Yesterday evening we went round to a friend’s house nearby to sit, suitably socially distanced, in their garden for a taken-away pizza from an excellent Sicilian restaurant in Bishopthorpe Road that has recently switched to pizzas as its exclusive range of offerings. Our highly erratic weather had served up the hottest day of the year for us, the third hottest ever recorded in UK, over 37 degrees at Heathrow, and somewhere around 30 degrees here. Our hosts had put up a gazebo for us to sit under, mainly to provide shade until the sun set. Having started by being eccentrically blustery for the time of year, the wind dropped, the atmosphere became very close and ominously still, and I commented that were we in South or East Africa I would know for certain that a decent-sized thunderstorm was on its way. But you don’t get proper thunderstorms in York – or at least we hadn’t experienced one in the almost twenty years we have been here. I had barely made the comment before I heard the first faint murmurings coming in on the wind, which had changed direction, and within a surprisingly short time it wasn’t shade we needed the gazebo for. A thunderstorm came through that the unfortunate owners of a house set on fire by lightning in Haxby, a few miles away, certainly wouldn’t have regarded as being in any way ‘proper’.
The storm passed by just far enough away for us to catch the edge of the rain, but I’ve always been invigorated by the drama of the sound and light show of a thunderstorm and it brought a flood of random memories sweeping in. A clear, bright afternoon, fishing with my brother Mike on the upper reaches of the Umgeni river on a farm in what was then Natal. There were storm clouds miles away over the Drakensberg, not close enough to worry us in spite of our being all too aware that a schoolboy from a private school nearby had been killed by lightning attracted to his carbon-fibre rod not long before. We were fishing about 100 yards apart when a bolt of lightning, the proverbial ‘bolt from the blue’, struck the water between us and sheeted out, a dazzling blue, in both directions along the river. We both dropped to the ground, lifted our heads successively to check that the other was still alive, and, when he wasn’t to be seen, assumed he had been killed, before we both eventually stood up simultaneously. We decided to call it a day as far as the fishing was concerned.
Yesterday the lightning was close enough for me to ask our hosts whether the poles holding the gazebo up were made of metal, as I recalled a thunderstorm one evening when we were at a party in Pietermaritzburg and returned home to find that the Norfolk Pine tree in our front garden had been struck, had exploded pieces of wood weighing up to 15lbs or so fifty yards across the street, which would have killed anyone passing by, and had permanently traumatised our already neurotic Border Collie, which subsequently alerted us to any impending storm long before we could hear it by trying unsuccessfully to cram itself into the minute space behind the toilet.
Last night’s storm would have brought hail with it in South Africa, and put me in mind of an occasion when I was caught by a sudden violent storm when I was out in the middle of Midmar dam on my sail-board. I had to jump off the board and seek shelter as best I could under the sail, trying to protect myself from jagged accretions of small pieces of ice, not far short of the size of my fist and a whole lot more dangerous. To call them ‘hailstones’ would have been a grave understatement. I realised how lucky I had been a few years later when, having watched a fusillade of hailstones hitting the dam alongside Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse in the Natal Midlands one evening, sending waterspouts two or three feet into the air as they hit the water, I went out for a ride the next morning and saw half a dozen dead cows lying in a field. I initially assumed they must have been struck by lightning but the local man I was riding with said they were too scattered for it to have been a lightning bolt and that it would have been the hail that killed them.
There is something manifestly perverse about being excited by, and attracted to, dramatic weather events. Not that my perversity even begins to approach that of the ‘storm-chasers’ who follow tornadoes in tornado-alley in the United States who were featured in the film ‘Twister’, which I found myself glued-to late into the evening recently. I should probably have been cured of the fascination by the occasion in my late teens when I was staying on an uncle’s farm near Ficksburg in the Orange Free State. I heard a thunderstorm approaching up the Caledon river valley and walked out about a mile from the farmhouse to meet it, intending to turn round to get back to the house in time before it got too close. With the thunder rolling up and down the valley I didn’t realise that, improbable as it seemed, another thunderstorm was approaching up the valley from the other direction behind me, and the two storms proceeded to converge directly above me when I was still half a mile or so from the house. I knew enough not to run, and spent what seemed like forever crawling that last half mile over a ploughed field and up a painfully gravelly drive before reaching the shelter of the verandah with very raw knees. Fortunately there was no hail, but there was lightning aplenty. And the storm last night still excited me.