THE DEEP FREEZE
On Sunday January 28th 2012, 5 months after having moved to France, I returned home from a week's stay with my family in Holland.
During the journey my car's computer showed 8ºC, but on Monday morning I awoke to a white world with huge snowflakes steadily coming down. It was my first winter here and I was on my own in a big old stone house of which only the small kitchen and one bedroom were habitable.
Outside looked beautiful and I was excited. So were the cats, the dog and all my feathered animals. They darted around in this peculiar white stuff and couldn't get enough of it. But the temperatures dropped.
During that week, we had -13C nights and daytime temperatures didn't reach higher than -4C. It was cold in the house. Even though I had used the heating sparingly in the mornings and evenings, the oil tank which had been filled with 500 litres of expensive heating fuel just a few days before Christmas was rapidly running empty. I ordered a delivery of another 500 liters, put a second duvet on my bed and added some extra layers to my bedtime outfit. I hoped this was as bad as it would get.
But it got worse.
When I woke up one morning a week later, the inside of my bedroom window was completely iced up. Night time temperature had sunk to -15C. The kitchen tap only gave a trickle of water and then stopped. Same up in the bathroom.
As I went to open the gates, I heard one of our neighbours talking in the street and when I told him the water had stopped he immediately came over to check all pipework in house and cellars as well as the main stopcock at the gates but we couldn't find any areas to worry about. Surely enough an hour later the water was flowing again. That cold frosty day was lovely with plenty of sunshine and it was really nice to be up in the trees pruning and pollarding. In the afternoon I drove into Airvault to stock up on food and plenty of bottled water.
But then the Deep Freeze descended on Saint Chartres and the next morning I awoke to more heavy snowfall. No water. In the entrance hall there were frozen puddles on the floor where the snow had come in underneath the front door. The toilet wouldn't flush and there was an ice peak hanging from the toilet wash basin tap . Our loyal Viszla Dylan refused to leave his warm bed covers and the cats were rolled up together in their baskets in the kitchen.
I ventured outside in a beautiful mute white world and checked on my hens, turkeys and guinea fowl. They didn't like the snow at all and were huddling in the entrance of their house, so I cleared an area of ground for them and gave them a good breakfast. All that week I shivered the days away. With a seemingly permanent layer of ice on the inside of my bedroom window, I would have to get out of my double-duvet covered bed and put on yet a few more layers to go down to lay the fire and hope that in an hour's time the kitchen would be bearable enough to enter. But within 10 minutes of being up and about my fingers would be near numb.
Those first two days, I scooped snow from the courtyard into buckets to melt near the fire so that I would have water to flush the toilet. It took about an hour and a half to melt a single bucket load of snow alongside an open fire, and it took about 4 buckets of snow to make a single saucepan of water. I ate only simple things in order not to create dirty dishes as washing up was a no go.
Finally my pride gave in and I confessed my predicament to French friends in the village. They were not pleased at all that I had not told them earlier and immediately appeared with jerry cans of water which they came to collect and refill every day.
I was brought veggies and invited to suppers and soothing hot showers and my dear French friend P. came to check on my well-being every day. Later that week, I learned that several neighbours had solidly frozen water pipes too.
I had the kitchen fire burning high from morning till evening and I would sit right in front of it just to keep warm. By 8.30pm I was in bed trying to get warm. There were nights when temperatures went down to -18C. Daytime temp would not reach above -7C so the ground was frozen absolutely solid. Some mornings it was an effort to get out of bed, especially after a night of waking up all the time because my pillow was so freezing cold that each time I turned over my cheek hit ice. Under my double layer duvet I would wear two vests, two shirts, thick leggings and ski socks.
The cats would stay in the kitchen day and night. Dylan huddled near the fire from morning to evening and then he would rush up to his bed in my room and curl up under his extra blanket to stay warm. The chickens stayed in their pen and only came out if I'd coach them to take a walk with me. They didn't eat a green shoot for two weeks and some of them actually showed frostbite spots on their combs.
It was an experience.
For 15 days, we had the coldest weather - living in a house which resembled a building site. Everyone told me these were the worst temperatures they had ever experienced in Saint Chartres. I blessed our common sense to have chosen a house in a village and not in isolated countryside.
But strangely enough the young hens, bought the previous autumn, started laying their very first eggs at that coldest ever time. It must have been the increasing daylight that triggered their production and we went from no eggs at all to seven eggs each day! Big beautiful eggs in all shades of brown.
At the tail end of all this, Paul arrived with our son and a friend.
I had much looked forward to their arrival, but with mixed feelings also - mighty glad to have company and support whilst worrying about how 4 people would get through the days without water or working toilet. But I was also happy they would experience at least a little of what I had gone through - the first two days of their stay were still very cold with early morning temps about -13C.
We bought a pump which Paul connected to our water well and fed into the mains and, voilá, at least our toilet problems were solved. By then the weather had started to ease down and in the daytime we were back to more or less 0C. It almost felt like spring!
Melting snow and ice brought soaked sticky slippery earth. The mud was everywhere - a sodden mess walked into the house constantly by people and animals. Bucket and mop made a permanent feature at the kitchen door. But oh, the joys of having a few extra pair of hands available! In the mornings the fire was laid and lit to make a halfway welcoming kitchen and there was warm porridge for breakfast. The men worked all week on insulating the dining room ceiling. There was constant washing up, an eternally dirty floor and a relentless effort to keep warm and comfortable in our tiny kitchen - but it was lovely to be together. And by the time the three men returned to the UK, the weather had improved dramatically and I knew I would be fine again on my own.
After surviving this Deep Freeze, I'd be able to cope with anything!