The Friday before last, I was hauling a bumper crop of library books back to Reading town centre on foot. Being a now-dedicated on-foot birder, I had binoculars with me, of course (I’m rarely without them nowadays, for leave them at home and something interesting will show up and you won’t be able to see it properly), and, out of curiosity or perhaps a sixth sense, raised them to a small bird vanishing into a laurel clump on Whiteknights Campus. And bless me if it wasn’t a firecrest. The same species that I spent hour after hour waiting for in the cold just two years ago and here I’d seen one almost by accident. This was a Very Good Thing anyway, for by any sensible definition firecrests are definitely in the top ten most beautiful British birds, and they’re certainly a favourite of mine. Then just a week later I got one of my other favourite things, a good fall of snow. Call it Lucky Fridays.
Snow in Britain is usually accompanied by one part childish excitement about a deposit of frozen water and another of tiresome grumbling about our national inability to cope plus talk of weather-induced triple-dip recessions. I rather enjoy it all. Any change to routine feels good for the soul, and it’s nice to see folk out and about simply for the pleasure of it, as opposed to the usual commuting or dog-walking or jogging, all of which excursions have some other driving purpose.
But wildlife genuinely struggles, it being a lot harder to find food when every snack-laden surface is made inaccessible by a dense layer of cold stuff. Fieldfares have been driven into my neighbourhood for the first time this year, desperately seeking food in the relative warmth of suburban gardens. The campus chaplaincy centre’s tame robin has mounted a vigil outside the door, occasionally busking a sweet refrain before flying up to the window ledge and peering longingly inside. I sincerely hope my firecrest – who is impossibly tiny, lighter than a ten pence piece* – has not succumbed to the cold.
Worrying about the plight of my feathered friends is about the only guilt snow-love induces in me, however, for if I’m honest threats to the ‘UK PLC’s’ bottom line (was there ever a more vomit-worthy nickname for the country, as if the Land of Hope and Glory was nothing but a supermarket or insurance broker?) feel irrelevant to the fortunes of all but the wealthiest of us, and the prospect of travel chaos, provided it doesn’t delay my long-suffering long-commuting wife’s return from work, doesn’t bother me at all. We could all do with learning a little patience, after all.
Therefore I welcome snow with arms flung as wide as I can get them, clad as they are by about five layers of sleeves and a thick pair of gloves. I revel in the transformation of dull grey January into a blinding Narnia-esque winter wonderland, reserving special praise for the way snow creates a double of every object, each twig freshly frosted as on these trees near my house. Setting the abundance of white aside, the real magic of snow is in the sound, the creak of a shifting snow-pack underfoot, and the deadening, insulating properties that hush road noise and voices alike (if not the plagues of screaming youths which have beset our street right from the weather’s onset). I hadn’t realised just how silent snow is until I dragged myself on my hands and knees, dignity in tatters, into a freshly made igloo. In that cosy space, all sensations were muffled. Voices from the outside were reduced to a distant murmur; the only clear sound my own breathing as I crouched in dim blue-grey stasis.
I could have stayed forever. But in this universe governed by entropy, nothing lasts. The snow has been beating a gentle retreat since the moment it arrived, retracting on the grass, collapsing from rooftops and dripping into impressive icicles at gable edges, decaying on the roads into a grey mizzle of slush and occasional dangerous black ice. By the end of this weekend the show will, for now, be over. At least the birds will be having an easier time of it. And perhaps my house will warm up just enough that I don’t have to sit here blogging with a scarf wound tight around my neck.
*In US measures, about the weight of a nickel.