18/3/2018 It is the penultimate day of winter. This year the equinox falls on 20th March instead of 21st. You wouldn’t know it though: the arctic conditions have returned. The temperature dropped from 16˚C to -2˚C in 24 hours and the ground is covered in snow and ice.
But my winter therapy seems to have worked: I don’t mind if the cold weather lasts a little longer, and my list of winter treasures has grown so long that I will have to resume the project next year. In fact, I have enjoyed the challenge so much that I am thinking of continuing it for the remaining seasons of the year; and, contrary to my initial assumption, I think I might find it more difficult to choose 13 spring treasures than I did winter ones. After all, how do you identify the most important elements in a bombardment of euphoria?
13/3/2018 Everyone loves snowdrops. They are the first ubiquitous flowers that signal the lengthening days and slow approach of spring. They are pretty and delicate, and their colour is fitting for the time of year.
I love them too. I was thrilled to spot my first snowdrops of the year in a churchyard in the middle of January, though the ones in my garden were barely above ground yet: they didn’t come fully into bloom until a mild, sunny spell in the middle of February. A month later, they are still going strong, and the daffodils show no signs of taking over from them.
All Saints’, Ellough
Outdoor temperature: 7.8˚C; indoor temperature: 6.8˚C, humidity: 60%
The forecast of unrelenting rain led to a last minute change of plan: instead of spending two days walking in the Chilterns, I decided to choose a far-flung corner of Suffolk, stay two nights there and visit churches instead. Having characteristically left my decision till the last minute, my choice of destinations was limited. But I found pleasant accommodation beside the River Waveney in Beccles after a short search; so, without allowing myself any further opportunity for procrastination, I booked it and set off the next morning.
This particular trip had an added excitement: I had just bought an ultra-lightweight cello case made of carbon fibre – weighing 2.9kg in comparison to my previous 8.7kg – with rucksack straps enabling far more convenient and less back-breaking cello carrying. The idea was prompted by the prospect of taking my cello to London with me on the train for a chamber music session (I am not keen on long-distance driving); but once it was in my possession, I couldn’t believe I’d done without one for so long, and I was impatient to put it to the test.
I had a lunchtime appointment with Tiffer, the rector of the benefice which includes Hitcham, Brettenham, Rattlesden and Thorpe Morieux, to go up the rood stairs at Rattlesden church. With a comprehensive verbal disclaimer of course. I was excited: it was the first item on my church ‘wish list’ that I had managed to arrange.
It was a little vertigo-inducing, with no barriers or supports to provide reassurance. How anyone would dare to take a Henry Hoover up there is beyond me, and I had politely declined the offer of high-altitude music making, fearing both the cello’s fate and mine. But once I’d reached the rood loft, I was able to hold on to one of Jesus’s companions and enjoy my novel perspective without any wobbles, physical or psychological. Coming down again was another matter, but I made it safely to the ground, and after thanking Tiffer for his time and willingness, I left for Wetherden, the nearest church that I hadn’t yet visited.
5/3/2018 The creatures and I are happy to report that, after an uncertain start, this winter has been a vast improvement on last year’s, despite several spells of icy and snowy weather which at times has dissuaded even the chickens from going in the garden – but they have gradually got braver!
Since welcoming friends from Spain on Christmas Eve, the season has been, on the whole, a positive one. It got off to a good start: we, the humans, had our first experience of a Boxing Day picnic. Dexter the rabbit had his first experience of an open fire, and soon made it clear that he didn’t see any sense in ever leaving the fireside. Winston the wood pigeon looked on jealously through the sitting room window, so I relented and gave him his own short spell of indoor warmth-bathing…
4/3/2018 Snow is a rare component of our winters these days. Since December I have considered including it amongst my winter highlights; after all, we’ve had more of it this year than in the last five years. But after observing my reactions to the earlier episodes of snow this winter, I decided that, although I like snow if I don’t have to travel, I wouldn’t necessarily count it amongst my favourite natural phenomena. I certainly love going for creaky walks in the subdued countryside, and will gleefully go sledging (even down the small hills in my garden), build a snowman or have a snowball fight. But we rarely have enough snow for sledging, and snowmen and snowballs usually have a fair quantity of mud, twigs and leaves mixed in. It’s just not quite the real thing.
St Nicholas’, Stanningfield
I had been looking forward to returning to Stanningfield church since passing by in late summer and finding it locked. I had forgotten how stumpy its tower was, but it looked sweet and suited the character of the church. For a moment I feared my second visit might also be unsuccessful, seeing that I had arrived before its advertised opening hours; but the door submitted when I turned the handle, and I was thankful that the timetable wasn’t obeyed too precisely.
25/2/2018 I admit it. I cheated. Slightly. In December, worried that I might struggle my way through to spring, and thinking it prudent to book a holiday after the dreaded tax returns and before the new B&B season got underway, I arranged to visit friends in Alcalá de Henares, a university town near Madrid. It is not necessarily the first place that comes to mind for winter warmth, lying at an altitude of nearly 600m and with much more unpredictable winter weather than southern Spain; but nevertheless I knew there was a much greater chance of sunshine than at home, and that by February the Spanish sun would feel warm regardless of how cold the air was. In any case, a change of scene and some restful time with friends would be just as good a tonic as sunshine.
St Andrew’s, Norton
Outdoor temperature: 9˚C; indoor temperature: 8.4˚C, humidity: 66%
My mind was on an imminent return trip to Woolpit and Great Barton for photographs. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long for a sunny and mild afternoon when I had time to make an outing of it: I was keen to resume regular church visiting, and Norton and Thurston lay conveniently between the two; but I was also still slightly wary of the cold.
‘There is very often a warm interval in February, sometimes a few days earlier and sometimes later, but as a rule it happens that a week or so of mild sunny weather occurs about this time […] These mild hours in February check the hold which winter has been gaining, and as it were, tear his claws out of the earth, their prey. If it has not been so bitter previously, when this Gulf stream or current of warmer air enters the expanse it may bring forth a butterfly and tenderly woo the first violet into flower.’
Richard Jeffries, ‘Out of Doors in February’, in The Open Air (1885).
20/2/2018 When I discovered this essay at the beginning of winter, it struck me that Jeffries was right about February. At least, I remembered such days of warmth and sunshine last year, and in some previous years. Certainly, the first opportunity of the year to sit in the sun on the terrace usually occurs in February. There is nothing more delicious than that first sensation of unambiguous warmth and brightness falling on your face for the first time – properly – in several months. But it might as well have been several years.