Hello Winter

Depending on whether you believe the seasons change by the calendar or the solstice, we are either in the last dog days of autumn, or are about to enter the final three-week run down to the shortest day and the ‘official’ start of the ‘miserable season’.

The cold, clear days of winter can provide some of the best vistas
The cold, clear days of winter can provide some of the best vistas

Me? I tend to compartmentalise the seasons in monthly quarters, so irrespective of the weather, autumn will end on November 30th and winter will begin, lasting until we emerge, blinking, into a bright, clear spring on March 1st.

Trying to work out why is not so simple.  I’m not sure I’ve actually thought about why before; perhaps, growing up in Scotland it may have been easier to differentiate between each season, although they all seemed to be mostly composed of rain, whatever the time of year.  I suspect it was much more to do with the amount of daylight, so that the beginning of December, for example, when it’s  dark by the middle of the afternoon, is classic winter, whereas the beginning of March, when we are approaching equal amounts of light and dark, should be regarded as spring.

Snow: always the highlight of the winter
Snow: always the highlight of the winter


However, it’s only fair to admit  that, not only have I always consciously divided the year into seasons, I have also divided those quarters into sub-sections: for example, December 1st to 21st is early winter; December 22nd to January 12th deep winter; the next three weeks is middle winter and, finally, February is late winter.

Weird? yes. Anal? most probably. So, why? Oddly, this is not something I devised in childhood, but thought up during the interminable years when the need to earn a crust forced me into a Monday to Friday, nine to five regime: the work pattern that shuts out daylight for the best part of three months.

Winter sunrises are often spectacular
Winter sunrises are often spectacular

For me, it was probably a tactic to combat depression, the black dog that, each year, began to hover around Hallowe’en and only started to ease by the half term holiday in February.  But it wasn’t winter that I dreaded: far from it, I’ve always loved snow, the still beauty of cold midwinter afternoons, the early, fiery sunsets and the resilience of nature through the cruellest part of the year.

What I couldn’t deal with was the lack of any opportunity to see daylight for most of the week.  As such, sub-dividing the season was an attempt to make the three winter months more bearable; a way to get through, particularly as at the end of each section I religiously logged the time of sunset, so I would have some concrete evidence of the slowly lengthening days after the winter solstice.  Indeed, although not enough of an anorak to learn how to to apply the principles of the analemma, I did become sufficiently obsessed with sunset times to learn that they actually reach their earliest around 10 days before the solstice, remaining constant until December 21st/22nd!

Winter sunsets equally so
Winter sunsets equally so


Rather sad, I admit but, as they say, whatever gets you through the day, or in my case, the darkness. And knowing that even by January 1st sunset is around 15 minutes later than at the solstice is a small comfort during the bleak, empty days of early January.

But, returning to my opening point, whether we consider winter starts on Monday, or three weeks later, we are now in the darkest part of the year with millions condemned to little or no daylight for the next 12 weeks. I now consider myself hugely fortunate, having given up the day job three years ago so now, however wet and dismal, I can enjoy some daylight and fresh air in the middle of the day.

Make sure you help the birds survive their winter
Make sure you help the birds survive their winter

When anyone asks me what is the best feature of working from home my answer is automatic: being able to savour a winter’s day. And, if I was world king for the day, I’d make it compulsory for all nine-to-five slaves to have a week’s extra paid holiday in the middle of winter and insist they spent at least part of the day outside during daylight.

Back in the real world, even little things can make a difference:  a few minutes to enjoy a sunrise or sunset, getting outside at lunchtime if you can, spending  time feeding the birds and spotting wildlife (often easier in the winter) and if you’re feeling negative, thinking about their struggle to survive.

The magnificent mountain hare in its winter coat
The magnificent mountain hare in its winter coat

Just find something, however small, however fleeting, to enjoy. Winter takes up 25 per cent of the year and it does provide some of its most memorable moments. Don’t wish it away.


Postscript: the mountain hare, an iconic, indigenous animal of these islands, is now becoming increasingly rare. Appallingly, many are being slaughtered by the shooting fraternity who erroneously claim  hares threaten the grouse they rear (reared, of course, to be blasted out of the sky in the name of ‘sport’).

Intensive management of upland areas for the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting has led to the near-extinction of the protected hen harrier in England, and has other negative environmental effects.

Please sign Dr Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting before we lose any more of our priceless, indigenous wildlife.

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No One Has a Divine Right to the Road: This “Them and Us” Mentality Has to Stop

Around 75% of adults in the UK hold a current driving licence, according to government statistics.  The same statistics also tell us that 80% of adult cyclists possess a driving licence and 1 in 5 motorists cycle at least once a month.

These figures are interesting, given the ongoing toxicity between some motorists and cyclists, and particularly in the light of yet more depressing examples of this ‘them and us’ mentality emerging over the weekend

A Conservative councillor in Birmingham, apparently, opposes proposed spending on cycling infrastructure because it will only benefit young, fit, white males. Elsewhere in a ‘Comment is Free’ debate on speed limits in the Guardian, a spokesman for a drivers’ organisation bemoans the

Cycliing infrastructure is an important, but not exclusive solution
Cycliing infrastructure is an important, but not exclusive, solution

continuing ‘war on motorists’ and opposes any reduction in the 30mph speed limit because “you need to drive at more than 20mph to overtake some bicycles”.

These points don’t just raise individual issues, but also highlight key problems in making our roads and streets safer and more conducive to all road users at a time when encouraging cycling and walking is central to combatting obesity and improving health and fitness.

While despairing at the inability of an elected representative to understand that it is the very lack of any existing safe cycling infrastructure that often ensures only young, fit males generally have the nerve to risk dangerous city streets on two wheels, it also reinforces the point that only when we can attract a wider cross section of the population on to their bikes, might the regularly antagonistic culture on our streets dissipate. Of course, we will not encourage those sections of society into cycling if they perceive it to be too dangerous, which is certainly the perception (however inaccurate) at present.  Providing more traffic-free bike lanes is one obvious way of making cycling safer.

Some (including fellow cyclists) believe that many of the young, lycra-clad (mainly) men on their lightweight racing machines hold the same competitive, confrontational mindset of many motorists in their high-powered cars and 4x4s and this has been a leading factor in cyclist/motorist antagonism.  Indeed, in London particularly, even a average-speed cyclist can outpace a car and this has led to predictable road rage among frustrated drivers.

But, it’s not quite as simple as this.  As a cyclist, motorist and pedestrian, I find it interesting to analyse my own responses when in different modes: as a pedestrian I curse motorists and cyclists who fail to stop at crossings and traffic lights; as a motorist I despair at pedestrians, usually engrossed in the mobiles, who step out, unthinkingly, in front of me, as well as cyclists without lights in the dark; and as a cyclist, I rage at motorists who regularly try to bully me off the road and entertain themselves by passing with only millimetres to spare. However, I reserve my greatest odium for road users, of all types, who believe their obsession with mobile devices outweighs their obligation (legal or otherwise) to look where they are going.

Better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians is essential, but is not not a total solution.  As long as we have people such as Brian McDowell, chairman of the Alliance of British Drivers, claiming that parents must keep children off the streets, as they are the preserve of motor vehicles, we have a long way to go in changing attitudes, especially towards the fallacy that excess speed does not influence accidents.

The roads are not the exclusive preserve of one group of users, just because they are more powerful. We all have a right to the roads, but equally, we all have a responsibility to treat other users, particularly the most vulnerable, with care and respect.  This needs to be drummed into everyone from the earliest age possible.

Little things, like copying the Dutch in insisting drivers open car doors with their reverse hand (thereby ensuring they look behind their shoulder and see cyclists overtaking their vehicle), cost nothing and could easily be incorporated into the driving test.  Knowledge and application of the Highway Code – like knowing the correct position for cycling is not in the gutter, or that overtaking bikes, and horses, requires as much space as you would normally allow for another vehicle – should be ongoing and not forgotten as soon as the test is out of the way.  Above all, sentences for those who drive without care, or dangerously, have to be far more stringent and also be consistently enforced. In no other walk of life is it possible to kill, or maim, a fellow human, claim you were unsighted and escape with a derisory punishment.

And, while we’re at it, maybe the following need to be written clearly on the Highway Code as well:

  • There is no such thing as road tax – it was abolished in 1936
  • Vehicle Emissions Duty (VED) is based on emissions
  • VED is not ring fenced for road spending – this comes out of general taxation, so all tax payers contribute, even if they don’t drive

Happily, there are much better role models among the motoring lobby, in particular, the AA’s Edmund King, who proudly describes himself as a motorist and cyclist and actively campaigns for better road safety for all. We need to reject the mindset that sees driving fast and/or aggressively as macho and the only way to counter this is to ride in an equivalent manner.

This ‘them and us’ mentality is as counterproductive and dangerous as the lack of appropriate infrastructure.





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