Of snow and saints

Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s

!8th century English nursery rhyme

I’ve never kept a diary of weather patterns but for decades now – apart from the five winters we spent in Asturias – the days around a family birthday on the 23rd of November have tended to bring us the first fall of snow and this year has once again lived up to that reputation. Although the weather has been bitterly cold, there was no snow in the forecast so it was a bit of a surprise to wake one morning a few days ago to a white and wintry world!

The good thing about snow at this time of year is that it is generally short-lived, the ground being nowhere near as cold as it will be in January and February when it is more likely to linger and pack down into ice. There was no great depth, either, just enough for a light covering of that sticky, crystalline type of snow that clings to everything . . . and makes great snowballs if you are so inclined.

After the blissfully dry, mild and still autumn weather we have enjoyed so far, this felt like a small warning shot across the bows, a reminder that we are heading towards winter whether we like it or not. I love the transformation that a snowfall like this creates, changing the shapes and patterns of the landscape and bringing yet another fresh perspective to the garden. After days of gusty winds that saw blizzards of leaves falling and swirling in pools of bright autumn colours, there was suddenly a softness and stillness to the morning, a shadowed landscape caught in the low level of morning light.

Wandering around and quietly breathing in the beauty of the morning, I was struck by several things, not least the way in which the holly trees have suddenly come into their own with their classic pyramid shapes, dark glossy leaves and bright berries: this is definitely their time now. They haven’t quite got the whole stage to themselves, though; several large oaks are still clinging to their leaves and the low sunlight made a stunning bright fire of them against the snow.

I was also fascinated by the tracks left by a wealth of animal visitors, their dark pawprints stitching wandering seams through the snow. I love the way they followed the new paths we have made, flowing and curving through the garden, backtracking and criss-crossing, weaving a tale of nocturnal busyness and secret activities we seldom see.

No such secrets from the birds who are feeding in what feels like their hundreds (honestly, I swear they eat more than we do!) at our new bird table. Last year, we muddled through with a temporary fix so this year I was determined to organise a more permanent table, the idea being to make one from scraps of spare timber. Frustratingly, despite plenty of wood lying about the place, there was nothing suitable for the job so in the end, we bought a locally made ‘build your own’ flat pack; we probably wouldn’t have bothered with heart-shaped fretting and a pretty blue roof ourselves but the birds seem quite happy and, combined with feeders hanging in the cherry plum tree, the table makes a decent feeding station for a variety of species. Having revamped the kitchen and turned the sink round so that it is under the window where it really should be (yes, yes, very conventional but far more sensible), I can now watch the greedy feeders whilst doing the dishes. At the moment, it’s the great tits who predominate; they are black-masked bullies to be honest, zipping in to steal the sunflower seeds at an alarming rate and surely expending far more energy chasing each other off than they gain from eating the food. I’ve rigged up a double bird bath at ground level using a couple of sturdy plastic trays I found lurking behind the rain butts (the kind you sit plant pots in) and they are hugely popular, especially with our resident flock of sparrows who literally divebomb each other like high-spirited children in a swimming pool. Such great entertainment. Who needs television?

The 23rd of November is the feast of St Clement. Before I pursue this line of thought, I should say that Christian saints’ days hold no religious significance for me and indeed, so many of them were martyrs that I don’t find their stories particularly uplifting either; I was born on the feast of St Barbara and there wasn’t a lot of joy in her life, let me tell you! However, I do like many of the associated traditions, particularly where they are woven through with strands of much older ways, of seasonality, culture, creativity and celebration. For instance, St Barbara is the patron saint of mines (amongst other things) and I admire how the Asturian miners famously lift their collective voices to her in haunting, spine-tingling harmonies. So, back to St Clement who incidentally is the patron saint of blacksmiths and – more appropriately for me – feltmakers, having apparently invented felt himself. As a child I learned to sing and play the English nursery rhyme game that starts “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s”, knowing it referred to the bells of various London churches; what I discovered more recently is that on the feast day, children would go from door to door asking people for fruit in exchange for songs, a tradition known as ‘clementing’ which is apparently still practised in some rural parts of Britain today. Historically, their gifts were more likely to be apples and pears than the expensive luxuries of oranges and lemons but I think it’s a lovely idea all the same. It also seems very fitting that this time of year marks the start of the citrus fruit season, their glowing colours, zesty flavours and Vitamin C the perfect antidote to our darker days and worsening weather.

In Asturias, citrus fruits were a local food for us but back in northern France, they are very much on our ‘global’ list again; they mostly come from Spain, although I have seen French clementines from Corsica in a local shop. I have been making oranges and lemons into candied peel to chop into my mincemeat and Christmas pudding mixes, and their grated zest and juice will also go in, to balance the soft fruitiness of apple from our orchard and mingle with the flavour of warming spices. There is something so very evocative about the wonderful smell of those ingredients and, although I’m no great fan of Christmas, these delicious traditional foods are completely non-negotiable! The first batch of mince pies will be made ready for my birthday at the weekend (better than a cake, any day) in the hope that the weather will be kind and we can head off to a local beauty spot on our bikes with a flask of piping hot coffee to go with them. If not – and, let’s be honest, the chances are the weather will be grim – then we’ll just have to enjoy them by the fire instead. Somehow, I think we’ll cope.

I’ve often toyed with the idea of having a ‘half birthday’ in the first week of June so that I could celebrate at a time of light and warmth, butterflies, swallows, roses and honeysuckle by way of a change. However, Vicky – whose actual birthday falls in that week – has reminded me that over the years, many of her special days have delivered appallingly bad weather and pointed out that at least in December I won’t be disappointed! Well, I suppose there’s truth in that and anyway, this year I have roses a-plenty at least. Several bushes have continued flowering throughout autumn and we have been enjoying little pickings of them in the house, still scented and beautiful (if a little weather-damaged) and an interesting contrast to the flickering flames of the woodstove.

The plant suppliers who sent us white rugosa roses in February instead of the red ones we had ordered are making good their promise to send 25 bare-rooted red-flowered plants as soon as they had them, so we need to choose some planting spots ready for their expected arrival next week. That will be a lovely job, so full of hope and expectation of scent and colour next year. Even though the white roses weren’t really what we’d wanted, the flowers were hugely popular with insects and there was a good crop of fat orange hips. I’ve been collecting them in the freezer to make into cordial but this week I decided that drying them for tea was a better idea (I don’t like sugary cordials anyway) and now have them sitting on a rack on the stove hob, like a tray of juicy cherry tomatoes slowly shrivelling into hard little nuts. Once dried, I’m going to blitz them in the blender then shake them in a sieve to remove the irritating hairs before storing them in a jar for tea-making. I love the simplicity of this method which I found on the Eatweeds website (a great foraging resource, well worth a look and listen) as there’s no need to faff about with scraping out the seeds and hairs. The rosehip tea will be a wonderful source of Vitamin C to see me through the winter and unlike the citrus fruits, this is one that very definitely counts as local.

Roger has been pushing on with laying the hedge, slightly easier now that the hazels have finally shaken off their leaves. He has left a beautiful holly tree at full height but had to cut a few small berried branches which was my cue to gather the prunings and make an ice lantern for our Yuletide celebrations. I wrote about making these lanterns last year, they are such a simple yet beautiful expression of the season and incredibly easy to create. Along with the holly, I added small snippets of conifer in various shades, mistletoe from the apple trees, ivy, rosemary and bay with rosehips, haws, cotoneaster berries and spindleberries for a splash of colour against the greens.

I’m hoping we will be blessed with a clear, still night when Sam and Adrienne visit from Norway at the end of this month (if they visit – I’m trying hard to remain optimistic in light of the current Covid situation) so we can wrap up warm, light the lantern and candles outside and share warmed mince pies and mulled wine or sloe gin. On clear nights, the starry skies here are truly stunning; with no light pollution and a wide arc of open sky, this would certainly qualify as a ‘Dark Sky’ region in the UK. I love to take the compost bucket down to the heap after dark, simply as an excuse to stand and stare at the myriad constellations of stars – so bright and brittle at this time of year – and the soft sweep of the Milky Way arching overhead. So much magic and beauty, such an amazing light show . . . and all totally for free.

On the subject of money, Black Friday epitomises everything I deplore about modern society: is it just me, or was the crass spendfest particularly obscene this year following hard on the heels of COP 26, with all its urgent exhortations to reduce consumption? I choose to ignore it and nothing would persuade me to buy in, literally or metaphorically, to the whole sad affair but I have to confess to indulging (unusually and by total coincidence on the actual day) in a little retail therapy all the same. Let me explain. Fast fashion is wasted on me; I wear my clothes until they fall to pieces and, as I spend most of my time in old gardening gear and/or overalls, I tend to squeeze a lot of wear out of everything. Many of the items in my wardrobe have been there for over twenty years and I wouldn’t dream of replacing them until they are no longer fit for purpose. Having conceded last week that some old favourites had definitely reached the point of no return, I toddled off to a charity shop on Friday to look for a couple of warm items to wear around the house . . . and struck gold. First, a pair of thick black skinny jeans which were brand new and still sporting the original shop label; then, to go with them, a ridiculously snuggly cream hoodie, barely worn and made from top quality organic cotton by an ethical clothing company. Perfect! My twelve euros is a drop in the ocean but at least it has gone towards helping people in need, perhaps even those in areas already suffering the adverse effects of climate change. Furthermore, whoever donated the clothes, the charity shop and myself have between us all helped to save two perfectly good items of clothing from the waste stream. It felt slightly subversive, a sort of ‘Not Black Friday’ thing to do – and if I manage to eke the normal amount of wear from my new outfit, I won’t be shredding them onto the compost heap until I’m in my mid-seventies. Blimey, now there’s a sobering thought!

One new piece of clothing I have invested in recently is a waterproof coat, my ancient old faithful having sprung so many leaks I actually stay drier in a downpour if I’m not wearing it. It has been retired to gardening duty and in its place, I’ve bought something shorter and more thickly padded, the idea being that if I can guarantee staying warm and dry then I have no excuse for not continuing to ride my bike through winter. It’s that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes’ adage and I’m happy to report that on a test run to the recycling bins in a particularly vicious north-easterly wind this week, I stayed snug as a bug. The coat is perfect, but sadly I can’t say the same for my hat which was whipped off several times, releasing my hair to fly around my head like some demented Medusa and allowing that icy wind into the depths of my exposed ears. It’s a fleece beanie I bought as an end of sale bargain on a visit to Hawkshead in the Lake District over twenty years ago and it’s done sterling service but I think it’s reached the end of the line, too stretched and worn around the brim to cling on to my relatively big head (!) and even bigger hair any longer. As speed is of the essence, I’ve opted against trying to spin yarn for a new hat and I’m knitting one from some superwash sock wool instead. For me, a good deep welt to fold up as a snug brim is key to keeping the hat on my head so I’m working in double rib and might even knit the whole hat like that as it’s such a great elastic stitch. There’s something very soothing about working the tiny stitches in rounds, like a giant cuff on my short sock needles, a perfect fireside activity for less than lovely days . . . and hopefully, icicle ears will soon be a thing of the past.

Back to the nursery rhyme, and the tradition of naming the songs of bells can be found beyond the churches of London, including in my native county of Shropshire. In the small town of Clun, where I held my last primary school teaching post, the simple bells encourage parishioners to hop, skip and run – very appropriate for the school playground, that’s for sure. For me, though, in this current spate of wintry weather, it’s a line from the extended original song that holds the most promise, even if the rhyme falls a little awkwardly on English ears: pancakes and fritters, say the bells of St Peter’s. Yes, ’tis the season to bake comfort food: let the great mince pie-athon begin! šŸ˜‰