Coming on to Rain – Christine Poulson
February 1947 was the coldest on record. Snow fell somewhere in the UK every day from January 22nd until mid March.There were fifteen foot snow drifts. Supplies had to be airlifted to villages and houses. Some were cut off for weeks on end. It was so cold that icebergs were seen off the coast of Norfolk, and on the Kent coast the sea froze over.
Then on the 10th March milder air came in from the southwest. A rapid thaw was followed by heavy rainfall. In the Fens the ground was frozen to a depth of eighteen inches and there was nowhere for the melt water to go except into rivers and streams. On March 14th the river Ouse burst its banks and Cambridge was flooded.
A desperate effort began to save the surrounding Fens from the same fate.
The Fens, an area of around 1,500 square miles in eastern England, were originally fresh or salt-water wetlands lying within a few metres of sea level. They were drained in the seventeenth century, and the fertile soil produces a large part of Britain’s grains and vegetables, but they remain prone to flooding.
In 1947 villages were evacuated and the river banks were patrolled. The army was called in and embarked on ‘Operation Noah’s Ark.’ On the 16th March the railway station at Ely was flooded and the small cathedral city was in danger of becoming again the island it had once been. At nearby Prickwillow it was literally all hands to the pump: soldiers, farmers, even German prisoners of war from a nearby camp worked together through the night to stop the river banks collapsing, but to no avail. By dawn there was a ninety foot breach in the river Ouse.
That was just the beginning: river after river burst their banks and 25,000 acres of the best farmland in Britain were flooded. The terrifying power of the swollen rivers is wonderfully captured in The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, published in 1934, which draws on accounts of earlier floods.
Amazingly, in the 1947 flood there was no loss of life. It was very different in 1953, when a combination of a high spring tide and a violent storm over the North Sea resulted in a storm tide that overwhelmed sea defences all along the east coast. Hundreds died.
Sixty years on, and flood defences have greatly improved, but Cambridge is still at risk and there were floods in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. However, it was the more extreme floods of 1947 that I had in mind when I began to plan Footfall, the third of my Cassandra James mysteries. When the novel opens, it is the end of January; it has been snowing off and on for a month and the ground is frozen. As the various strands of the plot come together a sudden thaw sets in and Cassandra struggles through the flooded, blacked-out streets of Cambridge to a rendezvous with a killer.
For the crime-writer Cambridge has so much to offer: not just floods, but a cutting wind straight from the Urals, damp that gets into your bones, and what could be more sinister than drifting fog in a Gothic college court? Are you sure that muffled sound is just the echo of your own footsteps on the ancient flagstones?
The Fens are just as atmospheric. The huge empty expanses are flat as far as the eye can see and dissected by ruler-straight dykes stretching to infinity. The advance of a vast anvil-shaped cumulonimbus cloud, dragging curtains of rain, is an awe-inspiring sight.
British weather is not extreme by global standards, but we do have a lot of it and it can change so quickly: rain, sun, fog, snow, hail – sometimes within hours. I once saw cherry blossom and snow on the same day in Cambridge.
For my latest novel, Invisible, I took a break from the Fens (I’m returning in my next one) and used the north Devon coast as my setting. The weather was still important. The story begins in a rain-soaked autumn, reflecting the sombre mood of my heroine, who is mourning the death of her father. And it’s to escape the rain that she goes into a museum where she meets the man who becomes her lover. And then later, much later, she’s alone at home on an isolated stretch of coast. It’s night and the wind is getting up, lashing the trees, and –
Sorry, got to dash. It was lovely and sunny earlier on, so I put the washing out and – wouldn’t you just know it? – it’s coming on to rain.
Before Christine Poulson turned to crime, she was a respectable academic with a PhD in History of Art and had written widely on nineteenth-century art and literature. Her book, The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art 1840-1920 (Manchester University Press, 1999) was short-listed for a Mythopoeic Award for non-fiction. During her career as an art historian, she worked at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House, London. Later she was a lecturer in Art History at a college in Cambridge.
The city of Cambridge and the surrounding Fens, with their unique and sinister atmosphere, provided the setting for her first novel, Dead Letters, published in 2002, which featured literary historian and accidental sleuth, Cassandra James. Stage Fright, the second in the series, came out in 2003, and Footfall in 2006. Her short stories have appeared in CWA anthologies, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere. One of them,‘A Tour of the Tower,’ was nominated for a Short Mystery Fiction Derrringer Award in 2011.
Christine’s new book, Invisible, a stand-alone suspense novel, will be published by Accent Press in 2014.