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Stonehaven Fireballs 2014

Last Tuesday, on the last night of 2013, I was honoured to take part in one of the oldest, if not THE oldest traditions of the town which I now call home. The Stonehaven Fireballs is a ceremony which begins after the clock strikes midnight on the 1st of January each year, and 40 residents of Stonehaven march up and down the High St whirling wire cage balls around their heads, which have been filled with flammable material and set alight. The ceremony possibly has its roots in pagan traditions, but recent research indicates that the ceremony in its ‘modern’ format reaches back around 150 years.

After marshalling and volunteering at other events for the Fireballs, I was pleased to hear that I had earned my place and that a space was available for me last year. When I accepted it I was immediately struck with nerves and excitement; I hate crowds and don’t really like being the centre of attention, so how was I going to handle this one? I was also scared that I might not be strong enough to complete the task and do the traditions justice – I might have the cardiovascular fitness, but I run with my legs, not my arms!

The swinging movement is not a particularly challenging one, but everyone I spoke to about it said that I’d be drinking my pints with a straw for days after as my arms would be wrecked. I really didn’t want that to happen. In preparation I started training my upper body in new ways by attending circuit classes, Metafit classes, and diligently doing free weights and body weight exercises at home.

I attended the fireball making workshops at the start of December as required, and learned the secrets of building a good fireball. I’d tell you more about that, but then I’d have to kill you 😉 What I will say however, is that the wire cage, filling and 2ft handle weighed 4.5kg and I think the weight was just right for me. Kynon’s was about 5kg, and ours averaged somewhere in the middle in size out of the 40 swingers.

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By the time the afternoon of the 31st of December came around I was finding it hard to conceal my nerves. I was very nervous that I wouldn’t be strong enough, that I’d do a bad job, that I’d let everybody down. Most of all I found it frustrating that I couldn’t fully practice what it would feel like to do the swinging of a fireball until the clock struck midnight. Kynon found it amusing and as a third-time swinger was 100% confident that I would be fine; after all if the septuagenarian swingers amongst us successfully swung every year, there was no reason why I wouldn’t be the same. I was just counting on adrenaline pulling me through in the same way it does in the last few painful miles of a race and you find yourself capable of things you never thought were possible.

I went for a walk to clear my head in the afternoon and the atmosphere in the town was incredible. As well as the usual Fireballs ceremony there was the huge Open Air In The Square event which Simple Minds were headlining. There were tourists standing around with maps, people milling about the High St pointing up and down in anticipation of the spectacle to come, yellow-jacketed officials bustling around, and the strains of mic checks drifting across the town in the wind. When I realised again how lucky I was to be a part of it all, my nerves gave way to excitement and I was ready to take my place in the show.

The Fireballers themselves do the set-up in the High St, and at 6pm an army of us descended on the piles of barriers and worked together like ants to get everything ready in an hour. Barriers are erected on both sides and ends of the street from the Cannon all the way down to the harbour and around the piers, effectively sealing off the road itself for our use. At 8.30pm the barriers are manned by the first shift of swingers who collect donations from the crowds and monitor the numbers entering the High St.

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At 10pm it was time for us to take our turn at the gates. We’d watched the crowds trickle in from our living room window and then increase to a steady flow. When we opened our door and stepped out with our fireballs, we were greeted by points and delighted stares; “Look! They’ve got fireballs”, “Hey guys – a pair of swingers!” (no, the joke never gets old, and yes; we’ve heard them all before!). On the gates we greeted visitors from all over the world – I was astounded by the amount of different languages I heard and felt proud that so many people had decided to come and see our town. As the clock ticked on, the flow of people increased to a deluge who had come from far and wide. There were the tiniest, frailest of old ladies who were wrapped up and gripping their friends for warmth, herds of completely wasted yet amiable teenagers, groups of people with their carers, familiar faces from the running and rugby clubs, and complete strangers who just wanted a friendly chat and some tips on where to get the best views.

Our fireballs resting against the barriers attracted a lot of attention as well. People wanted to pick them up and examine them, and ask us how they were made. They asked for pictures of them, pictures of themselves with the balls, and pictures of us with our balls as well!stonehaven fireballs

At 11.20pm, Stonehaven Pipe Band started marching up and down the High St which signalled that there wasn’t long to go ’til we would close the gates. At 11.40 we handed over to the marshals, picked up our fireballs, and joined a handful of other fireballers in making our way through the huge crowds which parted for us with whoops and applause. When we reached the barrier, a marshal let us through and we stepped into the wide open High St. As the crowd began to notice us when we made our way up the street, the applause and cheering grew deafening which made my heart thump so hard in my chest – I couldn’t believe what I was about to do! I looked at Kynon and we grinned widely at each other whilst walking in step and waving to the crowds.

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stonehaven fireballs

When we reached the harbour there were TV cameras and photographers to add to the melee. We stripped off our outer layers to reveal a Mackie Rugby shirt for Kynon and a Stonehaven Running Club vest for me, and greeted our fellow swingers which included Vikki and Iain Shanks and George Reid from the running club. My head was spinning as I was guided towards a pile of sawdust to get my fireball doused in paraffin. I took my place in the first set of swingers waiting to ‘light up’ and at 11.50pm the ‘sausage’ (a big, long fireball) was lit up and our balls placed upon it to ignite. Mine took a little longer than I thought and I was worried it might fail, but soon enough flames were licking through it and I was able to walk around to take my place in the procession, which was now 9th.

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Picture by Iain McDonagh – http://www.iainmcdonagh.com/

It was disconcerting to see the flames flicker so close to me as the fireball sat near my feet, but I was soon distracted by the crowd suddenly shouting FIVE…FOUR…THREE…TWO…ONE…HAPPY NEW YEAAAAAAAR!!! The strains of a lone piper reached over the noise of the ecstatic crowd as the procession, lead by Jean Houghton, began to move. One by one the figures in front of me took one or two steps before hoisting their flaming ball into the air, and then it was my turn and everything went blurry.

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Words can’t really do this experience justice, nor can they give you the smell of paraffin in the air or the whooooosh of fire as it swings in front of you, behind you, and on either side of you. I can’t truly describe the burning in your triceps and shoulders, but I can tell you that hearing your name being called by friends and family across the crowds lifts you up beyond the pain. The disorientation of camera flashes, sparks, dizziness, exhaustion and exhilaration may make your steps wobble from side to side, but the shrieks of delight from the crowd will let you know when you get too close. When you turn at the bottom of the High St and return into the wind once more, your eyes squint from the heat and sparks fly around you like wasps but you don’t notice them stinging your skin as you’re just hoping you can make it back to the harbour with enough life left in your fireball to give a good throw into the harbour for the crowds. When it comes to your turn on the slipway, you wind it up good and strong and let go…only for it to make it 6 ft before scudding into the waves, but it’s ok because you resolve to do much better next year.

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With a shriek and a cheer you turn and raise your knackered arms to the crowd and applaud them for their part in the festivities, shouting ‘Happy New Year!!’ to them all, which they shout right back at you. You take a few steps back to allow the next swinger to take his turn, and it’s your fiancé who grabs you for an embrace after launching his fireball into the water, and the crowd love it. You retreat to cheer the rest of the swingers whilst swigging from hip flasks and hugging friends with your trembling arms. As the last balls are extinguished, fireworks explode overhead and adrenaline still coarses through your veins. By walking in the footsteps of those who came before, you have played your part in keeping this ancient tradition alive and making a memorable start to 2014 for a crowd of 8,000.

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Afterwards, with Iain, Vikki and Kynon

I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face for days – the buzz and the rush from taking part in this was absolutely insane, and it’s clear why there are swingers who are approaching 40 years and more of participation. I’m already thinking about how I can make my ball bigger and brighter for next year and how to be fit to swing for longer. I’m not one to wish my life away, but I really can’t wait!

www.stonehavenfireballs.co.uk

All pictures used with grateful permission from Stewart Mitchell of Earthly Light Photography  – www.earthlylight.co.uk 

2013 – A Year in Review

With 2013 coming to an end, like many of you I am looking back at the calendar and trying to work out where the time went. The last 12 months feels like it has flown by quicker than ever before but thankfully in hindsight I can see I’ve achieved a lot.

This year has been a total monster – it has felt like I’ve been away more than I’ve been at home. Kynon and I keep a shared Google calendar to keep track of our plans and for a while every weekend was booked up months in advance with races, trips, work commitments, holidays, rugby things, wedding planning …and as well as all of that, little numbers in the corner of each box indicating how far I had to run that day. Fitting my training around my life has been harder than ever this year, but I put the work in and reaped the rewards with PBs in every distance that I raced.

I’m already looking ahead to 2014 with a lot of excitement; new distances, new goals, and the small matter of a wedding which is now in less than 3 months time. I’ll talk about that in the New Year however – for now, a brief look back at the last 12 months.

January

2013 started off with us still recovering from the flooding which struck Stonehaven in the early hours of the 23rd of December. Despite this being a running blog, the post I wrote about our experiences remains the most popular I’ve written to date.

Our street, alternative view

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My training for my third ultra, the Hoka Highland Fling, began in earnest and I began consistently knocking out high mileage weeks and back-to-back long runs once again. Having joined Stonehaven Running Club, I was going out each weekend with a great group of ultra-running friends who made the training a lot more enjoyable despite the tough weather we endured week after week.

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February

I ran my first race of the year, the Forfar Multi-Terrain Half Marathon, with Kate, Ronnie, and Rachel and had a blast. After running through snow, ice, mud and thigh-deep icy water we finished in 2hrs 10m 9s.

20130203_132200fh…and there was some great running done in the Cairngorms, which was just the pick-up I needed when I was finding Fling training tough.

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March

In March I completed my second ultra, the D33. The weather was grim and it was a very cold day, but I still managed to knock nearly half an hour off my 2012 time and finish in 5hr 26m 29s.

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I entered as part of a mixed team with my friend Kate and her brother – to our surprise and delight we finished as the fastest mixed team!

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I also ran the RunGarioch Half Marathon a week later where the weather was even worse. The wind-chill was horrific and the course had to be altered due to deep snow; I ran like I stole something just to get it over with and came in very close to my PB with a time of 1hr 56m 52s. I was very encouraged by that time, which for me, a week after thrashing out a PB on a flat, road ultra, was excellent.

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April

Next up was a big one, and my last ‘long run’ before the Fling – the Paris Marathon!

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I flew over with Rachel and Naomi and spent the weekend staying with Naomi’s parents who have a flat within spitting distance of the start. It was an amazing trip – taking part in such a huge, international race was a mind-blowing experience and I would highly recommend it to everyone!

wpid-20130406_083024.jpgWe did the International Breakfast Run 5k the day before, and the next day I somehow managed to pull a 14 minute PB out of the bag, and cruised home in 4hr 5m 18s.

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20130407_08122420130407_112249ian4Finish1Finish1Before and after Paris I had a flare up of Bursitis in my left knee which looked set to threaten my performance at the Fling, but after following strict Physio orders of 100% rest and some rather crazy kinesio-tape strapping I made it to the start of my Spring 2013 A Race – the 53 mile Hoka Highland Fling.

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Not only that, but I made it to the finish, in 13 hours, 6 minutes and 19 amazing seconds.

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Those last 19 seconds were the best, but that day changed my life. Afterwards I wrote “I have seen within myself and I am stronger, tougher and more capable than I ever imagined.”  and it’s true, and it’s why I’m doing it all over again and more in 2014.

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May

May was an extremely easy month as I recovered from the battering I gave myself on the West Highland Way. Recovery was easy in Mallorca:

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But less so when I picked up a nasty case of food poisoning which really knocked me down, and also when we ended up severely delayed coming home and sent to Magaluf for a night…

Kynon went to Bournemouth to play in a Rugby 7s

tournament, so I went to the Cairngorms to go running with friends. I met Jemma and Iona for the first time and we met up with Kate and Ali to camp at Glenmore and run up and down some hills.

20130525_14552020130525_15111020130525_15283420130525_15295220130525_16030620130525_153749The original point of the adventure was to take part in ‘Race the Steam Train‘, which was a madcap 4.5 mile race against the Strathspey Steam Railway train. Despite our aching limbs from our hill running the previous day, we had a wonderful day out and I can’t wait ’til next year’s event!

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June

June saw the start of Marathon training once more, with my sights being set at achieving a sub-4 time at the Moray marathon in September.

20130609_121915I went to Derry with work, and had to fit my training around City of Culture events and their associated hangovers.

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I had another fun day out at the Xodus Ythan Challenge with lots of friends from my club.

runningshop10k4And fought hard for a 10k PB (50m 44s) at a very windy Running Shop 10k. Will 2014 be the year I finally crack 50 minutes for 10k? All I know is that I truly hate that distance, but I’ll be giving it another shot at this race next year.

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At the end of June I had the privilege to be part of the sweep team for the West Highland Way Race with 5 other members of Stonehaven Running Club. It was another amazing 48 hours with my nutbag ultrarunning family and yet another amazing experience on the Way.

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The month finished off with a trip to Peterhead to take part in the Half Marathon there, which was supposed to be a test run for me at goal marathon pace. Unfortunately heat got the better of me and I totally blew up, limping home with a massive positive split in a season’s worst of 2:06.

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July

July kicked off with more travelling, with a summer vacation in Brighton and London for Kynon and I. We did some running, did some Hot Yoga and Bikram, and generally enjoyed the hot summer weather down South.

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Unfortunately I got sick with a bladder infection when we were in London and a couple of weeks later was struck down by food poisoning AGAIN. This derailed my marathon training a bit but I managed to have a great race at the Dundee Half and finished in 1hr 55m 18s, which was a new PB and bang on target for my sub-4 goal.

Picture by Rachel

Picture by Rachel

Kynon also ran (by now he was in marathon training for Kielder) and we both suffered dreadfully in the heat, but he also scored a PB of 1hr 53m. The organisation of race itself was dreadful and we will not be going back to any events by that company, but you can read more about that in the race report.

Another weekend and another race saw a gang of SRC runners head up to Ballater for the Deeside Runners 10 miler. It was a very, very wet day but we all did well and brought home lots of PBs – 1hr 25m and 3rd Stonehaven Lady.

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August

August kicked off with an epic run in Glen Doll and Loch Muick with club friends.

wpid-20130803_093039.jpgwpid-20130803_101813.jpgvs-lochmuickLater that day I was on a train to Edinburgh to fly to Budapest the next morning for work – my legs did not thank me one bit!

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Budapest was beautiful but ludicrously hot. The air temperature hit 40C every day we spent in the city and I’ve never experienced anything like the heat coming off the pavements. Needless to say, despite packing my trainers they did not get used.

Before I knew it it was taper time once more and the final countdown to the Moray Marathon began. Due to travel and my various illnesses over the summer I opted to do one more week of peak mileage training and do a two week taper instead; a risky move perhaps but I felt it was the right thing for me this time.

September

The Moray Marathon was on the 1st of September and I was delighted to smash my goal. I got my sub 4 (despite a small wobble at 20 miles) and felt that I could put my road marathoning to bed for a while. I know I will bring that PB down in future but for now I’m sticking to ultras.

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Next up was supporting my friend Vikki in her 100 mile attempt at the Glenmore 24 trail race. I didn’t blog about this for a multitude of reasons, but the weekend was another amazing ultra experience with some absolutely remarkable performances. My pal Noanie who I met at the D33 when we both completed our first ultra last year? She ran 126.21 miles, came second overall and totally burst the female course record. The people you get to meet at these events bring new meaning to the word ‘inspirational’.

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Vikki got her 100 miles and celebrated her 40th birthday in style with friends.

The rest of the month was a quiet one outside of work, which was completely insane. I ran the odd club session and chummed Kynon along for his final long run of marathon training but that was as exciting as it got.

October

October’s race was the Kielder Trail Marathon with Kynon, who was making his first attempt at 26.2. It was a HARD race to pick for your first marathon and he suffered for it but eventually came out the other side feeling accomplished. We finished together in 4hrs 56m 4s.

20131006_09520920131006_132808kielder620131006_164600…and then got marooned on a broken down bus for 3 hours afterwards…

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Kynon also wrote his own race report, which was entitled From Back Row to Back Roads.

November/December

Kielder was my last race of the year and since then I have dialled down the mileage but incorporated circuits classes, Metafit and more weights. I’ve kept up a moderate amount of runs each week but some weeks, I’ve done nothing. My personal life became very busy as well which is why I decided to take a break from blogging and start again in 2014. I am not very good at finding motivation when I don’t have a specific training plan to stick to so I’m looking forward to the new year and a new start.

In the Stonehaven Club Championships I finished 7th Lady, and was awarded Bronze standard, for achieving a minimum of 2 events at 55% WAVA, with a minimum distance of 10k. I was very close to silver, so that’s next year’s target – 3 events of half marathon or greater, at 60% WAVA.

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There is one exciting thing to finish the year off with. About a month ago I was asked if I might like a place in the Stonehaven Fireballs procession as a swinger. This felt like a huge honour that I could not turn down, but oh my word am I nervous. Physically it will be a challenge as whilst I am fit I run with my legs not my arms, and this is 20 minutes of walking up and down a street hurling a 9lb ball attached to a wire around my head. Oh, and it’s on fire too obviously. At least I know I’ve got the cardio endurance, and if my friends 78 year old Grannie can do it, I can too.

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I’m nervous that I don’t do a good job of it and let down all the people who’ve come from all over the world to see us; this pride and tradition is certainly not trusted to the weak or the timid though, so I need to HTFU and stride out with confidence.

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In hindsight it really has been an amazing year, and I am proud of the leaps forward in my running that I have made. There is still so much room for improvement though so I hope you’ll join me in going forward to 2014 with ambition and a return to regular blogging.

Happy New Year!

Stonehaven Floods 2012

Hello, and Happy New Year to you all.

I started writing this post a week after the event and it has sat in my drafts ever since. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to post it or not, or whether I just wanted to write about it to preserve the memories. Either way, people keep asking me about what happened so here you go – this is the story of our experience of the flooding which hit Stonehaven in the early hours of the 23rd of December 2012.
Everything is more or less back to normal now and I look forward to sharing my journey towards my first Highland Fling ultramarathon with you in the coming months. The blog is getting an overhaul and moving to new hosting in the coming weeks so if things go a bit wonky that’s why.

~Rwr

———–

I awoke several times throughout the night, my sleep thinned by the umpteen pints of strong ale I’d consumed in the Marine Hotel down earlier that evening. Kynon and I had enjoyed a delicious lunch and a long boozy afternoon with both sets of our parents to celebrate our recent engagement and the completion of the lengthy renovation of our home. The new carpets were finally laid, all of my belongings were installed around the house and my little cat Saskia had settled in happily. We were ready for a cosy and relaxing Christmas together, our first spent as a couple.

Each time I woke up I was confused by how totally dark it was outside; Urgh I hate these long winter nights, will they never end?! At least it was the 23rd of December, midwinter had passed and it was all downhill to Spring as each day now slowly gets longer. Lying in the darkness, I squinted to focus on my alarm clock – 06:45am. Not bad; I still had hours to sleep off the pounding headache and raging thirst from the beer. It was so dark though; where was the familiar orange glow of the street lights? I turned my head to the window, distracted by something seen out of the corner of my eye. Blue flashing lights? What was going on? A car crash?

I pulled myself to my feet and cursed that delicious Fyne Ales Superior IPA with the 7% ABV as I staggered to the window for a look. What I saw when I first peered through the curtains will remained etched in my memory until the day I die; the streets were gone and in their place was a shimmering, fluid mass with blue, red and white lights dancing across it. The Carron had burst its banks and Old Town Stonehaven had flooded again.

What followed was a sequence of events which are still being processed in my mind. The dust is still settling and and I’m still getting my head around this most disruptive occurrence in our life. At the point of writing it’s only been a week – seven days. A lot can change in that time, or as it happened, in only a couple of hours.

The water came at about 3:30am, not long after we had gone to sleep. After a week of nasty wet weather, an unseasonably mild night dumped a huge amount of rain on North East Scotland some time after midnight which overwhelmed our fragile tributaries. The water swelled in the narrow banks of the river Carron and the Glasslaw Burn and just like in 2009, the water exploded out of the confines and turned streets into waterways. Aided with flowing torrents of rain coming off saturated fields and down the hilly roads of the Bervie Braes, drainage blocked by a massive land slip, and nonsensical re-direction of natural river flow, there was no way the constructed drainage system could ever have handled it.

Stonehaven floods 2012

Stonehaven floods 2012

Dark brown water bubbled up from plug holes in sinks and baths, drains over-flowed and sewage mains backed up spilling raw sewage into the sink. The Flood Wardens frantically knocked on doors of the people of their streets to wake them but for whatever reason we didn’t hear our doorbell or the knocking, and slept through the first three hours of chaos.

When Kynon and I ran downstairs we saw that the water had come in both the front and back doors of our property and soaked the downstairs lobby. The living space of our house is on the first and second floor of our property but the ground floor is where we store a lot of things and have a big cupboard under the stairs which was filled with water.

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Front Door

 

Back Door - Stonehaven floods 2012

Back Door

The first thing we did was wade out into the knee-deep water and around the corner to check our cars which were parked close by on the street. At the highest point of the water both had been submerged above the wheel arches and all four foot wells remained filled with muddy brown water. We needed to get them moved so cautiously turned them on and miraculously both engines roared into life. We drove them slowly through the water up the street until the water shallowed and eventually stopped. Despite seeming mechanically sound it appeared to both of us that due to the state of the insides, our vehicles were write-offs. They were quickly abandoned as concerning as the state of them was, there were far more important things to take care of.

Police, the Fire brigade and the Coastguard were swarming everywhere and intermittently rescue boats came up the street containing evacuees from the High Street where people were trapped. There were individuals, couples, families with young children and more elderly than I care to remember. It was harrowing to watch a frail old lady clutching a dog and a suitcase be met by a nurse to be taken away, one old man was received by an ambulance, and the youngest evacuee was a 3 week old baby with his sister, and their mum who was recovering from the recent caesarian birth.

Two days after the shortest day of the year, and what passed for daylight didn’t come until after 9am. When the sun rose into the cruelly clear and blue sky, it was the first time we’d seen it in days and it revealed the extent of the damage. The water was receding quite quickly, so I took some pictures and shared them on twitter and facebook. Before long my phone was blowing up with journalists asking for permission to use the pictures and take statements. TV stations wanted to speak to me and broadcast an interview but I declined on the basis that, well, I had more important things to be doing.

The following pictures were picked up and used by the Sun, the Daily Record, BBC News and Sky TV:

From our bedroom window - Stonehaven floods 2012

From our bedroom window

Our street, with Kynon at the front door - Stonehaven floods 2012

Our street

 

Our street, alternative view - Stonehaven floods 2012

Our street, alternative view

Here’s how deep it got in the back garden:

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The Floodgate worked to a certain extent, but didn’t hold a tight seal at all. The water on the other side of the door was about 6 inches below the outside high water mark seen above.

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Totally wrecked back garden – where I’m standing was about 8 inches deep before the water receded.

Funny things happen in floods that you don’t know about until it happens to you. Insects that are desperate to escape the rising waters, will climb up the walls on anything to get away. The wall of our house was covered in humongous spiders, beetles and centipedes clinging to the bricks – big, massive hairy things that clearly live quietly under the floorboards of our home that I wished I didn’t now know about. Wheelie bins tip over and your rubbish flows merrily down the street – it is a strange and exposed feeling seeing your recent household discards drifting publicly outside your front door. Less funny things are when you call your car insurance company for advice and they laugh and tell you that flooding is an act of God and you’re not covered for damages. Prove to me that there is a God and I will accept that as an answer, until then they need to be able to provide cover to those who need it, who pay through the nose every year for their premiums and trust that the company will help them when they are in need.

In the meantime, the town was waking up to the news that once more there was a spectacle down by the harbour. The police were having to work hard to keep the disaster tourists away from the area and had officers guarding each cordoned off street. Still, people stood behind the cordons and stared, watching intently as we worked to clear our properties as if they were watching us on the news instead of standing 5 meters away. It felt intrusive and callous and I wished they would go home and leave us in peace.

Water remained chest deep in the dish-shaped high street and the search and rescue operation was ongoing. I didn’t take this picture but it shows the depth of the water perfectly:

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Image by Fiona Howie from Original 106 FM’s Facebook page

The black nodule in between the car and the sign is a monument – it’s actually an upturned cannon set into the ground and is shoulder height on my 5ft 10 frame. The car is floating.

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Another High St view – image by Colin Third, via Original 106 FM facebook page

As the water receded, all that was left was mud. Five inches of thick, smooth and silty mud with a texture like chocolate custard. It got EVERYWHERE; for days afterwards Stonehaven sung with the sounds of street cleaners repeatedly going up and down roads sucking it all up. Even weeks later people are still hosing it off the pavements and out of their gardens.

Time was passing in turns by leaps and slow motion. It became 1pm and we realised we hadn’t eaten all day so I made a sandwich and hoped it would kill the nagging hangover that was making the experience so much worse. We had spoken to many people who were suffering the same – it was the last Saturday night before Christmas so people were partying of course; however we hadn’t had the nightmare of being woken up at 03:30am still steaming drunk. We heard tales of many people giving their car keys to police officers, begging them to remove their cars to safer ground as they were well over the limit for driving.

At some point I was interviewed by Radio Scotland. I was standing on my front door step and a pleasant lady came up and talked to me and then asked if she could record our conversation for the Radio. I agreed and then promptly forgot about it until the following day when I was broadcast several times in the news segments across the morning, much to the surprise of my friends and family. We also discovered that we had been papped by the Daily Record and a picture of us paddling out of our front door was on the front page of their website.

Residents+in+the+flooded+town+of+Stonehaven - Stonehaven floods 2012

 

http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/heavy-rain-brings-floods-to-ne-1503257

Just in case you’re wondering – yes, we do live above a funeral parlour. And no, there was nobody in. Or no body, in.

At around 3.30pm we both crashed, hard. The adrenaline had worn off and what had actually happened to us was beginning to sink in. We hadn’t stopped running around for hours and were starving, dehydrated and emotionally bruised. It was surreal, disorientating, and utterly heartbreaking to see your street and town in such devastation. We put on our coats and shuffled off to a place of comfort for some hot food and a dry seat – back to the Marine.

The juxtaposition of the the events of the previous 24 hours were incredibly hard to get my head around. The happy and festive outlook I had had the day before was gone, it seemed like another lifetime ago. Apparently Christmas was in a day or two as well but it was all completely insignificant to us now. It was so cruel that we were celebrating the completion of our house, a 2 year renovation project, just hours before the floods came and now that warm happy home as it had stood was gone; or was it? Throughout the day it was becoming increasingly obvious how hugely lucky we were, and although the ground floor had sustained damage and the contents of our cupboards, garden and cars were ruined, in the grand scheme of things we had been extremely blessed. Disgustingly lucky. A dark and heavy feeling of survivor’s guilt cloaked us and we both struggled to deal with those feelings.

Over the next few days we watched as car after car was towed away on trucks from the High Street. The streets in the area, now emptied of cars, had huge council skips lining the road in their place. The skips were filled to the brim with soiled furniture and belongings, everything coated in that thick omnipresent mud. Businesses which had only just got back on their feet after recovering from the devastating floods of 2009 were now destroyed once more. One of the most heart-breaking sights was all the ruined pianos belonging to Music Zone on the High Street piled in to a skip until there was no more room, then lined up alongside it on the pavement like some twisted musical graveyard.

With the omnipresent saturation of Social Media, comes great benefit in times of crises. Within hours of the event a flood fund had been set up and people unable to lend a hand in person were sitting behind their computer screens and on their phones coordinating a response effort via facebook and twitter. The Town Hall was opened for collection of donations and I spent most of Christmas Eve alongside dozens of other volunteers from all over Aberdeenshire processing donations, packing food hampers and wrapping gifts for displaced children. The generosity was so widespread that eventually we had to stop taking donations for a while as there was simply nowhere to put them. People turned up with vans filled with petrol and handed over the keys to help with aid distribution, local businesses such as Econo-move turned up with piles of boxes for packing, and local community groups like the Rugby club and the Running club mobilised their members to do everything they could to help. It was community spirit in its most pure and distilled raw form.

Christmas came and went in a bit of a blur. Nobody in our family was feeling particularly festive at all and the most festive spirit any of us could handle was that which came out of a bottle. The rest of the holiday was spent cleaning up and repairing things. We got our cars back after they spent 5 days at a valet, where the interiors were scrubbed, heated, cleaned and professionally dehumidified. It took a while for them to dry out fully but for the cost of a couple of hundred pounds and half a tank of petrol they are mostly back to normal.

The town itself bounced back terrifically on the surface, and the High Street was cleaned and looking its finest by the 31st of December for the Fireballs Parade. This annual ceremony has its roots in Pagan fire rituals and for many symbolises the burning of the demons of the last year and the chance for a fresh start. This was felt more acutely than ever this year and people turned out in their thousands to watch the ‘swingers’ as they are known, hurl their flaming balls around their heads as they march up and down the High Street as the clock strikes midnight on Hogmanay.

fireballs

Kynon was taking part this year for the second time, and was relishing the opportunity to burn some of the debris from the house in his fireball. Unfortunately the fireball itself had been one of the casualties of the the flood and had to be rebuilt from scratch, but he had no problems at all on the night and enjoyed every minute.

fireballs1vicki

Picture from Vikki Shanks

Here’s another familiar face you might recognise…

fireballs2vicki

Picture from Vikki Shanks/Newsline Scotland

It’s Vikki! Having a wonderful time and representing Stonehaven Running Club as well.

Whilst the town has cleaned itself up there are still so many questions left to answer – why did this happen again? Kynon’s Dad has lived here for 60 years and this part of the town has only flooded twice – both in the last three years. What can be done to prevent another disaster? There are a lot of angry residents and the Council meetings which are going to be held in the coming weeks will be heated. I look forward to hearing what they have to say as everything in the Press so far has naturally been vague and non-committal.

We will remember this first Christmas together for the rest of our lives. Whilst our damage was tame in comparison to others it still took its toll and will have a lasting effect for some time. We have seen our community at its worse and at its very best and despite it all, it has underlined for me that Stonehaven is truly a wonderful place to live and exactly where I want to be right now.

****Postscript: added 22nd December 2013****

One year later, despite this being primarily a running blog, this post still remains my most popular to date. I thought I would add an update for those who have read this and may have wondered what happened next.

In January 2013 the Stonehaven Flood Action Group was formed; to work in tandem with the local council and various environment agencies, and to also act as a critical partner to keep the agencies accountable for their actions and promises. Over the last year we have worked hard to raise awareness of the situation in the Old Town and what needs to be done, and encouraged residents to educate themselves on the issues in hand. We’ve kept the pressure on our local government who are ultimately responsible for keeping our town safe, and raised thousands of pounds for a Flood Resilience fund which offers money to help affected residents purchase equipment to protect their homes.

There is a ‘Big Plan’ which is being developed to protect the town, but once the designs have been decided upon and approved it will likely be 2015 before any building work commences. Until then we have been pushing for gradual change and have been instrumental in the creation of a local flood warning system (specific to the River Carron, rather than the pre-existing system which was a general one for the whole of Aberdeenshire), a complete overhaul of the flood warden system, and improvements to drains and tributaries around the Old Town area.

12 months may have passed, but some homes are still empty and people are still displaced. Walking down the High Street you will see many empty ground floor flats; having been stung twice by natural disaster, some people just won’t come back in case Stonehaven floods again. With the anniversary looming I have found myself thinking a lot about it recently – sometimes I can’t actually believe it all happened. On the other hand it is never far from my mind and every time it starts raining heavily, anxiety returns; both Kynon and I frequently find ourselves lying wide awake every time it starts raining heavily in the night.

Being a total newcomer to the town at the time of the flood, this was not the way that I expected to meet all my neighbours and fellow Stonehaven residents but a year down the line I am thankful that I’ve got to know so many friendly, determined and downright stubborn people who are willing to stand up for our town and relentlessly fight for our rights. The circumstances are unfortunate, but perhaps that’s the good to come from the situation.

Here’s to many more dry years…

http://www.stonehavenfloodaction.org

 

 

 

 

 

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