Snow and reading

Finally some snow! Not a flake to be seen around these parts last winter but on Boxing Day we had a decent covering. So in the spirit of making the best of everything that winter has to offer and being mindful to go outdoors we went out with the kids and threw snowballs, made a snowman and did a bit of sledging.


Cemetery snow

Cemetery snow

After which in the evening, prompted by the Guardian piece on winter reads, I dug out an old copy of Tales of Terror and Darkness by the fabulously-named Algernon Blackwood and read his short story The Glamour of the Snow. It’s a good tale in the supernatural horror tradition about a man holidaying in the Alps who is lured into mortal danger by the spirits of Nature; ‘And something born of the snowy desolation, born of the midnight and the silent grandeur, born of the great listening hollows of the night, something that lay ‘twixt terror and wonder, dropped from the vast wintry spaces down into his heart – and called him.’ It’s just the thing for a bit of bedtime reading at this time of the year and it reminded me that in England at least there is something of a tradition of ghost stories at Christmas, the enduring master of which is M.R. James, a Cambridge scholar who wrote some classics of the English ghost story genre that can give a gratifying chill up the spine, especially when enjoyed by a fire with maybe a glass of port at hand. So reading ghost stories is going on the list of winter activities

Stay up 'til 3 a.m. and scare yourself silly

Stay up ’til 3 a.m. and scare yourself silly

There is some good M.R. James related stuff here

After this we headed south to visit family. We got no snow but I was ticking off so many winter classics I thought I would get a full house; great hoar frosts, misty woodland walks, frozen ponds, log fires, almost everything one needs for the perfect winter mood. I also got into some more winter reading with Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday (given to me by Jo last year), a ripping children’s yarn set in an ice and snow-bound Lake District. It’s enjoyable even as an adult and perfect for the season.

Frost in the forest

Frost in the forest

All in all it was a good reminder of the importance of getting outdoors and enjoying all these things while we can, to keep us nourished during the days of grey when the icy rain slants in almost sideways and the wind tries to rip the roof off.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite snow-time listens

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The top 10 winters in literature | Books | The Guardian

I haven’t been posting lately due to illness so this will have to do as a stop-gap. Merry Christmas to everyone reading this and see you in the New Year

The top 10 winters in literature | Books | The Guardian.

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Winter perfected

There are few people who do winter better than the Scandinavians, in my opinion. Not that they have a lot of say in it; their winters are long, dark and cold and the further north you are, the longer, darker and colder it gets. I remember being at a wedding in Jyväskylä in Finland one summer and the locals talking about how in the second half of the summer their thoughts turn to autumn and that having turned to autumn they inevitably turn to the coming winter. Sunset today in Jyväskylä was at 2.49 p.m. These are people who I’m guessing need to learn to love the dark.

It’s therefore not surprising that, in my experience at least, the Scandinavians seem keen to get into the winter spirit. I posted last year about the Danish concept of hygge and its importance in managing the winter

I am a big fan of hygge (or koselig in Norwegian) so am always happy when it’s time for the annual Julefest in Sheffield This was on the Saturday just gone, and although it is held in a primary school in the north of England it brings a welcome slice of Nordic life to our part of the world: a lovely Christmas tree in the main hall with stalls selling cushions, home-made Norwegian biscuits, hats, scarves, jewellery, cinnamon buns and gløgg (Nordic mulled wine). It’s just the thing to get me right in the winter mood, so thanks to everyone who makes it happen.

I have read a few articles recently about how the Scandinavians deal with winter, to see if I was missing something. This one is fairly representative and I thought it tallied well with what I have found works. It includes the importance of going outside, so in that spirit  I met up with a good friend to go for a hearty walk in the countryside just outside the city the day after Julefest.

Beautiful Beeches

Beautiful Beeches

We are blessed with beautiful scenery both within and outside the city boundaries so this was always likely to be an enjoyable day; a chill in the air and some bright weather ensured that this was the case. Even better, we ended up in a busy, convivial pub for hearty pies with thick-cut chips and mushy peas, washed down with excellent ales. A cold walk followed by a carb-fest and beer in a traditional pub with good company – that is pretty much the Holy Grail of winter, I cannot think of anything better. It is also a very Britsh hygge. So yes, definitely go outside – it can be lovely in itself and it makes going back indoors an absoulte treat.


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Some good seasonal and light/dark thoughts here.


Acers just beginning to turn leaf at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014 Acers just beginning to turn leaf at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

A tree turning leaf from verdant green to fiery vibrancy is like nature’s lightbulb moment – a flash of brilliance before winter sets in. The riotous conclusion, hidden since budbreak, appears from almost nowhere. Mother nature throws up her showgirl-skirt ruffles with abandon; flashes us her rainbow knickerbockers and chucks on her gaudiest baubles.

Cotinus coggygria Cotinus coggygria at Waterperry Gardens, November 2014

Plain old Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) and Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry) Plain old Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) and Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry) in a local hedgerow, Bedfordshire

This sudden flash of brilliance soon gives way to the sedate evergreens and minimal silhouettes of winter. November is a month when glow, hue and luminescence are at the forefront of the imagination; the absence of summer colours and sunny brightness gives way to the brazen blaze of senescent fire you find in autumn colours, the reds, oranges, yellows and pinks which light up…

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Even a dedicated TV dodger like me knows that the country has gone a bit baking mad. I’m not quite sure how many people who watch other people baking on telly then go and bake something themselves, but nevertheless the nation seems better able to maintain a conversation about raising agents than at any other time in my living memory. Citizens up to their elbows in flour, austerity, far-rightists giving people the creeps – it’s like the 1930s without the rural charm.

Anyway, I’m not sure how we missed this last year but baking seems to me an obvious contender for an autumn/winter activity. As with food generally there are seasonal versions, so whilst on a summer weekend we might, if we have the ability, present a light Victoria sponge to be consumed with dainty forks in front of the tennis, this time of year calls for something heavier and heartier to chomp down. I have this book which gets a lot of outings at this time of the year

photos2_070It has recipes for Bara Brith (a fruit tea loaf), Welsh Cakes, Cinnamon Cake, Treacle Scones and other delights. Making these is so comforting it’s a bad weather no-brainer; being holed up in a warm kitchen as a form of shelter from icy grey Welsh (or Yorkshire) weather, smoke from the hearth dissipating into the drizzle outside. After which you get to fill up on still-warm sweetness, the rain lashing against the window an essential counterpoint to your happy coziness.

This imaging works very well with something else that has been going on in my neighbourhood lately. A man who has bought and is renovating one of the old houses in the cemetery behind our house has been burning green wood from trees that had grown too close to the walls. For a few days there have been thick drifts of pungent wood smoke permeating the low mist that has characterised the last two weeks. These have woven together in a very atmospheric blanket behind which even the cemetery chapel has all but disappeared at times. I have neither a good enough camera nor the photographic skill to do this justice; instead I will tell you that it made me think of the charcoal burners in Russell Hoban’s excellent novel Riddley Walker:

‘Smoak and steam coming up in the rain from the harts and huts all huddelt they wer crouching in the wood like girt old shaggy wet naminals sleaping. The harts with rou backs and the huts with humps.

Murky weather features heavily in this unique post-apocalyptic, post-industrial tale with endless days of rain and ‘gurzel’ (drizzle). I’d recommend it to read at any time of year, but particularly now.

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Seasonal Limbo

Hebrew scriptures talk of a place called Sheol. According to Wikipedia “It is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life”. Alright, things aren’t that bad I’ll grant you, although I did pass through Doncaster twice yesterday.

Still, I do find myself in a state of seasonal Limbo. Which season is it right now? I’m really not sure. There are still some autumnal colours around but it’s pushing it a bit to claim that mid-November is autumn. Technically it should be winter but it feels too warm. Where are the crisp, cold days, with our without the low winter sunshine? I was in London on Hallowe’en and it was actually hot; I was cursing not wearing shorts. We definitely had a summer in the UK this year but rather than a distinct autumn we seemed to have an extended late summer instead, and now the climate doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with itself and is just kicking around in the fog and mist while it wonders what to do next. I have enjoyed the fog, it made even the flat and uninspiring East Yorkshire countryside seem mysterious and enchanted, but given that I am all geared up and expectant for another winter of wood fires, candles and hearty eating and drinking, this is not what I need to get me in the winter mood. It’s the annual Scandinavian Julefest in Sheffield in three weeks time and at this rate I’ll be going in a tee-shirt.

We did manage a proper bonfire night with friends and neighbours though, with fireworks, Yorkshire parkin, mulled apple juice and wine. I just need it to get cold.

This captures  how I feel at the moment, a sesaonal song about looking ahead to something new

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Gathering Winter Fuel

At the weekend I had what is becoming one of my favourite activities in anticipation of winter – gathering fire wood from the cemetery behind our house. At this time of year the local council thoughtfully prune some of the branches from the larger trees or cut down younger holly and sycamore and leave it for those of us with open fires or wood burners to come and forage for it, saving them the job of taking it away and giving us a free pass to cosy evenings cradling pints of ale or a whisky in front of the crackle and spit of last year’s haul. Last November 16th I wrote:

(It) feels that, in our agricultural pasts, once we had gathered the crops in we went through a process of gathering ourselves in, hunkering down for the winter with what we had managed to grow and store, trying to keep warm and well-fed.

This feeling has really stayed with me; thinking of winter as a mostly quiet and fallow season in which to ease off and enjoy the fruits and labours of the spring and summer really helped me to give it a positive place in my year. It may just be a romantic notion for city dwellers, but for me few things signify that gathering in and battening down than the gathering in of the wood that is going to keep me toastily tucked up in the back room while the cold bites down outside.  Inevitably this is tied up with imagery from Good King Wenceslas and European folk tales that have kept with us from childhood; this gives a person a sense of continuity with what was a more necessary enterprise in earlier times, even if these days it involves loading logs into a Vauxhall Zafira with the help of a small child in a Superman costume. The day after I did this, the clocks went back. In previous years this would have filled me with foreboding; this year I barely gave it a second thought.

Here is last year’s wood collection which is going to help keep me sane this year, as well as warm.


Now I just need the weather to get cold. I’ve been packing for a trip to London and have put some shorts in as it’s forecast for 19 Celsius. That’s not going to help me get into a winter mood. It is still officially autumn though, so it’s time to listen to this…


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