16 December 2007

This incomparable corner of Northumberland is proving unique in more than one respect. As the rigours of winter bite, temperatures seem to reach lower nadirs than the official forecast, even those the BBC or Mozilla predict specifically for this particular postcode. After a diluvial November, the first fortnight of December brought welcome dry weather, but at a price: every day the frost gets sharper, the roads more slippery and the house more damn bitter cold.

Ensconced on the side of a hill and framed by the confluence of two rivers, the house is built into the hillside, some of its walls acting as a kind of rampart against it. Mysteriously, one of the downstairs walls has an arrow slit, even though there is nothing on the other side but the bowels of the hill. Was there no hill outside when the house was built? Hardly, since some of the upstairs is sculpted in, with concrete flooring laid directly onto the seemingly natural elevation. Only parts of the house have a downstairs as such at ground level.

This situation provides good shelter from the wind, but also puts us in the shade for much of the time, causing the ice to stay longer with us, sometimes not thawing at all. As to the squadron of builders, plumbers and electricians who once were part of the house’s ecosystem, they have taken their vibrant presences, colourful temperaments, musical propensities and sonorous voices elsewhere, presumably to a more pressing project, leaving us with drafty cracks unsealed, central heating unbalanced, and electricity very provisionally connected through a tangle of cables plugged into a socket at my feet in the study – not to mention the next stage of remedial houseworks we cannot afford to proceed to, such as tanking the said study, a room ‘unfit for human habitation’ according to the survey. And, believe me, the house is cold.

Even before any snow has fallen, the field is iced with a white coating that glistens under the moon and crackles underfoot with a satisfying sound, as if you were walking on corn flakes. Initially this experience would be available only on canine walks, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but this week the cold has been such that the frost stays over the field all day. On the dirt drive, patio and paved areas the ice provides a treacherous rink where the postman’s van and any inadvertent visitors skate with unpredictable results.

I come out in the morning to find the henhouse all frosted over, and sometimes it is a struggle to open the door. The hens’ water freezes within half an hour, so we have begun to bring the dispenser into our house at night so the poor creatures will have fresh liquid water to drink in the morning. They now choose to lie in their nesting boxes, all huddled together. This unfortunate habit is not a result of the cold as you might expect, but an practice introduced by María, the Maran, who joined us in October. It was not cold then; the problem was that on her arrival the other three hens accorded her a fiercely hostile welcome, so vicious that at night the newcomer had to take refuge in the nesting boxes, away from the perching bars where the bullies lorded it over. Apart from sympathy for the underhen, this drama affected us in that the unusual amounts of hen droppings in the nesting hay forced us to replace the hay more frequently.