The lost summer: catching Covid is the final straw

This should have been the summer of the new normal, when we finally put the pandemic behind us, got on with life and had some fun (ah yes, fun, I remember that…I had some once!) Only it hasn’t worked out like that. Describing the last few weeks as “the lost summer” may sound melodramatic, but although there have been a few highlights – the Burning Man sculpture trail, for example, and our visit to Pensthorpe Natural Park – overall I’m left with a nagging sense of regret for what might have been.

Wardrobe woes last for weeks

The project to replace our bulky freestanding wardrobe and sundry other old, tired pieces of furniture with a suite of new fitted units in a splendidly redecorated bedroom should have taken just five or six days. In the event it ended up taking five weeks. Five miserable weeks during which we camped out in the spare bedroom with our clothes and various other possessions scattered chaotically throughout the rest of the house! Five tedious weeks when we waited at home expectantly, day after day, hoping something would happen, only to find nothing ever did.

Our woes began when we decided this wardrobe needed replacing!

Don’t get me wrong. Now that the job is complete we’re pleased with our new bedroom. It looks great, and we’re pleased we had it done. But although the destination has proved agreeable, the journey was an unmitigated nightmare. Never again!

Hot! Hot! Hot! Temperature records tumble

Once the bedroom project was done we were determined to get out and about, to escape into the local countryside and relax a bit. But it didn’t turn out that way, courtesy of climate change. There are those who claim climate change is fake news, the invention of mad scientists or duplicitous politicians. Now, some scientists may be mad and many politicians are clearly duplicitous, but here’s the thing guys: climate change is real, as we were reminded to our cost a few weeks ago.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Raphael Wild on Unsplash

Pretty much immediately after the bedroom was finally fixed, climate change flexed its muscles and the UK was hit by an unprecedented heatwave. Records tumbled like the walls of Jericho, and we spent our days indoors, hiding from the sun and emerging only late in the evening to water the tomatoes and the beans. Mrs P and I are not built for hot weather, and having fun was out of the question. Our ambitions extended no further than desperately trying to stay cool.

What a waste, but on the other hand what was the alternative?

The final straw – Covid catches up with us at last!

All things must pass, and so it was that eventually the torrid temperatures gave way to something less unbearable. At last, an opportunity to escape the house! Just a few days after the heatwave broke, Mrs P spent a morning at a craft workshop, indulging in a hobby that has been an important part of her retirement. Unfortunately, one of her fellow crafters must have been suffering from Covid, and a couple of days later so was Mrs P. And just 48 hours after, I was showing all the symptoms too!

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Ever since the pandemic started we’d been cautious, behaved responsibly and avoided unnecessary risks. Mr and Mrs Platypus are also known as Mr and Mrs Sensible. Boring we may be, but the aim was always to stay healthy and enjoy the benefits that good health brings.

Of course it could have been worse, much worse. We have lived to tell the tale, after all. And, thankfully, we’ve now tested clear and are feeling quite a lot better. Although we’re not yet firing on all cylinders, there’s no indication so far that “long Covid” has got its claws into us. But it was bad enough while it lasted, which was nearly two weeks. Two weeks of wearying, aching, cough-crazy self-isolation, confined to Platypus Towers when we should have been out enjoying ourselves.

Worst of all, probably, was the impact on our sense of taste and smell. It wasn’t that we were unable to taste anything at all, but rather that everything tasted wrong and a lot of it tasted horrible. Mrs P and I both enjoy cooking, and during our two weeks with Covid we had plenty of time to devote to culinary endeavours. But what would have been the point, given that everything we prepared tasted like an unfortunate accident in a badly-run food warehouse?

IMAGE CREDIT: dronepicr, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Realistically, I suppose it was inevitable Covid would catch up with us in the end. That, after all, is the nature of a pandemic – the disease is everywhere and one day your luck runs out, however careful you may be. And I suppose we should be grateful: in the two years since Covid first hit the variants of the virus have become less serious, and the vaccinations we have had may also have helped reduce the severity of our symptoms.

The good news is that, finally, Covid is behind us. We’re doing our best to make up for lost time, but the last few months still feel like the lost summer.

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Postscript, 10 August: I drafted this post a few days ago in a spirit of hope and expectation, immediately after we tested clear of Covid. Since then, however, a second horrible heatwave has descended upon this sizzling nation, and once again we are stuck indoors, hiding from the sun.

And we both continue, in our different ways, to feel below par, not seriously sick but definitely a trifle unwell. Maybe it’s the heat, or maybe it’s the after-effects of Covid. Or a combination of the two? Who knows? But whatever the cause, I’d like to put on record here that I’ve had enough. Roll on, winter!

Update, 16 August: Well, at least the heatwave is beginning to lose its venom, but an official drought has been declared in this – and many other – parts of the country. Our rivers and reservoirs are running dry, and the measly amount of rain that’s fallen in the past 24 hours won’t even begin to sort out the problem. This is a summer I’d dearly like to forget, but sadly I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Woe is me!

One of the new fitted units in the bedroon. Never again!

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Saving Heage windmill

Back in the early 19th century around 10,000 windmills graced this green and pleasant land. These days they’re pretty thin on the ground, but luckily my home county of Derbyshire boasts one fine example: Heage Windmill. Just a couple of miles up the road from Platypus Towers, it is a sturdy, reassuring presence in the local landscape, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Sadly, however, looks can be deceiving, and not for the first time the mill is currently in danger. Major repairs are urgently needed, so it’s all hands on deck to raise the money needed to get it fixed.

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The village of Heage (pronounced heej) lies 13 miles (21km) north of Derby. The name is a corruption of ‘High Edge’ and comes from the Anglo-Saxon Heegge meaning high, lofty and sublime. It’s therefore an ideal spot to locate a windmill, a fact that did not go unnoticed by an enterprising businessman in the late 18th century.

Reports in the Derby Mercury imply that construction of Heage Windmill began in 1791, and was completed by 1797. It had four sails, and as such differed little from a host of other windmills scattered throughout Derbyshire at the time. The local population was expanding rapidly in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and with it the demand for flour. In the circumstances it seemed certain that the new mill would enjoy a long and busy working life.

But any structure that is deliberately located to catch the wind is inevitably vulnerable to being wrecked by it, so it should come as no surprise that in February 1894 the cap and four sails were blown off in a violent storm. Repairs were soon underway and Heage Windmill was reborn with its now familiar six sails, which would have provided more power to the millstones than the standard four sail configuration.

The repairs were doubtless well made, but the wind kept on blowing and in 1919 Heage Windmill was once again severely damaged by a howling gale. This time there were no repairs: the country was in a financial mess as it sought to recover from the horrors of World War 1, and wind power was in any case regarded as outdated technology.

The mill languished, unloved and unlovely, for some 15 years before being sold for £25 (USD 33). However, its milling days seemed to be over for good: the tower was used only for storage and fell into ever greater disrepair, a situation made even worse in 1961 when it was struck by lightning.

Heage Windmill’s fortunes began to change in 1966, when a legally-binding Building Preservation Order was placed on it. Two years later Derbyshire County Council stepped in to buy it for the princely sum of £350 (USD 456). Although this meant the mill was now in public ownership, finding the money to restore it to working order was – inevitably, I suppose – beyond the Council’s capabilities. The sails would only turn again a generation later, when the local community and a motley band of mill enthusiasts took up the challenge.

In 1996, with the Council’s support, the mill’s supporters formed a charitable trust with the aim of getting it going.  Hope at last! But just a year later, as Heage Windmill Society was finalising its plans, lightning struck the tower once more. The mill’s supporters were devastated, their dreams seemingly in tatters.

Luckily this time the damage done by the lightning strike was not serious, and work to restore the mill soon recommenced. It was an expensive project, but the Society rose heroically to the challenge, raising nearly £450,000 (USD 588,000) from various sources. Their efforts, together with the hard work of countless volunteers, prevailed and Heage Windmill finally opened to the public on 1 June, 2002.

Job well done, you might think. And it was, but of course nothing lasts forever. In 2015/16 severe rot set in, and a major fund-raising effort was needed to sort it. The money poured in and Heage Windmill was saved again. I guess the Society thought it could finally relax, but it was not to be. Earlier this year further structural defects were identified, and they need rectifying urgently. It feels like we’ve been here before!

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Heage Windmill officially opened for the 2022 season just a few days ago, and there was a good turn out to see local television personality and celebrity auctioneer Charles Hanson cut the ribbon. But although the weather was uncharacteristically balmy and a fine time was had by all, everyone “in the know” probably had just one thing on their mind: how do we, once again, raise a vast sum of money to save our precious windmill?

It sounds daunting, but this is no time to be downhearted. Like Lazarus, Heage Windmill has a track record of rising from the grave. It’s an iconic landmark hereabouts, and as the only working six-sailed stone tower windmill in England it is also a building of national significance. Losing it is unthinkable. This iconic mill has survived countless misfortunes in its 225 years of existence, and given the scale of support that was evident at the official opening I’m confident it will be saved again.

Folk song favourites: The January Man

So, it’s January again. We’ve been here before, right? You know what I mean, January’s the time for new beginnings. It’s out with the old, in with the new. The time to finally do the things we’ve always dreamed of doing, and to stop doing the other stuff, the stuff that no longer fulfils and leaves us instead with that sad, damp feeling of regret. This year, we tell ourselves, things will be different.

Only they won’t, will they?

Time is simultaneously both linear and cyclical. My receding hairline and aching joints testify to time’s linear incarnation. They are all in worse shape than they were 12 months ago, and the downward spiral will inevitably continue.

Milky Bar in January, waiting patiently for the return of the insects

But time is also cyclical, Our seasons come and go, predictable and reassuring. I don’t much like winter, but at least I know what to expect. Winters in my part of the UK are cool and dull. Often windy, sometimes foggy-damp, occasionally snowy, invariably miserable. The days are too short, the nights way, way too long. But the best thing about winter is that it doesn’t last forever. Even when conditions are at their bleakest we know for sure that better times are just around the corner, when there will once again be insects for Milky Bar to chase.

Folk music has its origins in the pre-industrial age, when rural populations were closer to the changing of the seasons than most of us are today. The seasons could not be escaped, and had to be respected. Traditional folk singers, and their more contemporary successors, therefore frequently reflected on the seasons in their lyrics.

Which brings me, finally, to The January Man. This contemporary folk song was written in the traditional style by Dave Goulder (b. 1939) who was, coincidentally, born in my home county of Derbyshire. Dave’s song captures perfectly and poignantly the way in which the seasons shape our lives. It is a magnificent piece, and exemplifies the folk music genre at its very best. You can read the lyrics here.

Like all the best folk songs, The January Man has been covered by numerous performers, including Christy Moore, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Rachel Unthank, Siobhan Miller and Mike Harding. You can track them all down on YouTube.

This one is by Steeleye Span, an English folk rock band formed in 1969 and still performing today with a rather different line-up. The link below is to a version recorded on the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2019! Steeleye were an important part of the British folk revival. Their early albums graced the record collections of many wistful, long-haired, wannabe hippies…including the Platypus Man, way back in the days when he still had hair. So, to celebrate the New Year, why not treat yourself to 4 minutes and 47 seconds of magical folk music by clicking on the link below. Happy New Year, everyone!

Postscript

The final paragraphs of this post have been re-drafted following a tip-off a few hours after publication from my blogging buddy Laurie Graves of Notes from the Hinterland. Laurie advised me that the YouTube track to which I was linking does not appear to be available overseas. Hopefully the new link, to the version by Steeleye Span, works a little better. However, I’ve also found an alternative link the version I originally wrote about, an a capella masterpiece by Martin Carthy (b. 1941). Martin is one of the most influential performers of British traditional music, and The January Man shows him at his very best.