Winter, underrated. By many, if not most people, too complained about, too full of grumbling over frosted cars, dankness, dark, and anticyclonic gloom. Christmas shopping. January sales. Yuck, yuck, yuck. With my scrawny frame and in all likelihood poor circulation leading to a susceptibility to cold and damp, and a barely veiled contempt for commercialism and advertising ghastliness, I would be on the side of the winter dissenters.
But I love the winter. I love its silences and emptiness, I love ice, snow and storms, I love the vibrant life that comes with a season of celebration. Not to mention the many birds which wing their way here to join in: it is the birds who truly appreciate a British winter for the relatively benevolent season that it is. I love even its two-faced nature: winter can be an old friend, all cocoa and log fires, and robins singing in the country lane. But it is also bitter, cruel, and hard, the winter against which Ted Hughes’ tractor struggled into life, “raging and trembling and rejoicing”.
Speaking of poets, you may not know that I once won a snow-themed haiku competition. Here’s my entry:
Snow is falling
Like UCAS forms on my desk
Time to buy a spade
Laugh you may, but that stroke of genius was worth a bottle of champagne.
I went in search of somewhat more meaningful, visual winter poetry this morning, and found it out in the wilds of what I like to call the Hampshire Alps. A hard frost had fixed everything in position – every gully and track in the mud, every branch of every tree. Hillsides and skyline alike were washed white, blue and silver. Four or five ravens gave the frozen wastes their voice, croaking with impossible gravity from some ancient place. Chaffinches and yellowhammers lined the hedgerows, chirping and buzzing cheerily, whilst two hundred woodpigeons clattered away from the treetops, snapping twigs and scattering startled partridges below. The whole landscape was liberally sprinkled with winter thrushes – fieldfares and redwings, refugees from the deep Scandinavian cold. I scanned a line of bare spindly bushes, taking them in and counting them off – redwing, redwing, fieldfare, redwing, shrike, fieldfare.
Hold on a moment. Shrike! For me the ultimate winter birding bird, the great grey shrike – he, or as I suspect it was from the lightly streaked flanks, she, sat stark against the pale sky, neatly turned out in cold steel grey, white and black. She hopped down to snatch up an unfortunate invertebrate from a branch below, hooked beak snapping rapidly on her prey, then briefly resumed her blackthorn-top vigil before flitting away across the downs. The all-too-scarce ‘butcher bird’ adds superb drama to open country in winter: a true touch of wilderness. I might have been out on the tundra, struggling for survival (the cold was beginning to penetrate my Wellingtons, after all), but this being domestic olde England I was able to retreat indoors for tea and biscuits instead, passing many a smoke-wreathed country cottage and roaring bonfire along the way home. Two sorts of seasonal poetry in one morning: the barren and bleak; the homely and the comforting. A perfect winter walk.