Richard Hollingum reflects on the gentle pleasures of January…
One advantage of these shorter days is that you don’t have to be up very early to get out and catch the sunrise. There is something special about being up and out whilst the rest of the world are laying in their beds, fighting with their alarm clocks and wishing for another five minutes under the covers. It is dark but with the promise of light to come. On the eastern horizon a faint glimmer of light, a line so thin that it is hardly perceptible. As you just get used to it being there you are aware that it has changed. The dawn is impermanent, transient. Perhaps we are always drawn to it (and sunsets) because it is fleeting; moments of colour and joy that change all the time and then are gone.
On a clear cold morning at this time of year, the frost in the air adds an extra clarity that you don’t get in warmer days. The thin line has become a red gash. The red expands into orange and then spreads into yellow. Above the ball at the centre, a special form of blue spreads out, a blue of crisp, hard, sharp steel, the colour of cold if there ever was one.
The yellow ball moves quickly to establish itself. It does not rise straight up but slides as if rolling along the edge of the land gathering energy from it to get bigger and brighter. It is the winter. It is the early morning. It is quiet except for a light rustle in the trees as the breeze wakes up and starts to cut the air. This gentle wash is loudly interrupted as a fight breaks out in a bush. Two male blackbirds are arguing. Over what is not clear but I suspect it is over territory and food. After a short spat one flies off and peace is restored. Overhead, a buzzard slides through the icy air, looking for thermals that are not there, and for breakfast, which is.
When we think about this time of year, we remember the highlights. Of childhoods filled with snow, of crispy, crunchy footfalls, and of damp clothes and hot drinks. Memory is a wonderful thing, especially as it builds a picture that is not always true. We have a lovely picture of winter, drawn by earlier writers, mixed with memorable incidents of our own childhood.
Alison Uttley recalls in The Country Child, the large snowfalls in January. Snowballs and slides on the way to and from school, toboggans to slide down the hills and warm welcoming lights pouring out of the farmhouse windows. Back home ‘wet and rosy’ covered in frozen snow, the rewards for the hard play outdoors was hot buttered toast and teacakes and the aroma of apples roasting in the oven, waiting to be covered in cream and then be devoured.
Mr Pickwick also feeds into our twinkle-eyed version of winter. In frozen and snow-covered Dingly Dell, Mr Pickwick is encouraged to take to the ice, something he has not done for over thirty years. Succumbing to the entreaties of his friends, off he glides at a speed that impresses the best of them and all goes well until a huge crack is heard. The rather corpulent Mr P had clearly been too much for the ice and through it he fell. Fortunately not much damage was done and we see a wet and cold Pickwick beating a hasty retreat to his host’s where no doubt warmth for the inner man will be sought as well as warmth and dryness for the outer.
Not much in the way of snow in Richard Jeffries’s world. A factual account from the late 19th century of a walk in the woods in the month of January gives a nod to the presence of snow but he is more interested in the trees and the birds. Like him, we have the fieldfares rising in groups, mixing with redwing. He also talks about the blackbirds that have travelled here to spend the winter away from the extreme cold of Scandinavia. We have a pair that are resident all year round who are joined in the winter by up to four pairs, arguing about the space and the food.
January for AG Street, writing in the early 1940s, was one of mixed blessings. A farmer, he did not want the long hard frost that brought work to a standstill, yet he did not want the usual option of rain either. This was a time of year to get a lot of odd jobs done around the farm as well as a time to clean and service the machinery and perhaps spend time in the garden.
The end of the day is dull. the brightness of the morning is now a memory and the light that was so bright then is fading fast even though the working day is far from over. On the feeders birds are topping up for the coming long cold night: chaffinch, green finch, blue tit, coal tit, great tit, all searching for the right seed, throwing what they don’t want out of the way. This is good news for the black birds, for the dunnock and for the wood pigeon that move around the base of the feeders, eating anything that comes their way. There is stiff competition at the moment though. The cold has brought a family of wood mice to shelter under a raised planter and they dash out, collect seed and dash back, hoping that they have not been noticed. One of them gets more fearless and strays a bit further. Rich pickings right under the back feeders but further from safety. The little brown mouse sits, nibbling. A waddling pigeon wallows into view. He looks at the mouse; the mouse looks back. Both carry on eating. Something startles the birds above and they fly off; the mice run for cover. The pigeon says it will just eat that bit over there – and there – and there – and… It might fly away, it might not.
There has been snow and frost and cold clear days and dark grey days. But January is also a month of hope, a month of quiet preparation. Not the frenetic getting ready but a gentle reminder that everything has not stopped, just sitting back and waiting for the right time. Sitting back, keeping warm, and perhaps reading a good book.