Jason Goodwin: ‘No one ever quite knew if he was telling the truth and the story was too terrible either to investigate or disbelieve’

Does lightning really strike twice? Absolutely, but rarely in so chilling a manner as reported by our columnist Jason Goodwin.

Years ago, we lived in a hamlet on the South Downs, where, on hot, dry summer evenings, we would sit out to watch the lightning flash and flicker out at sea. Sometimes, the lightning was accompanied by rolls of distant thunder and we felt a little like those Georgian picnickers who used to watch a battle from the neighbouring hill, with skirmishes of light projected onto the darkening sky.

In the fields, we would come across spherical flints known as devil’s doorknobs, but it wasn’t until we bought the dredgings of East Dean pond to make a garden in our yard that I encountered my first thunderbolt. The dredgings were dumped on earth from the potato wash at the nearby farm and I spent a happy week harrowing and spreading the soil about an inch thick around the yard, breaking it up and smoothing it down with a long-toothed rake.

The thunderbolt skittered out of the mud and rolled to a stop. It was very heavy, slightly rusty and perfectly round, the size of a billiard ball. I set it on a window ledge where I, knowing little about such things, left it as a supposed relic of the Civil War, perhaps a very small cannonball, until the builder, the late John Couzens, explained what it really was: an ingot flung from the sky or a fusing of metal in the earth, after a lightning strike, and known thereabouts as a thunderbolt.

Our friend Bronnie, who lived nearby, was not surprised. One evening, sitting by the fire in her low Wealden cottage, she was startled by a tremendous crash overhead, then two glowing orbs of light that flashed out of the fireplace, swept through the room and vanished out of an open window. Nothing, so far as I remember, was burnt or touched, but she described the apparitions as ball lightning, a rare phenomenon still not well understood by scientists. In her garden, she had a blackened tree that had been struck by lightning on another occasion.

“The house was shaken by a massive crash and the family dog, asleep in a doorway, flew into the air”

I had a friend at college who had one brown and one blue eye, which gave him a mysterious charm and power over women. He had been born, he said, with brown eyes, but when he was nine he and his family went on a camping holiday in France, where he was the sole survivor of a lightning strike that ripped through their tent and killed the rest of his family. The source of his power was that no one ever quite knew if he was telling the truth and the story was too terrible either to investigate or disbelieve.

Last week, at a grand village jamboree to celebrate a 50th birthday and a 30th anniversary, I talked to a man whose house had been hit by lightning in 2014. He was on his way downstairs, when the house was shaken by a massive crash and the family dog, asleep in a doorway, flew into the air. The dog had been lying on one of those aluminium strips that hold down the end of a fitted carpet and it was killed outright.

Naturally, everyone ran out and into the hall, when a second crash exploded outside. A neighbour witnessed the whole thing: a fork of lightning struck the transformer on the telegraph pole in the street and a burst of blue electricity raced along the wire to the junction on the stricken family’s house, where it exploded, blowing slates off the roof.

‘But that means…’ I began…

My new friend nodded. ‘That’s why the insurance company came good. There were some technicalities about the claim, but when they heard that lightning had struck in the same place twice, they agreed to pay out.’