Phil Sparrow offers an account of his dramatic experience with Storm Arwen at home in Northumberland, while young forester Danny Graham provides an update on his latest adventures in Lancashire, with some advice for other jobbing chainsaw operators.

THE last week of November proved one of the more challenging of my life as a tempest of biblical proportions swept across our region. The meteorological authorities called it Storm Arwen. 

If you lived south of Hull then you probably had a very windy night. However, the North East got it lock, stock and two smoking barrels. Bizzley Wood, a nearby weather station, recorded wind speeds of 98 mph. Bizzley Wood, for those who’ve never heard of it, is at a much lower elevation than us and I have no doubt that, at its peak, wind speeds were well in excess of 100 mph. To say I’ve never heard anything like it is putting it mildly. 

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Sleep was impossible. The noise was incredible and the whole house shook to the point where we wondered whether the whole thing would collapse. Throughout the night we had to sit and listen to the slates being ripped from the roof and fired across the garden while trying to imagine what other damage was being imposed upon us. The force of the wind was such that it was physically impossible to open the front door or windows and for 24 hours we huddled together in the lounge until we felt it safe enough to venture out to survey the damage.

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What greeted us was apocalyptic. Our house is made up of two buildings – a small, two-bedroom cottage and an annexe. Roughly 25 per cent of the slates were missing from the cottage, and the top part of the front of the annexe had been ripped out so that the contents of the bedroom were there for all to see. The whole top part of the front gable had collapsed. It was heartbreaking. We have spent years landscaping and developing the area around the building and, in an instant, all was destroyed.

As well as the collapsed building, the lawn and surrounding area were peppered with slates embedded in the grass. It would have been suicidal to have left the building during the storm. As we surveyed the damage, we looked around in a state of shock. We were clearly traumatised. The instinct at a moment like this is to start clearing up. You look at a slate half embedded in the grass and imagine the force that put it there. You see blocks of stone that you carefully cut and crafted smashed on the ground. It’s strange, because you know them personally. A beautiful Georgian mirror, which I’d lovingly restored, lay shattered in the debris. How can you ever put a value on these things?

At first light I was able to order a skip and start the job of clearing up the mess. What a lot of people didn’t realise was there was a brief lull (about 24 hours) before the tail end of the storm came back. We had a small window in which to get the place watertight. Fortunately, a builder that I know came to our rescue. Storm Barra arrived six days later!

The area continues to resemble a war zone, with whole forests flattened and the character of the area changed. Tree landmarks are no longer there and thousands lie horizontal on the fields. It will take many years to rebuild the area. People say this is a once–in–a–lifetime storm and all I can say is: ‘Thank God!’

I know a lot has been said in the media about the failure of the electricity companies to reconnect communities with power. Northumberland is a vast county with many remote areas and the scale of what these companies faced was unprecedented. We had four storms in seven days and these guys were incredible. Sometimes it’s easy to criticise. 

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Danny Graham: When moving to a new area, the most important things to establish are contacts. If you’re moving from one place to the next, then this can be an impediment to progress. Much of the technical stuff like chains and saws I take with me and am able to repair myself, but there always comes a time when you need either mechanical support or advice. This isn’t an issue at home, where I know exactly who to go to or who to ask.

The reason I refer to this is my life recently has been quite nomadic, moving from one area to the next and effectively having to start afresh when I go to somewhere new. I’ve begun to lose a sense of home. This doesn’t really bother me that much, because as soon as I get to where I’m going then I’m completely focused on the task in hand. I’m quite happy to put my head on any pillow at night, be it in a cold, unheated caravan, some rat-infested bunk–house in New Zealand or a family bed in the north of England.

Recently, however, I’ve found myself increasingly in a warm double bed in Lancashire.

Whilst I gallivant around the UK from wood to wood playing with chainsaws, trees and hydraulics, my partner works full-time in the red rose county. For some time, much of her outgoings were spent on rent and so it seemed logical to us to try and buy a house.

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We hoped this would be an investment and stop any landlord giving her a pile of grief every time I visit. The idea also crossed our minds that if we were able to get something with a few bedrooms then we could take in a lodger or lodgers who could help towards the mortgage. Ideally this would be in the form of student nurses who enjoy cooking, cleaning, chainsaw operators and like to practise deep-tissue massage.

The type of property on our radar was something not too expensive, but in a reasonable area and needing renovation; something to which we could add value. However, the thought of spending months away from the woods ensconced in some house–renovation project scared the living daylights out of me. Fortunately, a year earlier, while working in the depths of Oxfordshire, I made a friendship with a guy from Blackburn.

Burford, for those who are unaware, is a small, quite exclusive village with extortionate house prices. It has all the trappings of exclusivity: antique shops, quaint pubs, a phone box acting as a book exchange, the occasional picket fence and beautifully manicured grass. After a short day of tree planting, it being winter, I would find myself in one of these pubs filling in the long nights. I clearly didn’t fit in. Maybe it was the lack of a monocle or the absence of a tweed jacket or possibly the filthy jeans, but either way, after three days I still hadn’t managed to have a meaningful conversation with anyone.

Besides, the few mutterings I’d overheard seemed to concentrate on house prices and politics, which are not really my bag.

READ MORE: Storm Arwen: Mairi McAllan warns Scotland's forests will take 'centuries' to recover

However, on the fourth night, as I settled into the bar in the Golden Pheasant, prepared for another evening of outrageous prices and dismal banter, out the corner of one eye I spotted someone who looked as though they worked. At least, the worn, high-viz, oiled-stained jacket and grisly hands suggested as much. He looked equally out of place and, curious to find out and break the tedium, I headed over to make his acquaintance. Marc Ridings was his name and he leads his field in mulching, stump–grinding and grapple–sawing out of Lancashire. It’s now nearly a year since I bought a place in Lancashire and during that time I’ve done five months work either directly for Marc or through a contact of his.

I know not everyone agrees with going to the pub and times change. Some people view them as dens of iniquity inhabited by sinners and the like. Recently, pubs have gone through a wretched time during the pandemic, but for hundreds of years they have remained the hub of the community.

This reminds me of a short tale my father used to tell me about a pub in rural Northumberland in the ’60s. The pub, which is still there, is in the Upper Coquet Valley and at the time was generally the haunt of shepherds (you could tell as the sheepdogs were all tied up to the fence outside). There were a few tables and a fire and you could only just see the faces of the characters inside through the dense cigarette smoke. At some point in the evening, some character poked their head around the door and whispered: “They’re up!” Suddenly, there was an almighty clatter as the shepherds exited the pub. The salmon had arrived on their annual migration.

From my limited experience, the pub remains a vital centre of communication. If you’re new to an area and want to make contacts, then a visit to the public house is the way to go.