We’re properly in winter now.
The garden’s looking soggy and down-at-heel, the last vestiges of the passing year’s growth represented only by the odd forlorn and yellowed leaf still clinging on. Trees are bare – Struwwelpeter, reaching for the sky. Autumn tones – that rich array of russets and oranges and purples and browns – have grunged down to a less-than-heady mixture of taupes and muds, although the drabness of the palette does allow those red berries, so beloved of our winter thrushes – redwings and fieldfares – to shine through. Those fresh, tempting piles of autumn leaves are but a memory, replaced by slushy mulch – treacherous to the unwary walker. Recent rain has muddied the paths in the local park. I skirt the worst bits, taking the grassy routes where possible, only realising too late that the lush greenness is deceptive. Wet feet, an integral part of winter.
At this time of year I have to remind myself to get out for a walk. Daylight hours shorten inexorably – it seems to get dark about ten minutes after breakfast – and it’s all too easy to get stuck indoors, especially with dull skies and squally showers around. But there’s a lot to be said for a walk, bracing or otherwise, not least because you somehow feel you’ve earned whatever it is you reward yourself with on return: crumpets, cake, a glass of something or other with a deep ruby colour and a heady vapour you can get lost in.
It’s Christmas Fair season – at least ours has the decency not to spell it ‘fayre’ – and the throng is heaving, drawn by the heady attractions of artisanal everything. We don’t yet have the temperatures to match (those will be coming next week, according to the forecast), but as I walk round I keep on getting a whiff of the smells of winter: toasting chestnuts, wood smoke, mulling spices. I briefly curse the slowness of buggy-pushing strangers, then remember it’s the season of goodwill – that child bashing into you knows not what it does, don’t kick it over the souvlaki tent. I take a short cut, commiserate with an affronted woodpigeon, reassure it that all will be back to normal tomorrow, and wend my way past the usual mix of stalls, feeling vaguely sorry for the less busy ones, but – selfishly – not sorry enough to throw £25 at them for a pair of salad servers, no matter how beautifully crafted.
The charms of the Christmas fair are many – but so too are the charms of the solitude just two minutes away. The song of the robin is the soundtrack as I trudge home, enhanced by the crepuscular dashings of mini-murmurations of starlings. There was a flock of about twenty redwings knocking about the place throughout last winter – always a pleasure to encounter them rootling around in the grass and then rising as I approached, to keep wary watch from a nearby tree – but they’ve been AWOL so far this year, almost as if they don’t understand my deep need for their reassuring presence. They’ll turn up at some stage in the next few months, though. They’d better. Last year, during that late cold snap we all had to call ‘The Beast from the East’ – as if weather only counts if it’s given a snappy name – they came to the garden in search of food, which gave me a chance to make use of the small pile of forlorn-looking apples in the fruit bowl: too far gone to be appetising to humans; not rotten enough to compost. The redwings, and a brief fieldfare, lapped them up – possibly to the chagrin of our resident blackbirds (their cousins), who didn’t get a look in. Or maybe the blackbirds were living by the familiar edict, ‘Family Hold Back’.
The winter months seem long now, as they stretch ahead of us. But despite this natural pause for breath, the girding of the loins for spring’s explosion, there are already signs of the turning of the seasons – catkins dangling, buds pushing through, snowdrops quivering with expectation just below the surface. Amidst the hubbub of the winter fair, bright yellow gorse flowers offered a glimpse of the future.
But everything has its time. The shortening of the days is nature’s way of telling us to slow down, to hibernate, to hunker down with a mug of hot chocolate and ease ourselves into relaxation with an old film or a book or a jigsaw puzzle.
But more often than not we don’t listen, the relentless rhythms of modern life at odds with our more fundamental needs. We should heed their call more assiduously.
If these rhythms, long and slow, are reflected anywhere, it’s in the kitchen. It’s a time for deep, hearty stews, crisp winter salads (a recent hobby has been finding things to do with the plentiful cabbages emerging from the allotment), the gentle puttering of a rich sauce on the hob. During winter, more than any other time, the kitchen is the heart of the home, offering warmth and solace. It’s about now that I decide, apparently unprompted, that baking would be a good idea. And it’s almost worth putting a casserole in the oven just for the therapeutic value of the aromas wafting through the house all day long. More winter smells: red wine gravy, orange zest, baking spices.
And before we know it, with the taste of brandy butter still on our palate, we’ll be knee deep in primroses and narcissus, and egging on our garlic and broad beans and purple sprouting to be big enough to eat, and then the first chiffchaff will be chiffing and chaffing from a tree near you, the redwings and fieldfares will disappear, and all of a sudden we’ll be deep in spring. You just watch.
Nature – slow, steady, relentless.