COLD COM­FORT

Ho­ra­tio Clare on the joys of a Welsh win­ter

Town & Country (UK) - - COUNTRY -

It was my first favourite sea­son; what child does not love snow, the lights of Christ­mas and the prom­ise of presents? Later, when girls were al­most all my thoughts, the short days of win­ter terms were the best – with nowhere of your own to go, the dark gives pri­vacy, in­ti­macy with any luck. The first hands I held and first cheeks I touched were cold, my first proper kiss in the fall­ing dusk, the frigid air push­ing shy bod­ies to­gether.

At home there was al­ways sheep farm­ing, which drives shep­herds con­stantly into the fields be­tween Novem­ber and March: win­ter is long in the Welsh hills. The nights are peer­less. Even bet­ter than a sweet and still sum­mer dark­ness, a sky shat­tered and crazed with stars and a moon that looked freez­ing, the glit­ter of frost form­ing or snow ly­ing, showed me the thrill and beauty of the sea­son. The smells, of cold, of the larch trees, of frozen mud and the lano­lin reek of the ewes in barns, of old hay and wood smoke are all win­ter to me too, along with the crypt-like min­eral dank of the coal shed.

The Fedwr wood was on our route to school, its un­der­growth in win­ter a re­doubt for in­sects and a larder for birds. Wood-pi­geons like lit­tle em­per­ors in their silken colours clat­ter­ing be­tween the ash poles, puffed up, the sea­son’s light de­scrib­ing ev­ery de­tail and tone of their plumage. As I grew into a pas­sion for bird­watch­ing, I spent win­ter evenings read­ing The AA Book of British Birds; be­yond the win­dows storm and tem­pest passed hardly heeded. Any ex­pe­di­tion to school or the fields was an op­por­tu­nity to watch birds, ex­posed, in the ab­sence of fo­liage and – it does seem to hold true – less wary than they are in sum­mer. A buz­zard on a tele­graph pole, un­both­ered by our car be­low, looked like a young ea­gle, legs yolk-yel­low, the beak shiny and the eye bright.

This win­ter I will walk the fields and hills by choice, look­ing for birds. Tak­ing plea­sure from the dif­fer­ent smells of the days is a wise, ther­a­peu­tic course. At some point I be­came more vul­ner­a­ble to the lack of light and set­tled rains of British win­ters, es­pe­cially in the North. I re­main wary of it but I ad­mire the sea­son, for its power and do­min­ion. In the me­di­ae­val pe­riod, a per­son’s life was mea­sured in win­ters, not sum­mers. It is a time to sur­vive the months, to en­dure the weeks, and to rel­ish in mo­ments and snatches. ‘The Light in the Dark: A Win­ter Jour­nal’ by Ho­ra­tio Clare (£12.99, El­liott & Thomp­son) is out now.

left and be­low: british land­scapes pho­tographed by harry cory wright

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