IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

The recent spell  of cold weather had me wondering – what USE is winter, and whether it is like WASPS, whose only function appears to be to annoy us?   I am reminded of a little rhyme I read over 30 years ago in a Scottish newspaper, I think as part of a cartoon:

Winter’s came.

The snow has fell.

Wee Josie’s nose is froze as well.

Wee Josie’s frozen nose is skintit.

Winter’s diabolical, intit?   

But then of course I went on to think, it’s not just a plague upon us.   Despite having – and I don’t know quite when or why or how – morphed into an ‘old’ woman (or maybe even an old woman) who doesn’t like icy weather in case I fall and break my other hip – there are some wonderful things about winter.

I have lived in Sussex for 22 years, and in all that time, I do not think there has ever been a fall of snow so sudden and so deep as fell early  this December.

Some years ago, when our now departed cat  was quite small, she arrived unusually in my bedroom in the small hours.    She pounced on my stomach, licked my face, tickled my nose with her whiskers, and was clearly in a state of excitement, urgently anxious for me to get up and see to something – look, it was morning.   Dismissing her urgency as a mere desire for breakfast, I refused to budge, and eventually she settled down beside me, thawing out her frozen feet on my warm flesh.   It was only when I got up and looked out on the garden that I realised the cause of her astonishment.   There had been a fall of snow, which she had never encountered before.   So urgent that she was able to open doors normally closed to her, she had come cold foot to tell me that a white, freezing, powdery stuff had mysteriously arrived and had covered everything and she was sinking up to the tops of her legs in it in her own garden!   Meanwhile as I’m opening the back door to look out, the cat is marching beside me with a distinct I-told-you-so expression.

Although winters do seem to be getting colder again, they are as nothing compared to what I recollect from my childhood in Scotland.     Then I used to love the winter and remember my astonishment – rather like the cat’s – when I ventured out early to our outside toilet and discovered not only the whole word magically transformed into a beautiful snow-scape, but an enormous drift of snow blocking the door to the loo.

I loved how the snow fell thick, deep and silent and how if you turned your face up into the falling flakes they seemed to draw you in to an enchanted, dancing but dangerous  world, and you felt slightly dizzy and disoriented.   I loved how the world became silent and cut off, just you alone.   I have walked in Banffshire in freezing conditions from Macduff to Banff across the old bridge over the beautiful River Deveron, and the sea water in the bay was frozen at the edges.   Another cold year, people skated on the Forth and Clyde canal, and when eventually it broke up in the Spring, the ice was feet thick.

I loved how the snow told stories.    I could see where my father had walked off down the valley to work.    (The year before I was born, which had been a particularly severe winter, he had been working helping to clear the railway track, when the snow was so deep that, according to legend, they ‘hung their jackets on the tops of telegraph poles’;   and was caught in a white out blizzard while walking home – when the tendency is to walk in circles until you collapse from exhaustion, and if you stop in a blizzard you will die – but he remembered there was a wire fence on the road, so guided himself to safety by feeling his way along the fence posts.)   When we ventured out to feed the birds, my mother would point out to us how you could see by their tracks where they had been looking for food, and we could see how a fox had leapt the wall into our orchard, and made his way out through a tiny hole by the gate.

 

Perhaps because few houses were centrally heated, it seemed far colder within.  Often there would be ice on the inside of the windows, and you would with the heat from your finger and your breath make a little eye-hole to peep out on the frozen exterior.    Ice would form on water left in the sink.   Our mother would call us to bring our clothes and dress hurriedly before the fire.

Then my brother and I would build a snowman, or go sledging.   My father had hand built us a sledge – I cannot remember if my brother had a separate sledge, for I do remember we would ride with him in front of me while I held the steering rope, but this may just have been in a go-faster exercise.    This sledge was quite high off the ground, so we did not get too wet, and it had strips of metal on its runners which my father would wet in the evening so it was frozen and slippy by morning.    The sledge was heavy, and though I as the elder had the privilege of steering, I also had to tow it back up the hill, but its weight made it very speedy on the downward run.    There was a small stream to the side and at the bottom of our run, so it was imperative to be able to steer and stop.   When the snow eventually disappeared, for a long time afterwards the marks of our sledge runs could still be seen in the grass.   This was another of the many things about us that annoyed the red faced farmer.

When my children were small, occasionally I would deem it too icy to drive and we would walk to school with me pulling the two younger children on possibly the same sledge, while Joanna had the dog’s lead.   In the afternoon, I would make scones just before I left to collect them, and we would return to the house which would be warm and fragrant with baking.   The children would fall upon them and devour them, jam oozing out and staining their faces.

In my own early schooldays, we had a stove in our classroom and the teacher would put our wet mittens to dry, so the classroom would fill up with the smell of wet (and sometimes singed) wool.    She would thaw out our frozen milk near the stove, and as the day came to a close, we would huddle round its comforting warmth to listen to the story.   I do not recall school closing owing to bad weather much at all, and I can remember walking to school on the road because the snow plough had piled all the snow waist high on the pavements.   I suppose in those days more teachers walked to their school, and therefore there was not the present difficulty with driving in to work.

When the Spring came, my mother would sigh and say (with mild surprise),  We have survived the winter.    Now that I am older than my mother then was, I know what she meant!

And finally there was the magnificence, the awesome majesty of winter starry skies as infinite and dizzying as snowflakes themselves.    In one year only, sometime in the Fifties, we could see in Angus the terrible beauty of the Northern Lights, which was an uncommon sight so far south from the Arctic.     The beautiful constellation Orion would hunt the skies and the cloudy Milky Way would arch over all.   I would stand, my breath smoking, marvelling.   If I was lucky, a very large owl would glide past me, his huge eyes in his great round face registering my brief presence, as he silently went about his business of the night.   Although an outside toilet may be an inconvenience, there are wonderful things to be seen on the way, in the deep solitary darkness of night or the milky light of dawn.

And I after all am a Sagittarian, born on a winter’s day with the hunter Orion powering through the Northern sky.   I can hardly be a Winter Queen and not care for winter, can I?   So here’s to winter, that period of darkness and withdrawal where secret things rest and grow, to blossom in the spring. 

As Shelley said, If Winter come, can Spring be far behind?

The photo above is by my brother.   His photostream link is:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/7309715@NO8/ .

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About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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