Scenes like this are becoming increasingly rare in the UK. What’s happening to our traditional winters such as that captured in John Clare’s heart-warming ‘January’ poem from his ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’?
Winters of old
A fresh fall of snow has transformed this scene (above). Previously unnoticed tracery of the trees is now full of ghostly beauty. Each branch and twig highlighted with its cover of snow. A pale low winter sun tries to shed a bit of warmth on the scene as it shines through the trees, providing a picture-book view to please any photographer, artist or poet. A walker wrapped up well enjoys the prospect with a brisk walk. This sudden transitory ‘blossom’ of snow bedecks the trees, hedges and roadside verges. These won’t be white again until the spring blossom-time and those clouds of frothy May cow parsley.
“When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,”
At least it used to be like that during the ‘Little Ice Age’ of Shakespeare’s day. Before the modern comforts of central heating and double glazing I can remember clustering around the log/coal fire in the evenings. Waking up with windows frosted on the inside, and with frozen pipework in the wash basin.
With the unwelcome prospect of having to go outside and cycle to school or, in later years, drive to work and negotiate icy roads with banks of snow piled at the roadsides and treacherous footpaths.
Time to ‘blow one’s nails‘, thaw the ‘frozen milk‘ and throw one of ‘Tom’s fresh logs‘ on the fire, and long for curtain-pulling time in the evening to keep out the cold.
But except for the ‘Beast from the East’ last year in the north, winters like this seem to be disappearing. Here in the South of England we have not had any real snow since 2010. The fun of snowmen, sledging, and snowball fights are unknown to many modern southern children. I heard of one local family who went on a brief visit to Stockholm just so as to see a real ‘white’ Christmas!
Yet the cliché for winter is still a snow scene on the calendars and Christmas cards. But this is becoming increasingly unreal.
Due out in January, these ‘Early Sensation’ daffodils have been coming out in December in recent years. ‘Sensation’ indeed! But also an indicator of climate change.
In Jim Crumley’s ‘The Nature of Winter’, the chapter ‘Whatever happened to bleak midwinter?’ remains deeply disturbing in the light of the refusal of several of the biggest nations and greatest polluters to recognise climate change. Jim returns to this theme throughout the book. A naturalist living in Scotland he is well placed to notice the disturbing changes in the natural world as global warming increases.
“A breeze drifted in, bearing greetings from what’s left of the Arctic sea ice” he comments wryly as he refers to Scottish ski resorts often unable to open through lack of snow and quotes alarming statistics about the melting of the Greenland icecap.
John Clare’s ‘January’
But today, despite global warming, ‘withering and keen the winter comes‘. It’s time to pull the curtains and throw more of those logs on the fire, warm our hands and hearts while we listen to the beautiful reading of this shortened version of John Clare’s ‘January’, from his ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’.
To hear this poem click here . (Sound starts in 15 seconds) Or if you prefer there is a version without the music, though personally, I love the Delius Suite here.
We feel the cold as the boys skate on the frozen lake and the shepherd and his dog return with the other workers from the fields, keen to get back to the warmth of the cottage. In Clare’s usual way we feel we too are being drawn in from the cold outside to the warmth of that cottage fire with supper cooking on the stove.
When first published ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’ was not a success. We wonder how this and the rest of his beautiful poetry could have been largely overlooked and forgotten for over a hundred years. Clare is now one of our favourite poets, and rightly so. He’s my favourite too.
Thanks for your company. Keep warm this winter!
Top featured photo – ‘Chiefswood Road in winter’ – by Walter Baxter – geograph