Mid January already, but for the first time in 2014 it really does feel like the start of a new year. Today the sun is shining: yes, really, even to the extent of having to close the top floor curtains in order to see the iMac screen.
Hardly earth shattering news: certainly not comparable to the continuing depressing events seen on our screens every day. But up here, in the submerged north, a morning without any precipitation, let alone one also with a glimpse of the sun, is something to sing about.
Halloween marked the end of our delightful and unexpected Indian summer; subsequently, there has literally not been a day without rain. Temperatures well into the high teens and water falling from the sky in biblical proportions, combined with entire days of almost total darkness, gave late autumn and early winter an apocalyptic feel.
Christmas came and went with barely a hint of frost, let alone a flake of snow and New Year heralded the return of the deluge to levels previously reached at the beginning of December.
Living with a major river flowing past the sitting room window, the fear of flooding has been a constant anxiety. Fortunately, so far, and touch wood, although an angry, caramel-coloured tide has thundered past, at times widening the river to three times its usual size and submerging the banks and overhanging trees with frightening ease, the drainage system has worked and the water has not risen any higher than the lowest-lying parts of the cycle path. Fingers crossed, the short term forecast will prove accurate and the next couple of weeks will bring some drier, colder conditions.
On the positive side, a brief, dry window yesterday morning allowed for a a quick survey round the garden and brought the welcome evidence of buds on the magnolia and acer, plus a scattering of bulbs across the front flower bed: small, but unmistakeable, signs that spring is on the horizon. Sunset is now a full 45 minutes later than in mid December and the beginning of spring – in seasonal terms – is only 46 days away!
But if you have to endure a British (or, even worse, Scottish) winter, then make sure you’re in a city, especially one where the bright lights, busy shops and wide variety of culture are more than adequate compensation for wet pavements and cold bus stops. Having a wonderful film theatre on the doorstep and world-class musical venues four stops along the train line really does hit the spot.
The Armadillo added an extra slice of atmosphere to Jools Holland’s ever-excellent winter tour and Celtic Connections looks mouth watering. After that, the film festival will run through February and Aye Write will arrive soon after..
Glasgow has always been renowned for its culture and innovation. Let’s finish with perhaps the most appropriate tribute to the musician who defined my adolescence at the venue that illuminated my childhood.
Just as we celebrated the New Year in snow-style in this part of the world, it’s a real treat to end the month with our familiar landscape again transformed into a silvery, shimmering wonderland.
True, it wasn’t so great for those who had to survive the ungritted roads earlier, but there’s something about pristine snow that, doesn’t just brighten up the landscape, but also seems to lighten the mood.
Children smiled this morning as they slid along the pavements and, although there wasn’t quite enough to force the buses off the roads and gift them an extra day’s holiday, it is uplifting to see kids actually experiencing snow. After an unsettlingly mild winter last year, the last month has seen the most snow around here in three years.
Hurrah: normal winter weather, essential to keep our ecosystems in correct working order and a welcome respite from the interminable months of wet, wet, wet, whatever the season, says me. Less selfishly, one of the few highlights from the end of my teaching career was witnessing 14 and 15 year old pupils gaze in wonder at the first sizeable amount of snow they had ever witnessed in their lives, in the early months of 2010.
Of course, slippery, icy roads are no fun for the elderly and infirm, but hopefully winter conditions do remind us to check on any vulnerable friends and neighbours. Equally, freezing temperatures take their toll on wildlife. But, keep the bird feeders full and you will be rewarded by a variety of garden birds, survival instincts outweighing their natural reticence, hungrily scoffing within a few metres of your window.
I’m not sure what’s in store, weather-wise, for the remainder of the winter, but in what may well be the last couple of months I spend in Middle England, I fully intend to savour the snowscapes as long as they last and record for posterity. I will look back on the blue tits feeding on the silvery branches of the budding magnolia with as much affection as I will remember the earthy geraniums and burgeoning Buddleia of high summer.
With plenty of striking pictures of the unexpected, but appropriately seasonal, weather of the last few days, it seems much more fitting to say goodbye to 2014 through images rather than too many words.
It’s certainly been an eventful year, with many unexpected twists and turns, not least as far as that perennial favourite topic of British conversation, the weather, was concerned.
The Weather: after the relentless rain (and the risible response of DEFRA and its erstwhile, hapless head, Owen Patterson) of the early months, spring arrived at least a month earlier than in 2013 and heralded a consecutive spell of warm, sunny days that stretched from midsummer right throughout to the end of October.
High summer in Middle England was a revelation, with overflowing hedgerows and bountiful butterflies (including a welcome return for the recently-rare small tortoiseshell) enjoying the Buddleia. And, even it was rather incongruous still to be enjoying tee shirt temperatures at Halloween, it certainly beat the usual wet and windy autumn storms.
Flora and Fauna: a settled period of sun didn’t just benefit the Lepidoptera and their habitat. After last year’s dismal showing, the bedding plants in their tubs and baskets were back to their radiant best. But the undoubted natural highlight of the year was the arrival of a young, fledgling robin, who took refuge in the garden, stayed for a few weeks, ate his way through several packets of oatcakes, learned to fly and came back each day to sing (for his breakfast, lunch and dinner). By the time he left for good his chest was beginning to redden and memories of those delightful days of late summer have been rekindled with each delivery of a traditional robin Christmas card.
Scotland: a momentous year for Scotland was also enhanced by a Mediterranean-like summer. The Commonwealth Games enjoyed early days of tropical heat that had visitors swapping their fleeces and umbrellas for sun cream and shorts. Glasgow Green resembled a giant beach and the heat lasted right up till the day before September’s referendum.
Strangely, the most momentous constitutional event of the last three centuries didn’t seem to be taken seriously until the eve of the vote by many in the rest of the kingdom. Although its outcome, despite the result, is far from clear, one lasting legacy will definitely be the images of 16 and 17 year olds in their school uniforms, queuing to vote in their thousands, after making an important, informed and mature contribution throughout the debate.
In a year of developments, some positive, some negative (the rise of the Greens has balanced to some extent the repugnance of Ukip) that have rumbled the political establishment, the positive engagement of young people in Scotland now seems, happily, to be spreading to other parts of the UK, with first time voters becoming much more involved in political debate.
Holidays: January was brightened up with another train journey to Italy, for what has become my annual trip to the wonderful Kokopelli Camping bookended by two overnight stays at the welcoming Windsor Hotel in Milan
For the first time, I was able to experience the dramatic mountains of the Abruzzo in winter and, although temperatures were more akin to mid April, there was plenty of snow on the tops and a day’s snowshoeing was one of the highlights of the holiday.
On the way back, I was also able to achieve another long-held ambition; seeing Leonardo’s Last Supper, in Milan. It didn’t disappoint. Usually it’s necessary to book online, well in advance, but if you are in the city out of season and are not part of a large group, try turning up at the booking office in person and be prepared to be flexible about fitting in individually when they have available space.
Post Commonwealth Games, the crowded vibrancy of city-centre Glasgow was followed by a few days camping in peaceful, pastoral New Galloway This idyllic region of south west Scotland is routinely overlooked or ignored even by other Scots. As a result, its alluring landscapes, dark skies and important history are complemented by quiet roads and uncrowded beaches. Throw in some thriving culture; an established artists’ town (Kirkudbright) foodie haven (Castle Douglas), Scotland’s book town (Wigtown) and you have the kind of place that I like to visit.
A few weeks later I ventured another 50 miles or so west to explore, for the first time the most southerly point of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway
Surrounded on three sides by the sea, with its traditional links with Ireland and its own mythical history, this is a magical place with a coastscape second to none. Yes, the wind does blow here, but the views are breathtaking and its wild and marine life abundant – on a short morning’s cliff walk, the paths were shared with a fox, two hares and an inquisitive deer.
Finally, with the weather still too good to miss, in September I embarked on a Spaceships Campervan journey between Edinburgh and London; an interesting experience to say the least
The most memorable aspects of the trip were discovering some excellent campsites; notably the alluring Highside Farm in beautiful Teesdale and the remarkably rural (given its proximity to London) and conveniently sited Town Farm near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire.
Culture: and, last but certainly not least, a mention of the books, films, art and music that enlivened the year.
Books – The Goldfinch (Donna doesn’t disappoint), Stoner (absolutely lived up to its rave reviews) and the joys of re-aquaintance with the wonderful Joan Wyndham wartime diaries
Films – Ida, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Imitation Game and Under the Skin (in approximate order)
Art – vying for first place and marking 300 years since the Georgian accession were the British Library’s Georgians Revealed and Let Glasgow Flourish at Kelvingrove, then another Kelvingrove gem celebrating the life of Alasdair Gray, plus an interesting Stanley Spencer exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery
Music – after a year of neglect, some progress was made in improving guitar grades, but must resolve to try harder in 2015
Epilogue: so 2014, an interesting and eventful year, rounded off in personal terms by finally putting the house on the market, in anticipation of moving back to Scotland. Who knows what 2015 will bring; I’ll keep you posted.
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’.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
If a week is a long time in politics, then just a few days can witness a sea change in climate, landscape and mood. Gone – at least for the moment – are the dank, dog days of late autumn, suddenly replaced by the sharp brightness of early winter.
Sure, it’s cold, but isn’t December supposed to be a month of short days and long cold nights? And the unbroken ice blue skies of the last few days have more than made up for any accompanying Arctic blasts of the wind.
One of the big advantages of flexi working time during winter weekdays is the opportunity to take advantage of the short window of ideal cycling time; after any ice has melted, but before the sun sinks too low and the 4×4 wags plough their way back to the school gates. Pick your roads carefully and on weekdays, you can also avoid the leisure traffic and the embarrassment of being overtaken by a peleton of Sunday morning mamils.
True, I will admit, this morning was just that bit too icy to risk riding before lunchtime and the biting wind was the Siberian side of north, but over the last week I have persuaded myself on to the saddle to take advantage of the cold, serenity and enjoy some of my best cycling days this year. Unlike in the so-called summer months it has been dry and still and the cloudless skies have revealed the full allure of austere, frosty-edged landscapes.
“Isn’t far too cold to be out on a bike on a day like this?” is the usual reaction of friends and neighbours when they see me taking to two wheels. Well, I admit it takes me an age to get geared up and ready to ride, but once I get started, I’m always pleasantly surprised how quickly I warm up and and the fear of sudden chill is the best spur to sustaining a sufficient level of effort.
And, in response to the second most common question I’m asked, no I don’t tend to wear THAT many layers. Trial and error have convinced me that if I wear more than three layers, I get too hot and they feel far too heavy. So, I’ve settled on merino base and mid layers, topped off by a micro down jacket, if very cold, or a winter cycling jacket in all but the most extreme days. Usually my winter-weight cycling tights are fine; if it is really cold, I wear some normal tights underneath. Add a neck buff extended over the ears and a pair of insulated gloves and, crucially, some fleece-lined bootees to keep my feet warm and I’m ready for the coldest of dry days.
My new bike has also come into its own over the last couple of weeks. Lighter and with a more comfortable riding position than my old Marin (and apart from a slight reservation about the brakes), I feel more confident on the Scott.
So, after the wettest summer I can remember, I’m more than happy that the weather has turned colder, and drier. I might have to dig out my mountain bike if it snows but, until then, I’ll wrap up warm and make the most of the shortest days of the year. Who would have thought I’d need my sunglasses more in December that in June and July? It really has been a strange year.
The shortest day is almost upon us and this, the darkest time of the year, usually with the worst weather and the most chance of colds and ‘flu, is also the time of least opportunity for most of us to get out and about.
But equally, it’s the ideal time of the year to plan for the spring/summer; next year’s holiday; a wish, or intention, of Munros to bag, coast to coasts to conquer, long distance trails to attack. Therefore, to keep us going over the winter, to recreate our experiences in sunnier climes and times, to find out more about places we want to visit, or re-visit, many of us spend more time reading about the great outdoors during the gloomy months.
But what do we read to keep our umbilical cord connected to the mountains, coasts and wildlife beyond our artificially warm and bright winter quarters?
Obviously, guidebooks, Rough, Blue and of other hues, for specific areas, plus cycling, walking and climbing handbooks, as well as factual information on wildlife, history, food, culture and topography will be obvious starting points. But, it was a childhood consumption of classics like, Ring of Bright Water and Tarka the Otter,that sparked my love of wildlife and determination to visit Skye/Knoydart and Devon respectively. Equally, the Iliad and Odyssey triggered a grander plan to explore Greece and her islands.
Well written (auto)biographies, particularly when they are first hand accounts of pioneers in fields like climbing, walking and cycling, are often worth reading. Jock Nimlin’s May the Fire Always be Lit tells how, in the 1930s, young workers from the Glasgow area escaped unemployment and harsh living conditions through walking, cycling and climbing, in the Trossachs and beyond, often equipped only with working boots and washing lines. Gwen Moffat, another climber, but from a completely different background, recounts her experiences as one of the few women on the summits in the 1940s and 1950s in Space Below my Feet. For present day cyclists (and anyone else interested in a good book), Rob Penn’s It’s All About the Bike has to be a required read.
But, for me, a good novel has always been the best introduction to the area in which it is set. A superficial selection could include:
North East Scotland in Sunset Song; the Cotswolds in Cider with Rosie; Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights; the Trossachs in Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels; the Cornish coastline in Rebecca; Exmoor in Lorna Doone, Dorset in Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles et al; and Sweden Norway and Denmark in just about any Scandinavian crime novel!
And, of course, we can add Wordsworth’s poetry for the Lake District, Burns for South West Scotland and Owen Sheers for Wales.
That said, you don’t need to spend all of the winter months wrapped in a book. When you do have a few hours spare over a weekend, or in the Christmas holidays, why not plan a literary-themed series of urban walks and cycles?
CharlesDickens’ London; Ian Rankin’s (Rebus’s) Edinburgh; Colin Dexter’s (Morse’s) Oxford; James Joyce’s (or Wilde’s, or Synge’s, or Yeats’) Dublin; AlasdairGray’s Glasgow come immediately to mind.
Recently, the Ramblers organised a series of walks based on films set in London, including an Ealing comedy circuit, and East End gangland route. Well on that theme, how about a Shane Meadows’ inspired mystery tour of the East Midlands?
However, if you like your pre-Christmas jaunt to be somewhere a little more magical than Uttoxeter, then what about a visit to the canals and medieval markets In Bruges, or make a Killing on some of those suddenly-trendy woolly jumpers in Copenhagen?
Add in a few favourite TV series – a Foyle’s War reconnaissance of the Sussex coast, or a Wycliffian trip around Cornwall perhaps – and the possibilities are endless.
More darkness means less time in the great outdoors over the next few months, but more time for reading and catching up with the latest movies and those you’ve missed. And remember, as with your trips to the great outdoors, your literary themed walks and cycles should always be planned around an appetising, calorie-fuelled pub/cafe stop.
What’s not to like?
Share your suggestions here for more Boot and Bike literature, or literary-themed trips.