We have been fortunate in my part of the world (Hay-on-Wye, UK) to have enjoyed a glorious Autumn. The colours of the leaves as they have turned have been stunning – and the weather has been mild with some sunny days which have added to the beauty. The season is now turning to Winter. I know this is not a favourite season for many but I quite like Winter. Well actually, what I like is seasons to be seasons! So there should be a gradual warming with new plant growth and lambs in the fields in Spring, warmth and lazy sunny days in Summer, glorious colours in Autumn, with a gradual cooling towards Winter which should be cold, crisp and with snow on the hills!
One aspect of Winter that seems to dominate conversation particularly in Britain is the weather! We have had our annual prediction of a long, cold, snowy winter and only time will tell what actually happens. If we do have such a winter I don't suppose it will be cold enough for the Thames to freeze hard enough to hold a Frost fair as happened in some winters in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was the time of the 'Little Ice Age' when winters were extremely cold. The medieval London Bridge had piers closely spaced together which meant the pieces of ice would get lodged between the piers and dam up the river allowing it to freeze. Locals would make the most of this and set up shops, pubs, and skating rinks. There were even football matches and games of bowls. The stall holders would put up tents, with fires to keep them warm. Of course there was always the danger that the ice would give way taking with it tents, businesses and shoppers. The last such fair was held in January 1814 which lasted five days, including such entertainment as an elephant walking up the river. With the coming of warmer winters and the demolishing of the old bridge frost fairs became a thing of the past.
Reading about the Frost Fairs reminds me of one of my favourite books – Winter Story by Jill Barklem. This is one of a series about the mice who live in Brambly Hedge. In this story snow comes to Brambly Hedge to the delight of the younger mice and the older mice talk of holding a Snow Ball. There hasn't been one for many years and only old Mrs. Eyebright can remember the last Ball held just after she married. The mice gather together and Mr. Apple announces that they must uphold the traditions of their ancestors:
When the snows are lying deep,
when the field has gone to sleep,
when the blackthorn turns to white,
and frosty stars bejewel the night,
when summer streams are turned to ice,
a Snow Ball warms the heart of mice.
Whilst the women prepare food for the feast, the men dig out the Ice Hall complete with ice columns and carvings. It looks magnificent lit by the Glow-worms. The mice are all dressed up in their best clothes for this grand occasion and feasting and dancing goes on until late in the night. At midnight the mice children are taken home to bed and then their parents return to the ball for more dancing until dawn when the ice is beginning to melt.
Some animals choose to hibernate during winter – and at times I can see the attraction! Their metabolic activity is reduced and they 'sleep' away the Winter months, emerging when the warmer weather returns. Cuthbert is just such a creature as we learn in 'Cuthbert and the Long Winter Sleep' by Kim Chesher and Illustrated by Yasuko Kimura . Poor Cuthbert wakes unexpectedly and can't remember why he'd been asleep. So he goes outside where he encounters a strange white world that he has never seen before. It's snowing and Cuthbert has never seen snow. He dashes off to tell his friends but they are all still asleep. So he tries to find someone to tell him if he too should still be asleep. This is when he encounters the Winter Weejees who explain that they only come out when it is Winter which is why Cuthbert has never met them before. Eventually Cuthbert returns home and to sleep where he dreams of the Weejees. Waking up again in the Spring he tells his friends about these creatures but they just laugh at him and tell him he has been dreaming.
For some people the sign that Winter is on its way is the migration of birds – both those leaving this country for warmer climes and those arriving from colder regions. At least 4000 species of birds are regular migrants and do so for different reasons. Some birds are passage migrants in that they stop off in Britain on their way north or south. They take the chance to rest and refuel before continuing their journey. Other birds are partial migrants in that they may migrate from some countries but not others. Starlings for example if bred in our country tend not to migrate but those from Eastern Europe will do so.
Every year Bewick Swans migrate from Eastern Europe to Britain and the first bird arrived at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Slimbridge on 11th October – the earliest one that has ever arrived. It is escaping the cold of the Russian Arctic but some say it is another sign of a hard winter for Britain as whenever these swans have arrived 'early' Britain has gone on to have a cold, snowy winter.
Shorelands Winter Diary by C.F Tunnicliffe is full of beautiful illustrations of the birds drawn by C.F. Tunnicliffe during one winter at his home on Anglesey. The book was published after his death but the text was taken from diaries he kept and follows on from Shoreland Summer Diary. There are a wide variety of birds shown from wild geese, swans and ducks to herons, from owls to ravens, jackdaws and many more. Perusing this would be a good way of whiling away a dark winter's evening.
There is so much more I could write about winter - more about the weather, about the traditional winter festivals or how plants cope but instead I'm off to find a pile of good books, get in supplies and a stack of wood for the fire so if this winter is as bad as the forecasters predict I can snuggle up and read!
Information about bird migration gleaned from www.rspb.org.uk.
Contributed by Catriona
(Published 24th Nov 2015)