The sun was shining in Utrecht when my friend Rini and I set off for England in a white Ford Capri, in March 1979. We loved classic cars and were going on a tour of used car dealerships in search of a vintage Jaguar. Aged 19 and 20, we were full of the spirit of adventure.
It was so mild when we arrived in Kent that occasionally we would stop to sunbathe on the car bonnet. We had no luck finding a Jag in the south-east so decided to head farther north. We didn’t check the forecast on our way to a dealership in Cumbria.
As we drove, the weather got colder and wilder. Snow was falling as we reached the Yorkshire Dales. Unperturbed, we drove over the moors in remote Swaledale. A tumbling white mass of wind and snow began battering the car along the road. We struggled on until the storm became so heavy we couldn’t see where we were going; the car barely moved over flurries of fresh snow.
With no chance of going anywhere, we waited for the storm to pass. It was bitterly cold. With every exhale, the vapour in our breath froze in a cloud of ice. Our summer sleeping bags offered little protection, nor did our thin jackets and jeans. All night, the storm raged, burying the car deeper and deeper. The cold slowed our senses, until it was all we could feel.
The next morning, the car was buried in snow. Everything was dark. Panic set in. Staying in the car would kill us. We had to get out – and fast. We tried the doors but they would not budge; the weight of the snow was too great. With great difficulty, we managed to roll down the windows and squeeze through the gap. Outside, we were met with an onslaught of gale-force winds and horizontal snow. With each step, we were knee-deep. Our minds fogged and our bodies numbed. My hair froze, and icicles formed on my eyebrows.
We tried to find a farm we’d passed on the road, but it was hopeless. The whiteout obscured everything; the sky and road were indistinguishable. We clung to each other, fearful we’d become separated. Rini was fading, giving in to the comfort of sleep. I knew if he closed his eyes they would not open again. So, I kept him going, with kind words or a slap across the face; whatever worked.
Finally, we stopped at a hay barn; I felt ready to die. At that moment, I heard what sounded like a dog bark. I forced my friend to stand and we headed back into the blizzard. I saw a figure coming towards us through the sheets of snow. “Are you both crazy? Out for a walk in this weather?” the man shouted.
The man, Clifford Harker, told us he owned the farm we had passed. He’d been out with his dog, herding his sheep to safety. He told us he lived a 10-minute walk away, so we followed, battling through the storm. Ten minutes passed, and there was nothing in sight. “How much longer?” we pleaded. “Ten more minutes,” he replied again.
After what seemed like a lifetime, we saw lights in the distance. We stumbled into the farmhouse, much to the surprise of Jennie, Clifford’s wife. We were shaking, dazed and numb, but we were alive.
Jennie ran us a bath, clothed us in her husband’s pyjamas, and on her doctor’s advice, made us bowls of lukewarm custard. It was the first thing we’d eaten in almost two days and it tasted glorious. The storm left the roads covered in 10ft drifts, so we had to stay on the farm for several days. The Harkers were so welcoming towards us: two Dutch strangers who had burst into their lives.
We went back to visit them in Easter that year, loaded with presents for the family. We spent several days at the farm, helping Clifford tend to his sheep and eating more of Jennie’s delicious food.
Our car had been dug out of the snow by the local garage. We told the owner we’d come to England to find an old Jaguar. By coincidence, he had one to sell. It wasn’t the exact model we were looking for but that dream finally came true last year. I am restoring a Jaguar XK140, 42 years after we first set out to find one.
In 2015, my wife and I travelled to the UK to see Jennie again after Clifford passed away. I was sad I wasn’t able to say goodbye, but I keep a photo of him above my desk. It always makes me smile to look up at the man who saved my life.