I remember the winter of 1947, it was cold, very cold, but it was the floods that gave us trouble. When the thaw came it was sudden, almost overnight and with the ground still rock solid the water had nowhere to go. The entire ground floor of Knowle was flooded, the water had come in through the back door. There was a small step up from the scullery into the living room and it was too small to stop the water. Nothing came in through the front door. Ernest ripped out a chunk of the hedge and dug a trench which allowed the water to run out into the lane so it was only bad for a couple of days.
The winter that really sticks in my mind is the one in ’62 and on into ’63. I really thought we were going to die.
It was Christmas, and I swear I thought we would never see another one. There had been a few weeks of changeable weather leading up to Christmas, rain and wind stopping and starting, it wasn’t overly cold but the rain was heavy when it came and the lane outside the cottage was just mud up to your knees.
That Christmas was going to be very special, our eldest was coming to see us with the grandchildren, our first grandchildren, twins, I was so excited. Our second eldest was coming over with his wife, who was expecting our third grandchild and to put the icing on the cake an evacuee child who had stayed with us during the war was coming to visit with her family, they were staying at a bed and breakfast in town. It was going to be a cramped but very happy Christmas, especially with the two youngest getting so excited. Ern had managed to get a second hand bicycle which meant the boy could go back to school. It was 14 miles to the big school and when his bike finally got beyond repair there was no way for him to get there, he was a bright boy and missed his friends, I was so looking forward to seeing his face on Christmas morning. The youngest still believed in Father Christmas and was so excited I thought she would burst!
Ern had found a doll on the side of the road about a mile from the cottage. There were no other children up that way, just the road connecting towns 16 miles apart. I cleaned her up and made lots of little clothes, Edith would be so pleased I could hardly wait. We were better off with the elder two out on their own so we had a pound or two to spare and we spent it on the children, just little things but they would enjoy the day tearing off the paper to see what they had.
We would have had nine children had they all lived. The older three were all twins, the first born that survived, two more we lost early…seems my eldest boy has the twin thing in him now.
That Christmas day was the best I ever remember, so full of love and laughter. My daughter in law brought me soap, really fancy soap that smelled expensive, and I got some stockings, and an apron, and the evacuee, Thomas, well, he and his wife lived up in Bristol, in the city. He had done well for himself, but he never forgot us, always cards on our birthdays and all. He brought us a hamper of food and a cardigan for me and a sweater for Ern. The older two, the ones he remembered got gifts and the little ones, well, there were packs of cards, teddy bears, and two jigsaws in boxes with the pictures on the front.
Christmas night Ern had to carry the youngest to bed as they had fallen asleep on the rug in front of the range. Our guests started to leave quite early, just a couple of hours after our meal, the weather was getting worse and the wind was getting stronger is was really bitterly cold. Thomas and Martha headed back to their accommodation in town and my lads headed off back to their homes in the village a few miles away.
I was exhausted, cooking for ten on the range was hard work, but I had enjoyed every minute. We banked up the firebox, set the damper, which altered the airflow and made the fire burn very slowly through the night, and went to bed.
Boxing day morning we woke up to a foot of snow, not something we had every winter being down in the south west of the country. The wind was raw, it felt like it was cutting us to the bone when we went down to the well to get water. It was only about 50 feet from the front door, but it took us an age. The bitter winds had set the mud into deep ruts, but the snow had hidden them, it was so hard to stay upright, especially coming uphill with full pails. Ern had to crack a thin layer of ice off the surface of the water.
The well was a hole in the wall type with a grey wooden door that had a catch to keep it shut. The water was just an inch below ground level when the door was opened.
Our hands were blue and we were half frozen after fetching just four buckets. We had used so much more water having people over, we should have done it Christmas night, the boys would have helped, we just didn’t think. It was tempting to give up, but we kept going, sometimes stopping to warm up before going out again. All in all, it took us six hours to make sure the barrels were full. We couldn’t remember weather this cold.
We ate leftovers that day, there was no time for cooking or much of anything else to be honest.
The next day, that would be the 27th, there was even more snow, not massive falls but it went on and on adding inches to the depth on the ground. The wind had dropped a little, it was still bitterly cold but a little better than Boxing day so Ern decided to bring up more water, we filled the coppers. I knew something was worrying him and when the children went to be he told me he had to smash two inches of ice from the well to get to the water. we had a transistor radio and we listened to the weather forecast that night, it wasn’t good. I didn’t understand it all, but we were set for the snow to carry on for another few days.
Ern was out early for work, they were struggling to find the sheep, several had died. Farmer George gave us some of the meat, and six eggs for the extra help Ern gave him. The farm had electricity and he told Ern that the whole country was white with snow and it was set to get worse. He said we should get as much water and wood as we could. It was advice that saved our lives.
Down the hill on the other side of the brook that fed the well was a half fell down old barn that we used to keep excess firewood in. Ern fashioned a sled and with some rope managed to get a huge amount of wood back to the cottage. The scullery was literally half full. Warm from the hard work of fetching the wood he topped up the water barrels again, and filled the coppers, a washed out milk churn and every jug we had. I fed him a good bowl of mutton stew and thanked God I had such a good man for a husband.
We woke up in the middle of the night, the wind was howling, it sounded like an animal roaring. The children were scared so I took them downstairs so Ern could sleep. I built up the fire and opened the door so the glow lit the room, we had to be careful with lamp oil, it was expensive. A candle in front of the mirror gave the room a warm glow and the kids fell asleep on the couch.
I made some bread dough and set it to prove so that we could have warm bread for breakfast, Ern would need a decent meal before work. We were alright for milk, we had a churn full from farmer George as a Christmas gift. It was standing, frozen solid outside the back door.
As the dawn broke I could see how fast the snow was falling, coming down fast enough that you couldn’t see a third of the way down the garden. The kids ran upstairs to look out of the bedroom window.
It was their hollering that “the world had vanished” that saw me standing next to them amazed at what I saw…or maybe I should say didn’t see. There was nothing except white. The eight foot tall hedgerows had gone, there was just one level blanket of snow as far as I could see. The wind had blown it into drifts covering the garden, the hedges and even a tree that was around 15 feet tall. I had never seen anything like it, none of us had.
Opening the back door and being faced with a wall of white was very strange, and left us with the problem of how to get to the outhouse. Opening the front door wasn’t much better but the way the drift had built up meant we could bash one side of the wall down where the snow was thinner. It took Ern, our 11 year old and me, working in shifts three hours to collapse, flatten and on occasions, dig our way to the outhouse.
We wrapped the children up well and gave them the wood sled. On the dug out path, out of the wind it was much warmer and they were happy to be pushing each other along…keeping the path open for all of us as the snow continued to fall.
We bashed out the front door snow whilst they played. The snow had blown off the open fields and piled up into drifts feet deep. Ern walked forward a little and three feet of white powdery snow fell down onto him. We went back indoors to think how we were going to deal with the situation.
Ern decided that if the weather continued to be so hostile he would have to make it down to the barn where the wood was. It looked like we had enough wood to last a lifetime, but it wouldn’t last that long with the fire going day and night, which it would be as it was so cold.
December 1962 ended with a blizzard the likes of which we had never seen before, and I haven’t seen since. You couldn’t see more than three feet in front of you.
We were housebound. Ern couldn’t get to the farm to work, we couldn’t get out of our little track even onto the lane let alone make it just over a mile to the main road, we were cut off.
The transistor batteries ran out on New Years Eve, we put our spare ones in and decided to only put the radio on a minute or so before the news.
As we moved into January it got a little warmer, still well below freezing but not quite as bitter as it was. Little by little Ern made a path to the woodshed and once again the scullery was full. The milk was getting used very sparingly. We knew we would need flour and some basics before much longer and I was starting to worry a little, not too much but I was aware of the amount of food we had. Normally we would be eating winter veggies from the garden but we couldn’t find them, even if we had the ground was so frozen we couldn’t have got them up.
Over the next five days Ern cut a path up towards the lane, he found occasional pockets where the snow was thinner and easier to get through. Unless there was a thaw he thought it would take him three weeks to get to the farm or the main road. As we couldn’t see the main road we had no idea what the conditions were like up there so he decided the farm was our best bet.
I was melting snow to make the water supply last longer, digging out the well and possibly cracking through God knows how much ice wasn’t a priority as long as we had all the white, clean snow to melt. As the brook had been frozen now for almost two weeks there was nothing to keep the water moving to prevent it icing over.
By the second week of January Ern was a couple of hundred feet down the lane towards the farm. The situation was getting a little worrying, we were almost out of milk, we had no meat or cheese and the eggs were gone. Eating more bread meant the flour was going fast. I wished I had listened to my daughter-in-laws when they said I should try canned soups instead of making it. I had some canned fruit, from the hamper Thomas gave us, and some chocolate and I gave the children a couple of chunks a day, and a spoon of fruit to keep their spirits up.
There was a major snowstorm and it got very cold again in the middle of January, bitterly cold. We pulled the mattresses off the beds and all stayed downstairs near the range. Ern carried on digging us out. It was the 29th of January when he heard the voices, the farmer and his lads had been digging their way out, heading up towards us.
It took them three more days to join up both paths. They all came to Knowle and had some tea to warm them then Ern took our lad with him to the farm. They came back with eggs and meat and milk, and even some flour the farmers wife let me have. The farmers sons took back two loads of firewood from the barn, and then came back for two more. they dropped a load off for us whilst they were at it.
February was freezing. Ern, farmer George and the boys spent their time trying to find sheep and cattle, there was going to be plenty of meat for weeks to come. The dairy cow was producing less, but it was enough for both families, and the chickens, who hated snow were laying less, but there was still enough to share.
The snow had stopped falling but was still feet thick on the ground in places and the temperatures stayed low right through February. Then almost overnight it got warmer. A few days into March we got up and it felt like summer, I have no idea what the temperature was but it felt tropical to me. You could see the snow melting before your eyes, literally just melting away.
We didn’t really care that the ground floor got a bit wet with the thaw, it was a small thing compared to what we had been through.
By the second week in March I was drying washing outside and you would never have known what the place had looked like just days before.
The laundry situation was critical, there had been no chance of keeping up with it. Both daughter in laws took bag after bag and washed it in their electric machines…and I have to admit I was pleased about that. So pleased that when they offered to do washing, from that point on I let them.
By the start of October 1963 I had enough food at Knowle that I could feed a battalion for six months! There was a huge wood supply in a shed Ern built in the garden and we had two more water barrels, just to be on the safe side. No point in going through something like that unless you learn from it is there?
My Lord, look how long I’ve gone on, I’d better let you go Tess or you’ll not invite me back again.