Once In A Lifetime

Daybreak took a long time coming on October 16th 1987 as I peered anxiously from the back window to assess the damage from the night’s storm. The first thing I made out was our neighbour, Rob, struggling in the semi-darkness to secure the blue tarpaulin on our log pile as it thrashed about wildly. Next, I could see the pale form of my new shed I’d had built in pouring rain the previous weekend, still with its roof on, still intact. Then, a gap over on the old cliff-face where one of the beautiful double oaks, which had fitted so aerodynamically into a hollow in the sandstone, had fallen.

With our house on Toot Rock facing the sea we were used to storms, but during the night it had become apparent that this was something else. For instance, the pitch of the wind’s howling: it would rise to a certain point which seemed within the bounds of normality but then would go up even further, into a realm of unknown limits where anything could happen, and the windows would seem to press in as if they would burst and the hair would stand up on the back of my neck.

Or, in the middle of the storm, a pulsating blue flash seemed to indicate lightning, but it was the wrong sort of weather for that. A wet sapling, bent far beyond its normal arc, was thrashing against the power line – flash, flash, flash – then the electrics went off, then returned with the digital alarm clock reading zero, zero, zero, and then all went dark again.

Or, later, when I looked out across the front gardens, it seemed to be foggy. How could that be, with a raging wind? The glass was coated with salt. Not just the glass, for as the light improved we could see the whole landscape was a muted grey-brown where salt had scorched the leaves to an Old Master brown, a colour perhaps not to be seen again for centuries.

But we still had no idea of the gale’s severity or range. Lacking electricity and therefore a radio, we had no idea that it had been anything but a localised blow, so set off for work in Hastings.

The seawall and the road beside it were strewn with bedclothes, mattresses and shed roofs then, driving up Chick Hill, we caught the tail of the financial news on the car radio. It said that the Stock Exchange was closed on account of the severe weather. The Stock Exchange! At that point our path was blocked by a fallen tree, so we turned about to try the main road up Battery Hill but there too found chainsaws at work on a litter of tree trunks. Back again, to try Winchelsea.

Winchelsea Beach presented an extraordinary sight. Telegraph poles at crazy angles, lines drooping, sheets from upside-down caravans draped across the bushes, debris of all sorts scattered across the road. Winchelsea was again impassable, so we gave up and doubled back to Rye for batteries (I had a rubbish camera and the batteries were flat) from a candle-lit Boots. Shards of roof-tiles littered the streets.

By this time freed from normal routines, we crept back via Rye Harbour. The office at Alsford’s Wharf had, up to the previous day, a big west-facing picture window. It had been blown out. Frenchman’s Beach was in total disarray, with caravans not only on their sides, upside-down, eviscerated but on top of one another like mating cattle.

Back home and with camera charged, I set out with my daughter, then two years old, to photograph the strange scene: the domestic debris, the cosy caravan interiors turned on their heads, the sombre carpet of brown leaves and crimson berries stripped from the boughs. Everywhere was pervaded by the scent of sap, and the ends of fractured branches stood out brightly in the overcast half-light. (It was so dark that the photos I took were no good.) I was hoping for a few Sabine’s Gulls offshore but saw none. However Bernard Flack phoned me to say that he & Diana had just found a Red-backed Shrike at Cliff End.

The next day, I took my daughter over to Winchelsea to have a look at the devastation. The big horse chestnut in the churchyard, which I had drawn on my very first visit to the town in 1972, was down as were many other trees including an oak outside the school, which kept us warm during that winter. The most spectacular casualty, however, was the windmill. A couple of years previously I had taken a series of photographs of its tall silhouette and its early-morning shadow stretching down the hillside and onto the marsh. It had recently been restored but now lay irrevocably smashed across the pasture, the pale boards of its unstained innards in contrast to the black tarred exterior.

When I began teaching at Winchelsea the following January, the towne was preparing to celebrate its foundation 1288, following the decisive destruction of Old Winchelsea exactly 700 years before, during the Great Storm of October 1287. Although I was well aware of the historic significance of the occasion I had just not tuned in to Winchelsea (actually, I never did) until one afternoon (it must have been July 7th), upon leaving my classroom I stumbled upon a school hall full of people dressing up in archaic regalia, three-cornered hats sporting ostrich feathers, that sort of thing. Heavy silver maces were laid out across dining tables from which children had shortly before eaten their lunch.

Eventually, all the Cinque Ports mayors, jurats, chamberlains, sergeants-at-arms and other dignitaries processed to St Thomas’ Church – through empty streets. No tourists, just a few onlookers.  The streets might have been quiet but the church was packed and although I’d been on my way home I instead found a place at the service. They weren’t doing it as a folklore spectacle, but as an authentic ritual of thanksgiving, reconfirming a history of survival from war, plague, silt and -yes- storms stretching back across the centuries.


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