Snow Scene (Copyright Martyn Stanley)
In our twenties, OH and I dreamed of moving to the middle of nowhere and living The Good Life.
Things didn’t quite work out like that. We live only half a mile from the nearest main road, and surrounded by woodland. We’re linked to civilisation by electricity. For most of the time, anyway!
In 2017, blizzards saw us skidding between dreams and nightmares. Snow is very heavy. The sound of boughs snapping under its weight was soon echoing around our valley like gunfire. A particularly loud bang gave us all a 4am start as our power lines were brought down. They snaked around on the lane in a shower of sparks until the supply was shut off. After that, we were without electricity for eighteen hours.
Blackouts are much rarer now than when we first moved here—over one May Bank Holiday we were without power for more than three days—so we’ve learned a few things. Disasters can strike in town as well as country, so before something unexpected happens to you, here are some tips we’ve picked up along the way...
HEAT: We’ve used coal and wood to keep warm here in the past, but there’s no doubt gas and electricity are the cleanest, easiest and most controllable methods of heating. The trouble is, gas central heating needs electricity to power it, and our gas hob uses electric ignition! We can light that manually, to boil a kettle or make meals that don’t need an oven. We have carbon monoxide alarms and smoke alarms, and check their battery levels regularly. We also keep a fire blanket handy.
Stay safe and warm
LIGHT: I’d be lost without my head torch. It leaves both hands free, so I can cook, or check the greenhouses and animals easily. Beware: unlike ordinary torches, LED lights don’t fade away as their battery fails. When their time is up, they go out—it’s as simple as that. Make sure you’re never without some spare batteries.
If you store candles in the fridge, they burn for longer (but see the warning below about not opening your fridge in a power cut). For safety’s sake, make sure you secure candles in a jam jar or saucer before lighting them. Position them well away from curtains or anything else that might catch fire.
Long matches are good if you don’t like flames getting close to your fingers. A butane lighter is best of all, although my weak grip struggles with their squeeze-and-pull safety feature. Try before you buy.
SAFETY: Make sure you order prescriptions well in advance if bad weather or shortages threaten. Then you’ll never run out of medical supplies. Maintain a basic first aid kit with over-the-counter remedies, plasters, dressings and bandages.
Keep a bucket of rock salt beside your door to keep paths safe. DON’T take it from roadside grit bins. That’s needed for the public highway.
I’ve road-tested all sorts of footwear from serious fell-walkers to fashion boots, but in my experience cheap Dunlop wellingtons have the best grip of all in slippery conditions.
Make a list of emergency numbers, and personal contact details. Print out several copies, and laminate them if you can. As a minimum, keep one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom and one in your car.
Proper snow shovels are much lighter and easier to use than garden spades. I bought ours very cheaply, because I snapped them up in midsummer(!) and they needed a size of wooden handle the shop didn’t have in stock. That bargain worked out really well. By kneeling on a pad, I can clear snow from our drive with one handle-less snow shovel far faster than fit young Son Number One can with a spade!
SUPPLIES: Each autumn we make up a winter box, filled with the basics. This isn’t a new idea. While researching my next book, Women’s Lives in Bristol, I discovered the story of a similarly-stocked emergency box, which came to the rescue of people trapped in a church during the great air-raid the city suffered in November 1940.
Severe weather rarely cuts anywhere in England off for more than a few days Why struggle to the shops, risking a fall on ice when you can can sit it out in the warm? In any case, supermarket deliveries could be delayed by traffic chaos. Stock up in advance with toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, tea, coffee, dried milk, tinned goods and dried food like pasta. Store it all in a cool, dry place. Don’t rely on being able to use frozen or chilled foods. In a power cut, keep your freezer shut and avoid opening your fridge too often, to retain the cold.
COMMUNICATION: Mobile signals are variable around here, so we’d never ditch our landline. Wherever you live, a mobile phone is useless if it’s flat. Ahead of bad weather, make sure all your devices are fully charged. Maintain a good supply of batteries for radios. Keep your car serviced, and the fuel tank filled in case you need to move fast. A blanket, torch, first aid kit and cereal bars don’t take up much room on the back seat, and could make all the difference during a long cold wait for roadside assistance.