7/4/2018 My belief that spring might have arrived was premature. More than a week later, there is still barely a green leaf to be seen, barely a ray of sunshine to be felt. The meadows along the Brett Valley are flooded, and my garden pond is encroaching on the lawn. It hardly seems feasible that exactly a year ago I saw my first swallows of the season: I expect I will be waiting a good few weeks longer this year.
Perhaps the feeling of extended winter has been partially responsible for my slowness in choosing a second spring treasure. Busyness over Easter accounts for another part of the delay, and the remainder – the biggest obstacle – has been caused by at least five changes of mind over which particular spring wonder to settle on. The unusually slow progress of the season means that many delights of early spring, which usually take place consecutively, are coinciding this year, and choosing between them is nearly impossible. I feel like a bumblebee buzzing from flower to flower, too excited about the appearance of so many different food sources at once, and unable to decide which nectar I like best.
Last week I opted out, but I feel it is high time to commit myself. A sunny day finally arrived a few days ago – the first since I last wrote – and sitting on the terrace in the sun was more conducive to forcing myself into a decision.
I chose blackthorn. A blossom that I was half expecting to include in my late winter treasures, and the first to put some colour back in the hedgerows.
Driving home the other day, I passed a particularly well-endowed stretch of road: the Hadleigh bypass, otherwise known as the A1071 between Sudbury and Ipswich. It is not the most beautiful place in Suffolk, but blackthorns, cherries and ox-eye daisies do a marvellous job of distracting one from its shortcomings for part of the year. As I reached my turn-off, I thought the blackthorn looked like spring snow. This brought to mind an expression I had once heard or read involving the blackthorn as a marker of the seasons, but, scouring about in the recesses of my mind until I reached home, I couldn’t locate it. I could feel the spirit of the expression – and knew I liked it – but I had no idea what it was. I looked it up, and after realising I was slightly on the wrong track and needed to change my search terms, I finally found it: the Blackthorn Winter.
I like the way this phrase turns something potentially bleak – and often provoking expletives from many who have had enough of the cold weather – into something poetic. It sounds like an expression Shakespeare might have invented. It also reminds me of its opposite pair, the Spanish expression, ‘Quince Summer’. The blackthorn is flowering so late this year that frosts and snow haven’t coincided with it (yet, anyway – I wouldn’t want to tempt fate), but there is no doubt that we have been in the midst of a Blackthorn Winter.
For some inexplicable reason, I have no blackthorn in my garden, not even in my recently planted mixed hedge, which is something I will have to put right. Although the blackthorn is now out in full force in some areas of the countryside, at the Hobbets – the location of the nearest blackthorn shrubs to my house – the buds are some way off bursting. On several journeys over the last few days, I have kept my eyes peeled for blackthorn blossom, and have begun to notice a pattern. In the valleys, the blackthorn is already almost at its peak. But I live on a hill. Not a high hill – all of 90 metres above sea level – but perhaps exposed enough to suffer from stronger winds and slightly lower temperatures. It seems that a more sheltered location is enough to persuade the blackthorn that it is already safe to flower.
Of course, the blackthorn’s blossom is the precursor of its autumn offering: sloes. Sloes are one of very few autumn fruits of which I haven’t made use. I’m not keen on spirits, and the fruits are so small that removing stones to make jam seems more trouble than it’s worth: damsons are fiddly enough. I enjoy seeing the fruits on trees and in hedges; but for me, the blackthorn is all about its blossom. Usually it is one of the most delightful signals that spring is on its way. This year, I hope, it is the signal that spring has arrived. Judging by the entertaining spectacle of a wood pigeon standing in the pond up to its belly having a bath and a splash-about followed by a long sunbathing session on the lawn (still in progress), we are all in agreement that there is no excuse for any further delay in embracing the season.