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5 Feb 2009

Winter with a vengeance

Following the unusually miserable cold Christmas and New Year, as shown in the two pictures above, I started this post on the weather in Normandy. However, it has rather been taken over by the snow in London: back for a meeting which was cancelled.

Generally, the Normandy climate is not much different from southern England: Rouen average temperature 9.9 C, London 11.0, Caen 10.9, rainfall 26 inches, 24 inches, 25 inches, even though being further west and further south one might expect a little improvement. Not exactly the South of France, but a typically temperate climate. 

My house turned out to be sitting at the top of a range of hills, and at 300metres above sea level is high enough to be on average about 1 degree cooler than the rest of the region. The other effect is that as this is the first real range of hills inland from the Atlantic, we get quite a lot of rain. Normandy in general is pretty wet – there are postcards and tee shirts on sale which make fun of this – but we seem to have more days damp than dry. Sometimes it is just the usual crachant Normand – Normandy spitting – of somewhere between fine spray and very damp air, sometimes we are actually inside low clouds, and sometimes it is just this side of total immersion.

We have learnt that we are in a micro-climate, and that whatever our weather, it is usually better at the coast thirty kilometres away – more sun, warmer, less wind. But in general the weather is mild, and short of extremes.

This winter, though, has been colder for longer than any other. Twenty days where the temperature was below zero. The saving grace was no rain or snow, and most days were ultimately bright and sunny, even if too cold to do much. A key problem was dense freezing fog in the mornings, with visibility just a few feet. We have had worse.

Three years ago there was very heavy snow, and we were in fact stuck in the house. I tried to leave, because we were to collect a couple of friends arriving on foot at Ouistreham to stay over New Year with us. The road at the end of our drive is a bit of a hill: down ends in a cross roads, up is a t-junction. About thirty five metres up, the car just stopped moving up. I put the hand brake on and the gear in park, and got out to see how to rectify the situation. As I was standing behind the car, it seemed to give up on adhesion all by itself, slid towards me, and then into the ditch. I had left the door open, and that jammed against the hedge so that only one wheel was in the ditch. Still took three hours to get a tow truck to rescue me. And every passer by (four in two hours) who kindly stopped their car to help couldn't get going again either. A snow plough attached to a lorry made things worse by compacting the snow rather than moving it; eventually salting did the trick.

A few years earlier, there was another severely cold spell. We were leaving for the ferry back to England when our neighbour, Madame Laforet, came out of her housing waving and shouting. Turned out that she had a burst pipe pouring a lot of very cold water all over her spare bedroom, just behind the living room. Apparently the mains tap lived in the cave under the house, which itself was built just before the revolution. Mains water did not get connected until the sixties, and electricity a year or two later.

This cellar contained an illegal still, a couple of very large, in fact huge, barrels of cider and a lot of unidentifiable stuff. All over the ceiling were pipes, running in every direction, and up and down the walls, with taps everywhere. It seems that every time a new water using facility – a sink, a shower, a wash basin, a toilet etc – had been installed, a new set of pipes were laid.

The ceiling was the floor of the room with the leak, and consisted of very old floorboards which had shrunk over time, and had big gaps. The cold water was therefore falling on me all the time, and it was very, very cold. It was also running over the electric wires, which may or may not have been live. I went around with a torch, turning off every tap I could find, and nothing stopped the leak. Finally, I found a tap under some sacking and other rubbish in the far corner, and that stopped the water.

La Mere Laforet was cold and wet, and for the first time since we had met her she looked old, frail, and depressed, poor thing. We had a ferry to catch, all my clothes were in a suitcase in the boot of the car, and I was soaking wet. However, we phoned her son to come round to help her, drove off calling in at the village plumber to get a repair organised, and then crept very slowly over black ice to St Lo and the dual carriageway to Cherbourg. Passed six other cars in the ditches on the way.

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