I woke up on the morning of Saturday 5th December 2015 in the usual way. My phone alarm quietly whirred at a luxurious 8.45am. The kids were still asleep, Sam too. As I started to surface, I realised it was Saturday, and Day One of what we call in the trade a "double header" - a packed weekend of photography, with two full day weddings back to back.
I reached for my phone and clicked onto Facebook. As soon as the newsfeed loaded, everything changed.
We had heard heavy rain and wind in the night, but that's not entirely uncommon in the Lakes, so we had slept through most of it, blissfully unaware. Yet there on my little glowing screen, there was something other than the usual photos of nights out, kids being weird, sanctimoniously healthy breakfasts...Facebook was showing me a different morning. Nearly every image in my newsfeed was of flooding. Roads. Fields. Streets. Garages. Cellars. Conservatories. Lounges. Random objects floating around in friends' kitchens like some weird animation. Was this actually happening? Right here, right now, to people I loved and cared about?
We flew to the window and flung up the blind. A lake had replaced the fields opposite, and the farm was poking out of the middle, like a tiny castle with an over-cautious moat. This was not good at all.
I went back to Facebook, and the next thing I saw in my newsfeed was a post from my friend Helen, from Definitions Mobile Beauty. Helen was due to arrive at the day's wedding a couple of hours before me. With roads closed and trains cancelled, she was desperately seeking help. Next I noticed that Gareth, from Aqua Hair and Beauty, was facing the same problems. Then I saw an image of the huge flood at Troutbeck Bridge - which lay between the three of us and our bride at the Merewood Hotel. I should probably think about getting out of my pyjamas, right?
Strangely, this was the first thing I thought of, and my first photo of the day:
I knew I had to keep my camera gear dry. There was no point in valiantly arriving at the wedding with a bag full of ruined cameras and lenses. They were quickly triple wrapped in bin liners and parcel tape.
We ran to Grandma's, swapped the confused kids for the keys to her Jeep, and with husband Sam at the wheel we set off into the chaos.
I've never seen anything like it. Abandoned cars everywhere. People desperately trying to save their belongings and their homes. Farmers doing everything they could to open up drains and redirect torrents. Fire engines screaming, their lights a curiously pretty blur fragmented through our soaked windscreen.
After several changes of route we had to admit defeat, but luckily not before finding a good samaritan with a Landrover, who kindly took me the next leg of the journey, as far as Troutbeck Bridge. From there I was on foot. As I got out the Landrover and said my thanks and goodbye I felt something like this:
With adrenaline running as high as the water levels, I set off towards the biggest flood yet. Oddly, and perhaps stupidly, I was more worried about the camera gear on my back than myself. At least until it started getting deeper... and deeper. I started to feel really scared when I saw a man lift his two small toddlers out of the back of his abandoned car and wade towards me, with one on each hip, both of them screaming. This can't really be happening, surely? Luckily, his positive attitude spurred me on. As I shouted to him offering help (not sure what I was planning to do, but all I knew was his cargo was way more important than mine) he cheerily shouted back "Be 'reet - just a bit of watter!". So on I went, in the opposite direction, very slowly, waist deep, one leg heavily dragging past the other. With each step I carefully tested the ground before putting any weight on my feet, for fear of blindly plonking them in a drain or a pot hole. Each time a tractor or fire engine went past it created a huge wave, and I'd stand in my best squat position, leaning forward so my camera bag was as far out of the water as possible, bracing myself to avoid toppling over.
I finally reached the other side, and luckily managed to blag another lift to take me the final mile uphill (thank goodness!) to the Merewood. I've never been so happy to get to a venue, and to see the lovely Helen and Gareth who had heroically made it there too :)
I emptied out my wellies, borrowed some jeans from a bridesmaid, and, shakily, started to get out my kit and begin my day's work.
It's hard to describe what it felt like to be part of Megan and Bryn's wedding that day. A lot of the time it was pure crisis management in the midst of a huge sense of disbelief. But it wasn't just like that. There were lots of positives too. There were hysterical levels of humour, amazing resilience and even gratefulness, as we repeatedly put the scale of this disaster into global perspective. Despite the stress, I loved every second of working alongside Helen and Gareth that morning, I really did.
I have huge respect for Megan, Bryn and their families. There were times when we didn't know if the groom would get there. Or the registrars. Or the guests, not to mention all the other suppliers and services involved in making a dream day reality.
It's not easy to stay calm and collected as nature rapidly begins to unpick all your months of careful planning right before your eyes. I'll never forget photographing Megan looking so serene, when moments earlier she had been looking out of the window at all the chaos unfolding. She is one brave and beautiful lady.
It was a long, long, day. The registrar did finally make it there, head to toe in waterproofs. The team at Merewood were simply amazing, dealing with each new challenge calmly, politely and happily, with hotel manager Rob even stepping in to act as second registrar.
Amazingly, wedding singer Howard Wing also managed to find a way there, and did a stunning job to breathe life back into a traumatised crowd and create a top class party atmosphere - despite the lack of dancefloor, DJ and lights. This is the two of us in the "crisis room" planning the next steps, and Howard's amazing impromptu DJ booth - quote "DESMOND" when booking Howard to secure this awesome set for your wedding now ;)
So, what happened next? Well, by this point, Megan, Bryn and their wedding party were in full Wing Swing, and for me it was time to start thinking ahead to plan the next day, the next wedding, the next storm-struck couple: Hayley and Jamie.
When we set off in Grandma's Jeep all those hours ago, it was clear I was never going to make it back that night. Luckily, I had just enough time to throw in a sleeping bag, toothbrush, bag of crisps and extra memory cards. All was good.
I started to message Hayley. This was a different kind of crisis management. We had a little more time to be prepared, not much, but enough to be able to form some kind of plan at least. Her hair and make up people sadly had no chance of getting there. Make up was to be done by her talented friend, but hair was an unknown. Now, I know, and Hayley knows, that things like this are something of a #firstworldproblem, but ladies...you get it, right...no one to do your hair on your wedding day?! Luckily Super Gareth was ready to come to the rescue again, hair tongs and siren at the ready, yippee we were going to work together again :)
Cake next. It looked like Hayley's cake might not get there. I put a shout out on on Windermere Sell and Seek. The response was amazing and heart warming. Within minutes we had so many offers - christmas cakes - un-iced - "but if you can confirm before 11pm I can wade down to the co-op and get the icing" - endless other offers to bake, ice, deliver. It was astounding. As luck would have it, another friend saw the post, and it turned out that there just happened to be a spare wedding cake right there at the Merewood - an uncollected raffle prize from a charity dinner a couple of nights before. I opened the fridge and there she was! Cake Desmond, kindly donated by said raffle winner!
I hadn't even had time to think about how I was going to get to Hayley and Jamie's wedding, which was at The Wild Boar Inn, Crook. Luckily I didn't need to, as someone else already had. One of our lovely local farming families, The Swindlehursts, had been liaising with Sam, and Peter was ready to collect me first thing in his tractor, no worries. How cool is that?!
A few more shots of Megan and Bryn dancing the night away, then it was time to head down to the hotel basement to my luxurious bed for the night (note the half bottle of wine and pork bap I pinched!)
A few hours later, and it was time to do it all again. Taxi for Dawson!
Sunday was a funny day. The calm after the storm. There was blue sky, fluffy white clouds, birds singing....and total devastation everywhere.
We passed so many people. People helping people helping people. It was upsetting. I mainly stared at the cake and tried to find a way to suspend it magically so that the chocolate didn't chip off. It was good to have something to focus on.
We arrived at the Wild Boar to find yet more stories of people going the extra mile. Gary Mills had been booked as the DJ. He turned up as the all round Super Hero. Stranded at the venue from a previous party, he took it upon himself to pretty much, over the course of the 2 days, save the wedding. He ferried guests and suppliers in horrendous conditions. He picked up yet more guests from flood refuges. He kept everyone calm and happy and kicked off an incredible party at the end of it all. Planning a wedding? You should book him right now, just in case.
The team at The Wild Boar were equally as impressive. Co-ordinator Emma was perpetually composed and attentive, a real credit to the hotel. Annoyingly she also managed to look great the whole time, whereas I, by this point, resembled a drowned rat that had been pulled through a hedge backwards then dried on an overactive radiator. It really wasn't my best look.
Time was flying by. There were lots of unknowns, yet slowly but surely problems were solved, barriers were overcome, and things started to come together. I remember at one point thinking that it didn't really matter if the florist didn't get there. How wrong could I have been? As soon as Jason from Flower Design arrived, quite unbelievably given his journey, I could see why Hayley wanted him there so much. The blooms were stunning, and, against the clock, he waved his magic wand over the whole venue. It was perfect. The original cake even arrived, with its own police escort! Actually I think a new trend was set by Hayley and Jamie - mark my words, 2016 will be the Year of Two Cakes.
There was only an hour to go, but still no guarantee of registrars. Everyone was here, but would the wedding even happen?!
We were getting good at this though...oh yes, we had a back up! Local minister and good friend Michelle Woodcock was our vicar-on-call. She wouldn't be able to do the legal bit, but could perform a ceremony that would more than suffice. She sorted out childcare and waited, bless her, across the flooded fields in Crosthwaite, all kitted out and ready to jump to it should we raise the alarm. But just then a Landrover pulled up - the registrars were here!
So, there you have it. Hayley and Jamie said their vows, and became my second man-and-wife of the weekend. Screw you Desmond!
We even got out in the sun for some photos. Little did we realise how many people would see them in the days that followed.
And that was it. Our Storm Desmond weekend. Our Wet Wedding. Our For Wetter or Worse. We did it. Together.
I'm no hero. I’m just a stubborn bugger who doesn’t like to be beaten. The real heroes in all of this were the emergency services. The mountain rescue. The flooded families who survived the storm and kept on smiling, who made Christmas special for their children in spite of everything. They're the heroes.
When I think back to that crazy couple of days, I feel proud. Proud to be part of the wedding industry in this beautiful corner of Cumbria. To not just be someone who "works for myself" but to be part of that team. To call myself one of those "suppliers" who would do anything for their couples. Who understand weddings. Who know what it's like - when to be a shoulder to cry on, when to give a kick up the ass, and when to use the right kind of humour to keep everyone keeping on. That's what you should look for in a wedding supplier. Not just a pretty website and lots of "likes" on Facebook.
If you're planning a wedding in this part of the world then you should consider yourself very lucky. We can't boast the best weather, but I think you'd have to travel far and wide to find a group of people with more energy, love and resilience. But then I guess I'm biased ;)
Megan and Bryn's wedding (Saturday)
Hayley and Jamie's wedding (Sunday)
Venue: The Wild Boar Inn, Crook
Make up: Laura from Retreat Beauty Rooms
Hair: Gareth at Aqua The Salon
DJ/Entertainment/MC: Gary Mills
Florist: Jason and Jane at Flower Design
Cake: Lemon Tree Bakery
Extra help with transport: Carl at Ormskirk Tree Services
And a big shout out to those suppliers who just couldn't possibly make it, including Sam at Ruby Slippers (Hayley's original hair and make up plan) ...who did everything they could to bring those "on the ground" up to speed...I can only imagine how awful you felt when there was nothing you could do to get there, you really did do what you could.
All royalties from the appearance of these photos in the press will be donated to the Cumbria Flood Appeal.