn, demolished the carefully cultivated gardens in villages up and down the Dale. That spring, local garden centres did a roaring trade.
However, the biggest, and arguably most worrying, aspect of being cut off in this way, was the difficulty it caused the emergency services. Local legend told of another such winter when someone had fallen and broken their leg. No-one could access the isolated hamlet and they, in turn, couldn’t leave. A homemade splint, lots of alcohol and a tough-as-old-boots Dales stoicism got them through for four days, when a 4×4 ambulance was finally able to rescue them. Winter 2010/11 saw the death of our elderly neighbour, who had a stroke, while a heroic ambulance crew struggled to reach us, digging their way through huge drifts, driving a supremely precarious route along slippery, single track lanes which switch-backed the remotest parts of the fells. (A poem I subsequently wrote about this event, December 2010, was commended in the York Literature Prize.) We aren’t getting any younger we told ourselves and, eventually, with some trepidation but also a degree of excitement, we headed South West, to warmer climes. Goodbye Nanook. Yaay.
From the outset, I suffered extreme homesickness. It was like a large stone weighing me down all the time. I missed my family, I missed Yorkshire. There’s no question that Dorset is one of the most beautiful counties in the UK and Dorset folk are easily as friendly and welcoming as any Northerner, plus the weather is simply wonderful – and yet I couldn’t settle. The warmth and sunshine, at first so seductive, began to feel oppressive and I began to think a bit of snow might be nice. Even I couldn’t believe I was missing snow! The weather obliged this March, dumping so much of it on the West Country that we were snowed in for three days in coastal Cornwall (much to the consternation of locals who could barely remember the last time they’d seen a snowflake, never mind whether the local authority possessed a snow-plough or gritter.)
It’s not just the weather, the crisp delineation of seasons which is less apparent here, I miss the accent, the architecture, the humour, familiar landmarks and all the things which speak of somewhere being Home. I’ve written a stream of poems about it, most have been published and some are featured in Black Bicycle; no small bonus. We return often. It’s a long, usually unpleasant journey – England’s crammed motorways, highways and byways have the same appeal as eating a rat sandwich – but I’m always happy to be back, and sad to leave. Overall, I think I’m lucky. Yorkshire – Dorset, Dorset – Yorkshire. What’s not to love? (and I’m getting used to the heavy weight of the homesick stone)
And finally, don’t forget, you can now pre-order copies of Rachael Clyne’s outstanding pamphlet Girl Golem – to be launched on September 1st – either directly from Rachael or see our website www.4Word.org/contact
Copies of Androgyny, After Eden and Black Bicycle can also be bought directly from the poets (Kevin Reid, Stella Wulf and Lesley Quayle) or see website (www.4Word.org/contact)