Will was unable to make the usual visits to all his family before Christmas this year due to the coronavirus restrictions. Stuck in London, he thought particularly of his sister Samantha on the remote farm deep in the country and of the life-changing experience of a previous Christmas earlier.
The blizzard had swept in, sudden and unexpected. True, snow flurries had been forecast for the east coast, but not heavy falls this far inland. Will hardly noticed the grey/yellow sky or the strengthening wind. It was some months since he had seen his sister and they were enjoying catching up with all the news. As he was city born and bred, Will had some difficulty understanding why Samantha had chosen to marry a farmer and come to live in such an isolated spot. Nevertheless, Tim was a pleasant chap and they seemed very happy together.
It was a pity that the animals prevented them joining the family Christmas, but they could not leave the sheep and the modest farmhouse had insufficient room for the entire family to celebrate there. So Will had dropped in on Christmas Eve to exchange presents and seasonal goodwill.
He had been preparing to leave when Tim brought the news that the snow was drifting across the lane and the roads were becoming impassable. After anguished debate and a somewhat fraught telephone call, it was agreed; Will had no choice but to stay and spend Christmas with his sister. As soon as that was settled, Tim roped in Will to help; there was a flock of sheep out on the hill that had to be brought down to more sheltered pasture before cold and snow engulfed them. It took a few minutes to find boots and coat to fit Will and then they set off into the blizzard.
Once away from the shelter of the farmstead, the wind whistled around their ears, numbing any exposed extremities with cold. The snow was falling so heavily now that they could only see a few yards ahead as the flakes flashed before their eyes, driven by the gale. Clutching torches and shovels, they struggled up the hill towards the high pasture, even the sheep dogs leaning into the wind and fighting the conditions.
On top of the downs, the wind was stronger still, the snow forming drifts against anything that stood in its way. They found the sheep, ewe lambs reared as flock replacements, sheltering as best they could, but some of them becoming buried in the drifts. Quickly, they dug out any that were no longer capable of escaping the danger for themselves as the dogs rounded up the stragglers. It was a much harder job than it would have been in good weather, made all the more difficult by the gathering gloom, by now descending into pitch blackness. Luckily the dogs knew what was expected of them because instructions or whistles could not be heard above the howl of the gale.
Slowly, listing hard into the wind, sheep, dogs and men gathered closer together and made their way from the hill to a paddock sheltered by the farm buildings and woodland. Gate securely fastened, they returned to the farmhouse, chilled to the bone, to stand before the roaring log fire that Samantha had stoked up.
But it was only a temporary respite. Later the same evening, Tim looked in on the ewe flock in the barn due to lamb early in the New Year. He found one ewe had gone into labour prematurely and was in obvious distress. After a brief personal fight against his reluctance, Will again dressed for the weather outside and accompanied Tim to the barn. He held the torch, fetched a bucket of warm water and watched as Tim grappled to manoeuvre a lamb that was helplessly jammed deep in its mother’s womb.
He marvelled at Tim’s patience and stamina as he worked late into the night to save both ewe and her twin lambs. Although still cold, at least they were sheltered from the wind and there was an eerie peace as the torchlight picked out the ewes against their straw bedding. A tear formed in the corner of Will’s eye when finally they left the ewe, exhausted by her ordeal, snuggling up to her two fine lambs under a heat lamp in the corner of the barn.
The next morning dawned bright and cold as the ice and snow crystals sparkled in the clear sunshine. The wind had abated and the scene that greeted them as they stepped from the farmhouse was straight from a Christmas card. There was work to be done, water troughs to thaw out, sheep to feed, especially those brought off the hill the night before.
As he trudged through the snow carrying a bale of hay, Will realised that he had gained a sense of perspective that had escaped him in the twenty years of his life till then. For the first time, he understood the power of nature, the attraction of the outdoor life, the peace and satisfaction of hard physical work and of caring for creatures reliant on human help.
It was a far cry from the lights of Oxford Street, the commercial frenzy of an urban Christmas. True, missing the festivities with the rest of his family was a shock to his cosseted system but, as he tucked into home-grown roast lamb for Christmas lunch a few hours later, he knew that his outlook on life had changed profoundly and that this would be a Christmas that he would never forget.
A very Happy Christmas to all readers.