It was before 6am and still dark when I was awoken by the faint, persistent ringing of the phone downstairs. I dragged myself out of bed and padded the full length of the house down to the kitchen.
‘Hello’ I croaked.
‘I say! My water’s gorne orff!’
‘It’s Mr Allday, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. Of course it is. What are you going to do about it? I can’t have my baarth.’
We had only moved to the farm a few weeks earlier and I knew that the Alldays, who lived across three fields, about a quarter of a mile away, drew their household supply from our water tank, but I knew nothing about the way the arrangement worked.
Cyril Allday was an 84 year old retired farmer from Gloucestershire. But not just any old farmer. Between the wars he had established the best herd of Dairy Shorthorns in England, as he was happy to tell anyone he thought interested. He was the son of a bank manager from the Midlands, who had fought in the trenches and been used to commanding a large staff and getting his own way. He loved fell walking, was an accomplished amateur photographer and lived in retirement with his late-married younger wife and unmarried sister in a delightful house across the fields, called Turnerhow. It was formerly Tannerhow, just along the road from where the medieval Brackenthwaite corn mill had once straddled the Liza Beck. The house had been gentrified in the late eighteenth century and all traces of its workaday origin covered up. Both the house and gardens were entirely surrounded by my fields and were reached by a narrow track that ran between drystone walls.
Our water supply came from a pipe in the Liza Beck into a stone cistern sunk into the ground and covered with huge slabs. It had originally been fed from a low sluice built at an angle across the little beck, but it had been washed away long ago and replaced with a makeshift collecting vessel in the form of an aluminium box dug into the gravelly bed and encased in copper gauze that acted as a filter.
That part of the Lake District (indeed all the Lake District) gets more rain that almost anywhere else in Britain and it often falls over a short time. As it drains a large area of the high fells, the Liza is subject to violent flooding. After a deluge on the fell tops the water runs off quickly, transforming it in an hour or two from a little beck chattering over shallow gravel beds and meandering around boulders, into a roaring dun-coloured torrent tearing at its banks and tumbling stones and gravel down to its confluence with the Cocker.
On one tremendous August day in 1760 that was still remembered two centuries later by the few people whose families had lived in the valley for ages, an intense rainstorm caused a waterspout to sweep down Gascale Ghyll, between Whiteside and Grasmoor, which set off a landslide on the front of Grasmoor and sent a wall of water down the Liza that washed all before it. It is likely that the corn mill was destroyed in this torrent and never rebuilt, probably being redundant by this time anyway. But the main effect of the cataract was to deposit a bed of silt and gravel, many feet deep, across all the flat fields adjoining the beck. When the sun came out after the rain the surface of the fields was said to look like a cross between a pavement and a cobbled street. Crops were destroyed and the pasture fields covered with so much gravel that it would have been impossible to cart it all away. So the farmers left the silt and small stones spread out and only took away the bigger stones to break up to repair the roads. Over the following summers the gravel grew over with herbage and the flat land gradually regained a covering of soil. But in a dry summer the grass often turned brown over the gravel beds where its roots could not penetrate to the water in the subsoil.
‘What do you expect me to do?’ I asked him.
‘Find out what’s wrong. And get our water back on so we can at least boil a kettle! It’s no good at all! It’s most unsatisfactory. It never happened when George and Willie were here,’ he shouted.
Bearing in mind that it was not yet daylight, blowing a gale and, when I put my head outside the kitchen door, lashing with rain, I was not too happy to trudge across three steep fields to find out what was wrong with the water tank. But I didn’t know what was expected of me. For all I knew, it had been an incident of the Mackereth brothers’ previous tenancy that they were to ensure the Alldays had water.
‘Right. I’ll go and have a look.’
He clicked the phone down without replying. Rude old sod, I thought.
I went back upstairs, where my wife was still sleeping, unaware of the tempest raging outside, or the dressing-down I had just received from our neighbour. The ancient stone walls of the house were so thick that with the little windows closed, a terrorist bomb (had there been such things in those days) could have exploded in the yard and we would probably not have heard it. In fact, we were so oblivious to one memorable storm that raged while we were asleep, that a huge limb broke off the ancient yew tree that overhung the back of the house and crashed through the roof. We woke up to a jagged branch sticking through the ceiling into our bedroom, directly above the bed, showering us with the debris of three centuries’ of broken lath and plaster.
I slipped into yesterday’s clothes, tiptoed downstairs to the back kitchen and struggled into my waterproofs. Grabbing my most powerful torch from its hook by the back door, I ventured across the yard, yanked open the workshop door, took a spade and set off into the howling wind driving the stinging rain. The black leafless branches of the massive sycamores that sheltered the farm thrashed and cracked above me in a wind that snatched at my breath. Dark shapes flitted amongst the trees. I could hear nothing but the fury of the gale and the rain slashing against the walls of the house, and I began to believe I was being followed by malevolent forces, keeping their distance, and waiting for an opportunity to attack. The faster I went, the harder they chased me and the more terrified I became. I pressed on, bent into the howling wind, daring to glance from time to time over my shoulder and occasionally wheeling round whenever I imagined their breathing came too close. I was damned if I was going to let them play grandmother’s footsteps with me, so I forced myself to slow down. Running only encouraged them to come on faster and they were certain to be able to outrun me.
Just stand out in the open, I reasoned, where they have nowhere to hide, and face them down. So I stopped in the middle of the little steep croft behind the house and shone my torch wildly around, peering into the wet darkness, back down the slope where I had come from. Whenever a particularly savage buffet shook my resolve, I spun round to confront the demons pursuing me. It was hard to stand upright against the wind and I could see nothing in the lashing rain but the black branches threshing wildly in a storm that had become so violent I was half-surprised the drystone walls could stand against it.
Reaching the little wicket gate in the wall from where the path led down to the road beside the beck, I passed into the arcade of branches from the hedgerow trees that overarched the road. The wet black surface was strewn with sticks culled by the cleansing storm.
Before I got near, I could hear the roar of the water above the violence of the gale, and as I got closer my torch beam illuminated the violent gravy-coloured cataract rearing and tumbling down its bed. I dared not approach too close for fear of slipping into the broiling waters and being carried away. This was a beck that I could normally skip across dry-shod from stone to stone. I pointed my torch beam at the place where the water intake box ought to have been, but the torrent scouring the bed of the beck and pouring across the fields, was so violent that I could only conclude the intake box had been washed downstream. I went to the cistern and shone the beam through a little crack in the great slabs covering it. It was almost empty. The water just came up to the middle of the outlet pipe in the bottom and the little that remained was a placid oasis unruffled by the tumult of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of flood-water crashing down the beck twenty yards away.
There was nothing I could do. Dawn had started to seep into the valley, back-lighting the tracery of black branches against the brightening sky. I hurried back to the house across the empty fields, regretting the frisson of terror that was now evanescing in the growing daylight and feeling a bit stupid for being so terrified. I flung open the back-kitchen door and slammed it shut against the storm, the quietness was like plunging underwater. The phone was ringing in the kitchen and with water dripping from my coat and trousers, I hurried to answer it.
‘Well? Have you got it back on?’
‘No, I’m afraid not. The beck’s in tremendous spate. I can’t get near it.’
‘Have you tried?’
‘Look, the water’s five feet deep and roaring down its bed. I couldn’t stand up in it even if I tried. We (I wanted to say you, but didn’t quite dare) will just have to wait until it subsides.’
He put the phone down with a ‘humph’.
It had stopped raining by the time I was eating breakfast and spotted through the kitchen window the determined figure of Cyril Allday struggling along the lane towards the house, relying painfully on a stout walking stick. In his old age he had become victim to arthritis which had deformed his hands and feet and many of his other joints. It was painful to watch him struggling along, walking over on his insteps, with twisted ankles and misshapen legs, but he was damned if he was going to let it get the better of him. Bad-tempered old sod that he was, I felt sorry for him. The pain can’t have helped him control his temper, although that was not the whole cause of his irascibility. In fact it was more likely the pain was the result of it.
Every step of his beloved fell-walking had become exquisite torture so that by this time, he could no longer climb the fells and photograph the wild places he loved. He made his final ascent of the 2,900 feet of Grasmoor (which was almost at his back door) on his 80th birthday on a spectacular October day. The photographs he took were his last and some of his best. From the summit, looking out west across the Irish Sea on a clear day, in a certain condition of light, it is possible to make out the white houses on the coast of the Isle of Man; while far off to the north west, across the Solway Firth, the coastline of the Mull of Galloway stretches out to the horizon and merges with the sea. Cyril’s photographs captured all this in the fading light of an autumn afternoon. They turned out to be his swan song and a requiem for the Lake District and the natural world he loved.
His affliction put me in mind of Beethoven’s deafness and Milton’s blindness, ‘the one talent which is death to hide, lodg’d with [him] useless …’ forced to the realisation that those ‘who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best …They also serve who only stand and wait.’ Cyril Allday bore with great fortitude the far from mild yoke that prevented him from doing what he loved and what he had retired among the fells to do. It was even more poignant that it was not in his nature to ‘only stand and wait’.
I went out to meet him as he hobbled into the yard. He was brusque.
‘This is no good at all. We haven’t even enough water to boil a kettle. You’re going to have to sort it out.’
‘I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do while the beck’s in spate. The intake box has been washed out.’
He had no idea what I was talking about because he readily admitted that he had never actually been to the water intake box, nor had he the slightest idea how the water system worked. He had relied for nearly twenty years on George and Willie Mackereth, my predecessors, keeping it clean and the water flowing, despite his household being entitled to draw as much water as it needed from the tank.
‘The aluminium box covered in copper mesh that sits (or probably sat) in the bed of the beck and which collects the water that flows into the tank. I thought you would have known how the system worked. I had supposed you would have shared the maintenance with the Mackereths.’
He knew what I was getting at, because he was lost for words for a few moments, until he recovered himself, and said, ‘You cheeky young bugger!’
I feared I’d gone too far and didn’t know what to say to row back from my apparent insubordination. We stood looking at one another. I noticed his glasses were spattered with rainwater and I remember thinking that I would have wiped the lenses clean because I would have found it annoying to see things opaquely through raindrops. It was one of those things that old people seemed to stop noticing. Despite his irascible rudeness and self-absorption, I felt a pang of tenderness towards this old man whose body no longer obeyed his formidable will.
It would have taken more effort than he was capable of to climb down the river bank, dig the box back into the gravel bed of the stream in freezing water and re-lay the pipe. He was no doubt feeling vulnerable, afraid that his house would run out of water and that he would be unable to do anything about it. His wife and elderly sister depended on him, the man of the house who had once been capable of tackling anything. Although he was losing his physical strength, his pride would not let him ask for help, although it would let him force someone else to do what he no longer could. I promised to get his water back on as soon as the flood abated and in the meanwhile I offered to carry some water in jerry cans to keep them going.
In the afternoon, when I went over to see if the water had receded enough to get the water flowing into the tank, I encountered him, picking his way along the bank and surveying the scene.
‘I see what you mean,’ he shouted above the roar of the still swollen beck, ‘I thought I would come along and see what I could do, but it’s impossible!’
When I took the jerry cans of water to his house his wife, Jean confided that he had been secretly a little impressed I was prepared to stand up to him and he saw in me a little of the stubborn young man he had once been. I told her I thought he was being too generous – after all it was me who found myself a day later, my arm up to the shoulder in freezing water, digging a hole in the bed of the beck to re-site the intake box and get the water back on.
Sometime later the Alldays invited us round one evening for sherry and a slideshow of Cyril’s photos, and very good they were too. The next morning Jean rang to say that Cyril had died in his sleep. I wondered if the evening had been too much for him, but she was characteristically matter of fact, ‘he was old and ready to go. He could no longer do what he loved doing, walking the fells with his dogs, gardening and taking photos.’ She told me he wanted me to have his Home Guard issue .22 Browning sniper rifle that he used to shoot rooks from his bedroom window.
One of his more irascible incidents gives a flavour of his character. I was driving a large woolly mass of sheep which filled the road between the stone walls, when Cyril came up behind in his Austin Allegro and impatiently pip pipped his horn. I walked back level with the driver’s window and explained that I wasn’t going far, there was no way he could get through and asked him just to hang back for a few minutes. He replied he was in a ‘tearing hurry’ and besides he knew how to push through a flock of sheep. As he drove into them some of the frightened sheep broke back and my dog Tess doubled back in front of his car to stop them escaping. Cyril couldn’t see what was happening, so he kept going and ran over Tess, who was rolled under the middle of his car and came out standing on her feet behind. I shouted, ‘Hey, you’ve just run over my dog!’
He must have seen her in the rear-view mirror standing in the road apparently unharmed, but a little dazed, because he shouted, ‘No harm done!’ waved an arm out of the driver’s window and kept going until he had pushed through the flock and sped off down the road.