Horatio Clare on the joys of a Welsh winter
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