Condensed days, stolen moments of connection.

This month we start and end the day in darkness, hours of daylight are short. Sometimes cold and crisp and bright, other times the sun declines to show its face. Nonetheless, we are buoyed by our own lights – those of candle, fairy light and log burner. It’s hard not to get swept along in the jubilance of this time of year, especially when driving home through sparkling lit villages, carols on the car radio, frost gathering on the edges of the evening. I both dread and long for snow.

We all know winter. The mysterious whiff of jasmine or narcissus caught in the cold air; the sadness of spent, blackened fireworks the morning after Bonfire Night; a row of pumpkins on a frosted allotment spied from a train window; the magical alchemy of frost and smoke. Winter is the smell of freshly cut yew and the childish excitement of finding that first, crisp layer of fine ice on a puddle.
– ‘The Christmas Chronicles‘ – Nigel Slater

Of course, there was a time when it wasn’t only Christmas or Hanukkah that we looked forward to through December, but something altogether older and more elemental; the Winter Solstice. This is a time of balance, when shortening days hesitate, tilt, and begin to strengthen again. I try to pair the over-indulgence of rib-sticking food with a wellie-booted stomp along the local lanes. Winter is harsh with its ice and frosts and dark winds, but it is also soft. Soft as woollen garments, as gentle dusk, as candlelit laughter and a hand held.

At the end of the month I’ll bring the snowdrop pots out of the fridge where they have been chilling for 15 weeks. This artificial winter should’ve convinced them to flower if I pop them where they’ll get a little light and warmth from the window. It’s cheering to have these promises of growth on the windowsill – there’s not much going on in the garden at this time of year, even when I do get chance to get out there, which is rarely for more than a cup of tea in a brief spell of winter sunshine. At least, there’s not much going on at first glance. It’s true that herbaceous plants have retreated below ground, and all seems pretty dull and brown… until the goldfinches descend on the teasel seed heads and other stems I resisted tidying away in autumn, the tits flock to the bird feeders I topped up ready for them yesterday evening, and the blackbirds find the apples I halved and threw out on the lawn beneath the shelter of the picnic bench.

Jobs on the allotment

  • Check dahlias are well mulched as winter weather turns cold and wet.
  • Move (or plant fresh) rhubarb plants whilst dormant.
  • Clean and sharpen tools, it is worth taking time to do this well.
  • Undertake maintenance on shed roof and install guttering and water butts to harvest and store rainfall.

From the car park I took the familiar old path through the trees. I knew the textures of the rough dried moss, the papery bark of the birch trunks, the focused needling of the gorse, without unfurling my fisted hands to touch them and yet they reached out into the path putting themselves in my way like concerned friends and I ran my fingers over each, reconnecting. A flicker in the branches; a Goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird, picks its way delicately around the edge of survival, balanced between one cold night and the next.

I have been managing to find more time for reading this month; long dark evenings lend themselves to working through the pile of books that have gathered on whim and recommendation the rest of the year. In a time when travel and socialising are tricky, books can be seen as an escape. You can travel the world from your sofa, if you have a book or two. So, what have I been enjoying recently?

Diana Henry has been tempting me with rich montane cheeses and soul-warming dishes in her “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow”. Kathleen Jamie has led me by the hand through landscapes and lives shaped by ice and time, or the lack of it. Got me lost in woods that miss bears, and remember wolves.
I lent my copy of “The Salt Path” by Raynor Winn, and its sequel “The Wild Silence” to my Mum, knowing, hoping, it would move her as it did me. She borrowed Nigel Slater’s “Christmas Chronicles” too, and I smiled, knowing she didn’t know she was holding between the covers not just words, but a whole internal hamper of festive joy.

Strike. Match flares. Now the log burner ticks and clicks gently as it expands and warms.
As I wonder if there’re any more words I want to say, my eye rests in turn on the familiar things that crowd my desk. A roe deer antler, a pinecone that opens and closes with temperature and humidity, a green woodpecker feather. Flint and ironstone. A postcard, beside a piece of driftwood that performs the same purpose: a reminder of another place. The coloured sea-glass in its jar does it’s job. Perhaps in January I’ll make a winter trip to the coast.

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