‘Bleak’ Midwinter?

This year it feels like we’ve galloped towards winter without pausing for breath. Maybe I’ve just been too distracted to pay attention to autumn. It can’t be the weather, though November temperatures in the southeast were only slightly above the long-term average, which probably counts as a cold month by recent standards. December followed with plenty of sharply cold days and a breeze that set my face glowing as I cycled to and from the station in Newbury. On most of those journeys it was also pitch dark, or nearly so. Despite its proximity to the town centre, the canal path past our back garden can be particularly gloomy, especially on moonless but clear nights when light dissipates quickly towards the star-speckled depths of space. A little cloud or mist reflects enough light from nearby streets and houses to find my way home by; otherwise, the best guides are the snowberries that grow profusely either side of our gate and seem to retain light after dusk as though solar charged.

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Snowberries by our garden gate

This past weekend we made a surreal escape back to summer. The coast path above Torbay was far from any visions of bleak midwinter, aside from the sun’s failure to rise very far at all. Valerian and hogweed in flower; ornamental palm trees poking above garden walls—a lush green hybrid flora of exotic garden escapes and unseasonal natives to match the contrasting cliffscape of Devon red rocks and brutalist apartment blocks. On this coast winter is more about wind and rain than snow and ice. In recent years the landscape has been lashed by storms repeatedly until the less-sheltered parts give way and pitch objects as significant as major railway lines unceremoniously into the sea.

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Torbay, green all year round. 

Back in Newbury on Monday, the paths were once again treacherous with ice. Something about this time of year holds a similar threat of danger. Late December promises the return of light, whatever one’s religious or spiritual tradition; indeed, even the most secular folk cannot deny the slow increase in daylight hours post-solstice. Yet the failure to feel hopeful amid an atmosphere of mandatory good cheer can surely exacerbate depression. It’s tempting to succumb, cry humbug to the season, and skip straight to January blues. But I know that would make a poor start to a year in which there’s much I, well, hope to achieve. Instead I’ll be taking the usual refuge in food, drink and laughter with friends, perhaps some walks with no greater agenda than to be outside and breathe the air. Simple things, but uncomplicated pleasures in good human company remain the greatest source of hope for me. As a naturalist I might be expected to look for hope in the wild world instead, but the self-renewal of nature is surely a given without the interference of its most destructive species. If there’s no hope left in Homo sapiens there’s precious little left at all.

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Peaceful scene on the Kennet & Avon canal

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Newbury has its own pockets of permanent summer, like this sheltered south-facing wall in the town centre.

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