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Names (or Living with Consequences)

6 February 2012


I have a passion for the countryside and yes, surprise, surprise, the Yorkshire Dales in particular. I am fortunate enough to live in upper Nidderdale in a small farming hamlet. In winter it can be hazardous as the roads are often the last to be gritted now there are no diary farmers selling milk to the cooperatives. In the old days if milk deliveries were at stake the roads to the farm were given priority.

 And then there is the rain. Being at the foot of the Pennines we do get more than our fair share. When persistent heavy rain comes the river Nidd overflows and floods the road about 2 miles from our village. So you see we pay a price for being surrounded by outstanding natural beauty.

 As you would expect, most of us are equipped with 4 wheel drive vehicles, well nearly all of us. When my wife and I first came to live in the upper dale my wife had a Golf car of which she was mighty fond.

 The landlord of our local pub, an authority on all community matters, people, history and hazards had told us that we were more likely to get stuck in the village because of flooding rather than snow. Heavy inundations on this particular stretch of the river have the reputation for rising and falling with alarming speed.

 One dark evening, soon after we had moved in and returning from her place of work my wife was confronted with the road in spate. There was a stretch of about 300 yards in length to negotiate. She stopped the car to watch some 4x4s go through. Then after a few reassuring words from some helpful passers-by: “Its not too deep, you’ll get through, we just seen some cars pass,” she gingerly headed into the deluge only to come to a spluttering halt midway into the flooded section. As my wife opened the car door water came rushing into the footwell, swamping the pedals and creating a flotilla of residue parking tickets and sweet wrappings that characterize her car floor. She was wearing long leather boots but these too were nearly swamped as she waded to dry land. They were of the fashion type, purchased on a holiday in Italy, horribly expensive and not designed for river wading.

Fortunately, a local farmer who knew my wife by sight came to the rescue with his tractor. He towed the car out of the water and got it onto a dry spot where it was left over night before being towed off to the garage next day to see whether any serious damage had been done to the engine – water getting sucked up the exhaust pipe can ruin an engine in no time at all. My wife came home in the farmer’s Land Rover, wet, feeling a bit silly and if truth be told, somewhat frightened too.

The car, other than suffering from a smelly wet carpet for months, was none the worse for its ducking and my wife’s boots were revived with ample leather cream. It had been a close shave.

 The famer who didn’t know my wife’s Christian name dubbed her ‘Amphibious,’ and now when they ever meet that’s what he calls her. The name stuck. Forever, Amphibious!

 Before we had moved into our very old village house we had some joinery work done by a friend from Harrogate. Rather than commuting every day he stayed in the house in a make shift bed and ate at the local pub across the road. To keep warm in the in the evenings I showed how to light one of the many of the property’s wood burning stoves; this one was located in a small snug that adjoined the kitchen.

 Early one evening my wife and I were visiting to check on progress of the work. The joiner had been busy installing some book shelves. Like all joiners there always seems to be surplus wood from any job – off-cuts, shavings and saw-dust. In fact piles of the stuff. He had just lit the wood burner using ample quantities of this dry and highly flammable material.

 When I came into the room the fire was roaring up the chimney and the stove doors were shut tight to give maximum draft. I immediately went over to the stove to try and open the cast iron metal doors but the handles were red hot. After grasping some dust sheets and wrapping them around my hands I managed to grip the handles and with a violent and speedy pull got the doors open. There was an immediate blast of heat into the room but the chimney was still roaring even louder – a sure sign that it had caught fire. I rushed outside to look at the stack.

 The property is a grange, a monastic farmhouse originally attached to Fountains Abbey. The parish is called Fountains Earth; the evidence of the lay brothers handiwork in shaping the landscape with medieval field patterns and dry stone walls is still visible today. I have a conveyance for the property that dates back to1540 when Henry VIII was selling off the granges to local farmers after the dissolution of the monasteries. So the building is very old with lots of beams and exposed timbers abound.

 The roof as you would expect is Yorkshire stone with stone chimney stacks. When I got outside one of the stacks was spitting flames through the pointing; suddenly there was an almighty crack as the chimney pot exploded and half of it rolled down the roof with a great clattering, bringing soot and flaming debris with it. I had to dive out of the way to avoid being struck from this violent eruption as the pot landed on the pristine lawn leaving a searing scorch mark. I ran back into the house shouting: “The chimney’s on fire! The chimney’s on fire!”

 The joiner went into the kitchen to fill a bucket of water to douse down the fire and I rushed to the telephone and dialed 999 for the fire service. As the water was poured onto the fire there was an enormous ‘whoosh’ and steam and smoke filled the room with a foul, choking fog.Luckily, the village has a volunteer local fire service and after about 5 minutes I was astonished to hear a siren wailing and a little red Land Rover tender screeched to a halt outside the house. Four burly men piled out, mostly nearby farmers all geared-up with helmets, torches and other paraphernalia hanging from belts about their persons.

Soon various other capable-looking firemen arrived either on foot or in their own vehicles. They were busily pulling on their firemen’s uniforms as they entered the house. The place was suddenly filled with firemen; there was barely room to move.  But by now the fire was out but to double check they poured water down the chimney from the roof. Wet charred debris filled the stove. The fire chief then carefully studied the resulting blackened goo like a witch doctor checking the entrails of a dead animal looking for portents. Meanwhile other firemen were up on the roof and peering into the chimney with torches. Some were in the attic where they found burning hot pieces of soot and debris that had fallen outside the chimney lining and onto the wooden attic floor. Fortunately nothing had caught alight. Another close shave!

 Firemen normally have a heat seeking camera that can identify if the fire has spread into the timber joists. On old houses these are attached to the chimney breasts. Their own camera was broken and they had to send to Harrogate station for another one. This took an hour and numerous cups of tea.

 Finally we were given the all-clear and the firemen, the joiner with my wife and I retired to the pub for a well-earned drink. The landlord had witnessed this drama out of the pub window. As I approached the bar with the throng of thirsty firemen bringing up the rear, the landlord greeted me with a cheery smile:

“And how’s the village Pyromaniac this evening?”

 And that name has stuck too!


February 2012

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