Spring and winter have begun their annual tussle. And although yesterday’s initial frostiness was quickly followed by sunlight and bright skies, there are still days when it’s perpetually grey outside and the house is gloomy.
I wrote some posts about simple ways to cheer dark days a couple of years ago, and although spring is on its way, there have been times this month when a few simple and inexpensive ideas have made all the difference. It may be nearly the end of February but today’s grey skies prove that the dull weather isn’t over yet.
Flowers may be scant at this year, but even a couple of sprigs of viburnum, a single hellebore or primrose, or a few snowdrops will bring light and life into the house. And if you have witch hazel or wintersweet growing in your garden so much the better!
An obvious one, but there is something special about lighting a candle during the day. Candlelight can be a magical addition to the breakfast table on dark mornings. And on dull days I like to have a tealight burning beside me on my desk as I work.
Everyone deserves a treat on a cold, grey day. Having an excuse to curl up for five minutes with a mug of chocolatey goodness is one of the best things about a wintery day. Whenever we visit the Eden Project I treat us to a block of Hasslacher’s hot drinking chocolate which I sweeten with a dribble of maple syrup.
It’s these little comforts, and stolen moments, that I will miss when winter finally gives way to spring.
Here and there around the garden the snowdrops are at varying stages of opening. Many still hang in droplet form, nodding gently to themselves in the February breeze. Others have opened up to resemble goats’ ears or helicopter blades.
Every year I wish I knew which varieties we have. Most are no doubt the standard Galanthus nivalis, but there are others with similar but larger blooms, (like the clump at the bottom of the garden which is always the first to open), or which seem to stand taller, or which are decidedly different (like the ones that grow beneath the Deutzia, with their broad grey-green leaves and huge blooms). Then there are the “doubles” whose frills, while pretty, are too fussy for my liking. I much prefer the simple elegance of the single-flowered varieties.
Yesterday we spent a couple of happy, calming hours wandering among the snowdrops in the grounds of Kingston Bagpuize House. There are rare varieties to admire in the borders, swathes of large, white blooms in the shrubbery, and carpets of flowers like snowfall in Church Copse and Courtclose Copse.
It was a much-needed slow Sunday afternoon; the delicate beauty of the snowdrops causing us to stop and be present.
And while it is still snowdrop season (for as long as they continue to bloom) I plan to devote the coming Sundays to snowdrop appreciation. If you would like to join me I’ll be posting images on Instagram using the hashtag #snowdropsundays
It has been cold and grey, the damp bringing with it a persistent chill. But the garden is slowly awakening, and already there are flowers to welcome the first buzzy visitors of the year when they arrive. It’s good to know that the garden is ready.
Winter aconites spangle the lawn like bright yellow suns; opening each morning in defiance of the cold; each bloom, surrounded by a pretty green ruff, providing an easily accessible banquet for those in search of nectar.
The real stars of the garden at this time of year, however, are the snowdrops. Swathes of them provide early nectar for any honey bees brave enough to venture out from their hives on warmer days. The delicate, pendulous blooms pose no problem for these small agile bees.
But it’s the patch of hellebores that I like to sit by most. It’s here that I often spot the first hungry queen bumblebees of the year. Usually heard before seen, the unmistakable deep buzz will belong to a buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) queen, newly-emerged from hibernation and in desperate need of sustenance before beginning her characteristic low, zig-zagging flights which signal her search for a nest site.
These queens feed on the bergenias too, which are already beginning to flower in the border on the west side of the house.
I would love to know if you have spotted any bees yet this year, and what they are feeding on. Do leave a comment to let me know.
The garden has been enveloped in white mist most days. It rolls up the hill from the valley below.
It’s no surprise that the snowdrops, so often in bud by now, prefer to remain hidden under their blankets of moss. All but one clump at the bottom of the garden, that is, whose white buds hang like droplets, soon to open and release their delicate, honey-like scent. This clump is always the first to flower, whether because of its position, or because it’s a different variety, I don’t know.
But even seeing the first protruding grey-green spears of the remaining clumps is a sign that winter is waning and spring approaches. For tomorrow is a cross-quarter day, the mid point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox; and the day that follows, Candlemas.
I love these markers in the year. They become moments to stop and reflect, to cherish each particular season, and to think about what lies ahead. And this year, perhaps more than most, will be one for holding on to the hope that the snowdrops so bravely symbolize.
After the merry days of Christmas, and the quietly celebrated cosy days that follow, January with its-back-to-work associations can feel a flat and dismal month. And so as I start to pack up the baubles, throw out the greenery, and take down the paper chains, I’m plotting and planning some moments of cheer. After all, it may be time to bid farewell to the Lord of Misrule, but in these cold, dark nights Venus shines, and there hangs the bright crescent of a waxing moon.
There are many ways to bring cheer into the days that follow. A meal to celebrate Twelfth Night, all candle lit – with homemade paper crowns, and a cake concealing a dried pea and a dried bean, so we might become a King and a Queen for the evening. A wassail with the magic of the morris, or a simpler version of our own, with a fire lit and a mug of mulled cider with which to drink the health of our single apple tree. And a final fling at the end of the month to celebrate Burns Night.
Throughout the month a few simple ways to brighten dark days keep up our spirits. There are favourite walks to savour, and small adventures exploring neighbouring villages. There are treasures to seek in hedgerows, the first buds and shoots, and Jack Frost’s wintery trace.
The cold brings a flock of redwings that fling the fallen birch leaves on the front lawn, and the flitting flights of long-tailed tits from tree heights to hedge and back again. The robins never miss a movement from within the house, cocking their heads each time we appear at the kitchen window to wash the dishes or fill a glass. The wrens are alert and chirpy, and the blackbird with one white wing feather sings as, just for a moment, the sky behind the copse catches fire before the sun goes down.
And in the long, dark evenings, there are plans to make for the year ahead. Dreams to dream in the firelight, and wishes to cast. January is full of promise, and there is much to be grateful for.
December: a month of contrasts.
I love the merry days of Christmas: bright colours on the Christmas tree, cheerful songs, and the sparkle of fairy lights. But I also love those quiet days, when the air is still, and magic hangs around the house in an altogether different way.
Late in the afternoon the clouds that streak the sky behind the ash copse turn a fiery pink and orange. Blackbirds call, and darkness descends. By the glow of candlelight, I look out at the dark silhouettes of the trees across the lawn and enjoy a moment of quiet and reflection. The Winter Solstice brings with it a distant feeling, some strange connection with the past; sharpened by the scent of winter greenery, the resonance of the more sombre carols, a slight chill in the air, and the flickering of flames.
Winter is here, both merry and bright, and solemn and still.
When the fiery festivities of Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night are over, November comes into its own. There are days when the mist filling the valley melts into an all pervading damp and grey that encourages introspection. There are others when it lifts to reveal skies of the clearest blue, a bright backdrop for haws, berries and crab apples, like the bright pops of ideas that surface after a time of reflection.
The natural world, turning its energies inwards, begins to shut down, and a stillness descends. Quiet and calm.
These November days are precious and I am always determined to protect them from the all too early influence of Christmas. After all, November has its own qualities.
There should be time to enjoy woodland walks and wintery weather, warming drinks and firelight, starlit skies and cosy evenings.
There’s enough time ahead for the build up to Christmas. For me it will begin at the end of the week with Stir Up Sunday and the promise of Advent. But for a few days more it’s simply November.
The old apple tree in the garden has done us proud this year, producing a bumper crop of bramleys, which is inspiring a frenzy of cooking with apples beyond the obvious sauce and crumble.
We’ve made gingerbread baked apples, for a delicious autumnal pud; Swedish apple cake, simple and comforting; and brightly coloured beetroot and apple soup.
A couple of apples were cooked down with pumpkin and onion, stock, and a touch of ground ginger to make pumpkin and apple soup, which we ate outside with bacon butties, fire on, and surrounded by falling leaves.
And it’s great to have a few bramleys on hand to add to braised red cabbage, which is one of my favourite wintery accompaniments.
We’re certainly not expecting to see much of the doctor this winter!
Do you have any favourite apple recipes to recommend?
All Hallow’s Eve, a marker in the year.
Here, it’s celebrated with a final fling and an outdoor feast, and a strange local custom involving electing a mock mayor who promptly gets a ducking in the village pond. There’s an intermingling of old and new traditions, but this act of marking the end of the harvest and welcoming the winter to come, in whatever form, has an age-old heart.
Armaleggan, border morris side
For me, carving a pumpkin has become an annual tradition, and after many years of hollowing out triangular eyes, nose and a toothy grin (to create an unnatural presence) I’ve started to take inspiration from the natural world.
The first Jack o’Lanterns would have been carved from swedes or turnips, but pumpkins and squashes create such a lovely glow and are far easier to carve!
The innards are added to stews or used to make soup. And this year, as well as making pumpkin and apple soup, we tried out this recipe for Thurshi from Diana Henry.
Yesterday, as we sat outside eating our soup with bacon butties, warmed by a fire and surrounded by falling leaves, I looked at our apple tree anew. How lucky we are to live in a world where nature provides for us.
While last month’s nasturtiums, sedums and verbena are just about holding on, there is one clear star of our pollinator friendly patch this month.
Acteae simplex “white pearl” is a joy to have in the garden – providing blooms and scent at a time when little else is in flower. And for any bees that are still on the wing, like this buff-tailed bumblebee out foraging yesterday, it must be just as joyful a find.
Beyond the garden, masses of ivy flowers have adorned the hedgerows in starbusts and spangles. These have been a-buzz with bumbles, wasps, honeybees, hoverflies and red admirals. Once again this year I had my eyes peeled for ivy bees, but I still haven’t been fortunate enough to spot one.