Thursday 28th July 2005 was an ordinary sort of day with nothing exceptional happening except for some unseasonal Summer weather with a lot of rain and some high winds. At five o’clock, or thereabouts, I finished work as normal and drove the seven mile journey to home where I changed clothes and settled down to watch the TV.
At about quarter past six my phone rang and it was my boss, Terry Huggins, who had a bizarre story about a tornado ripping through my next door village of Moulton and leaving a trail of destruction behind it. As I looked out of the window at what was by now a blue sky streaked with only the occasional cloud I told him that as this was only a couple of miles away from my house that I found this to be extremely unlikely but that I would go and take a look just to be sure.
And so I drove the two miles to Moulton and as I turned in just as I expected everything seemed to be just as it should be but as I approached the centre of the village and the pretty little village green I was astounded to come across what looked like Belgium probably did in 1939 when Hitler’s Panzer tanks had driven through. There was a scene of complete devastation where, sure enough, a twister had ripped through the heart of the village and caused untold amounts of damage.
It had swept through the back garden of the local MP, John Hayes, and then through the village green where three hundred year old oak trees stood in tatters with limbs ripped from their trunks and littering the grass below with debris. After the green it had moved on to the parish church where it had ripped back the lead roof as though it were a flimsy sardine can and in the churchyard it had uprooted trees and gravestones and brought hundred year old skeletons to the surface.
It was calm now but there was a huge amount of damage which needed to be dealt with and although I had forgotten to bring with me the Council’s emergency procedure manual I got on the phone and called up a handful of people that I knew that I could rely upon in an emergency, Barry Bradley, Elmer Fischer and Jim Harvey who all responded immediately. I called the police but they said they were busy and they would send someone along as soon as they could.
By this time John Hayes was walking around the green and surveying the damage with his young son in his arms. He was looking up into the badly damaged trees and pointing out the dangerously swaying boughs that were broken off and might fall to the ground and crush him at any moment without any apparent regard for the danger he was in. I didn’t want to have to explain the death of an MP so I ushered him away and cleared the green and talked a local resident to stop traffic driving through by redirecting it to an alternative route.
Eventually a police car arrived and the local constabulary had sent the most dim-witted constable that they could find to attend. He was clueless! I told him to tape off the green with some blue and white police incident tape and he tied it to the bumper of a car that was outside the village shop and within about two minutes of driving off! I told him to put cones out but he said he hadn’t brought any with him and then I said that I thought he had better send for reinforcements. Eventually a WPC turned up with a lot more brains than he had (not difficult) and after we found some cones in the churchyard we began to make some progress.
The most important thing to do was to make the trees safe so we called some tree surgeons and they went to work lopping the damaged branches. This made John Hayes seething mad and he demanded to know on whose authority we were butchering his beloved oaks. We were all working hard to clear the roads and the green and after an hour the vicar, the reverend Tim Barker, turned up to see the church. This turned the WI members present into a hormonal frenzy and although there had been no refreshment for those of us doing the work the first thing they did was to put the kettle on and make him a cup of tea!
It took about four hours to get cleared up and finished and I’d like to say that at the end of it we left with the thanks and gratitude of the community ringing in our ears, but sadly I can’t. Tim Barker didn’t say thank you, the police couldn’t wait to get away and John Hayes promised me that he would see to it personally that I would be disciplined for cutting back the trees.
Subsequently the Church made an insurance claim for the damage to the roof and was ironically told that it wasn’t covered because a tornado is an act of God! How do you explain that to anyone? In a newspaper report the following week the police had the cheek to claim the credit for dealing with the emergency. A couple of years later however I met John Hayes and he did grudgingly concede that the trees had recovered and the pruning had in fact done them good because now they looked better than ever before.
I don’t suppose that I will ever have to deal with another tornado but, believe me, that was a very exciting evening.
John Hayes MP, now the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning!