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"La grande tempĂȘte": my polytunnel takes to the air and the g...


We had what I thought was a terrible storm on Thursday night. When we got up I was surprised to see the only damage was a bit of tearing in the 30 foot polytunnel.
When we went to bed on Saturday, France Meteo was warning about a massive storm coming up from near Portugal, but as we weren’t in the ‘red alert’ zone, we hoped we might escape the worst.
At around 2 a.m. we awoke to hear the wind roaring and whistling around us under the eaves, and the sounds of the roof groaning and moving. Something outside blew around in the wind and I thought slates had come off the roof. About an hour later, everything went calm again, and I thought, “Phew!”, we’ve got off lightly.
Never count your chickens. I fell back to sleep but around 3 a.m. we awoke for the second time, but this time the wind was roaring and whistling as bad as it did back in the ‘great hurricane’ of the 1980s. As the moon was quite bright, I looked out of the windows and could see the trees in the forest nearby bent nearly double. Rain lashed down. Then there were flashes of lightning over the lake.
We were awake for hours, listening and trembling every time the next great ‘gust’ arrived, usually preceded by a deep roaring like an express train in the distance, until it hit the house and garden with a great rushing sound a few seconds later.
The power went off, and came back, went off and came back, went off…. and then nothing.
Eventually around 5 a.m., we managed to doze off again and when we woke up around seven, it was beginning to get light and the worst was over though the wind was still gusting and howling.
When I managed to drag myself from my bed, I looked out of the bathroom window which faces the garden. Where the polytunnel had stood, there was now just a steel skeleton. The entire polythene sheet had been stripped from the frame like a piece of damp tissue paper. Most of it had disappeared!
The electricity was off, which meant no water, as the water comes from a well pump. We couldn’t use the loo as it wouldn’t flush, so had to get water from the well in a bucket. Luckily our cooker runs on bottle gas so we could heat some water up for a much needed cup of tea.
I managed to get out into the garden to examine the damage.
Next to the stripped polytunnel was our small glasshouse. Seven panes of glass had been removed by the wind and thrown about ten feet away, on to the tops of some glass cold frames. I’d weighted those down before the storm and was amazed that apart from a crack in one, the glass in them had stood up to being bombarded with broken glass from the greenhouse.
The most annoying problem, was that the polytunnel had been full of pots, seed pans, bags of compost, tools, and growing seedlings. I had several modules planted up with young onions on staging, and the wind had flipped these over and deposited them twenty metres down the garden. Cabbages, Pak Choi, and Mizuna green seedlings had had the same treatment. Yet strange to say, five or six margarine tubs filled with vermiculite in which other brassicas had been sprouted, were still standing firmly on the staging, yet these were the lightest things of all.
A short walk from home and we discovered trees down all around us. A beautiful ash tree, but covered in ivy which brought about its fate, had come down over the track that leads to our house. In the area in front of the earth dam which forms the lake, a huge Lombardy Poplar had been felled by the wind, and several smaller trees uprooted. Behind our outbuildings, a large willow tree on which we always fix the hammock for guests, now leans drunkenly at 45% with the rootball protruding above the normal soil level. (I’m hoping a neighbour with a tractor might be able to pull this back upright if we then prop it up again with ropes and posts.)

With no electricity, we couldn’t get any news. The telephones wouldn’t work, the computer was down, and our radio reception on FM is virtually non-existent as we are located in a valley.

By the end of the day, we learnt from visitors that the rest of the village was without power too. In fact,throughout western France over a million people were without power. Far worse, we heard that 50 people further south on the coast had drowned when a 26 foot flood surge from the Atlantic flooded their homes. Our problems were nothing in comparison.

Gardening being our priority, this morning, 24 hours after the storm, we set out for the nearest town to get some replacement greenhouse glass.

Everywhere there were fallen trees and telephone poles hanging from the wires with their rotten bases broken off. Crews of EDF (the French electricity company) were in several places, repairing cables and doing work at sub stations.

By the time we got back with our glass, the power was back on! After 36 hours without it, we’d been getting worried about all our stored vegetables in the freezer. Now we could get the water supply back on, listen to the radio, use the computer and get life back to normal.

This afternoon, I have managed to repair the greenhouse and put the surviving seedlings under cover inside it. I’ve picked up many of the pots and trays from the furthest points of the garden and retrieved sheets of shredded polythene from hedgerows and tree branches.

However, it could have been a far greater disaster. The polytunnel cover was already six years old. I’ve even got a new cover, and I’d planned to recover the tunnel last autumn, but never got round to it. Just as well, or the storm might have shredded the new one!

An experience like this reminds you about the real forces of nature. On a balmy sunny day, you never think about the storms and winds gusting at 120 km an hour. But this year, as I recover the tunnel, I WILL think about the worst case scenarios. I’m make sure I use lots of hot-spot tape on the frame. I’m going to fix the polythene to strong boards around the base, screwed to U shaped supports on the frame. And instead of flimsy polythene doors, I’m going to build really solid doorframes and hang some old glazed doors we got from the tip in their place, with strong bolts and catches.

Nature can be so brutal and violent. But by the morning after, while the winds were still strong, we could see geese and ducks taking flight into the gales, and many tiny birds who didn’t seem in the least perturbed. Along by the river, I noticed all the delicate little crocuses have finally come through. There they all are, unaffected by the gale and the heavy rain. The willow trees behind the house, that looked as if they were going to be blown out of the ground, are just beginning to bud with white fluffy pussy willow blooms.

The saddest sight is the trees which have been brought down throughout the forest. But the reality is, many of those are firs which are simply planted for harvesting. Their removal means more light for the forest to regenerate. The wood will be put to good use as fence posts, and replacement telephone posts!

But now all the signs of spring are in the air, and we have the new gardening season to look forward to. Life begins again.

Bertie Fox, March 1st 2010

p.s. Ironically, just as I was finishing off this post, the power went off again! Luckily I was typing on the laptop so didn’t lose everything I’d just written!

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it must have been frightening in the storm.. glad you are all ok..... i saw on the news about the people killed....... we didnt get much of it here on the south coast just some heavy rain in the night.....

1 Mar, 2010


saw it on the news Bertie am pleased that you are ok, everything else can be sorted in time, at least you have been able to salvage somethings from the storm :)

1 Mar, 2010


Although I found your blog most interesting its so sad to hear of so many people losing their lives, and here I`ve been moaning about a bit of frost and the lack of sunshine. It is nice however that you have been able to pick yourselves up and salvage something from the wreckage. Good luck in all you do for the rest of the year.

1 Mar, 2010


We seem to be conditioned to disaster lately, almost every time I turn on the news there's another natural disaster. It must have been very worrying for you on the night. The bit that I found amazing was that the small tubs with seeds in were undisturbed. I hope that you've had your share of unusual weather now and that it will settle down to normal so you can get on with your spring gardening.

1 Mar, 2010


you have my sympathy Bertie..been there done that a few years ago......sooo glad you got out there and made things a bit better it gives you a more posative outlook. i hate seeing the fallen trees after big winds. but id love to get my hands on them for my luck with the tunnel..;-)

1 Mar, 2010


so glad you are ok. I saw the devastation on the news today. hope all goes well without further mishap.

1 Mar, 2010


poor you bertie, bet it was awfull, im sure we were surpose to get bad winds and rain from portugal or spain but nothing as yet, hope thats all your going to get now, fingers crossed

1 Mar, 2010


Thanks for all the nice kind comments, all so quickly! Makes us feel a lot better already!

1 Mar, 2010


Thanks for telling us about your experience - it really brings it to life.

1 Mar, 2010


That was a dreadful experience - thank you for sharing it with us. The most important thing is that you are unscathed. It's so sad to hear that others weren't so lucky, though.

1 Mar, 2010

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