Starlings seep and hiss from the chimneys. The sun is blinding, low in a blue sky, clouds just a white tinge at the horizon. We haven’t had rain for a while so the fallen leaves crisp as we walk. They are mostly a uniform dark brown now, clumping together in a soggy pulp in damp weather. Tree skeletons and holly leaves catch the sun. Cow parsley leaves push through the mulch. In the short cut that leads to the dene, a tree has been doctored, a cut branch now in logs beneath it. Rubbish has been cleared from around its base and the umbrella that has been there for years, filling up with leaves or snow through the seasons, is gone.
It is almost Candlemas. Another turn in the year, when the first fragile signs of spring appear. Usually I’m ready for the change, but this year winter has barely graced us with her presence. The old crone of the season has wrapped her furs around herself and decided to stay underground, occasionally sending out a few fingers of frost just to remind us she exists. I have hardly worn the warm coat I bought for the season. The frosts have been few and far between. Bulbs began sprouting in December and the birds have been calling loudly. Experts say we may have to say goodbye to winter as the climate warms, and the changing winter is already affecting wildlife.
A robin sings a delicate song. Blue tits chitter and flit between the trees. Two magpies clash over an old nest. A tree has fallen at the side of the bowling green. It is balanced on the fence, roots in the air and branches reaching for the green. The disarray of winter remains: shrivelled berries, ragged leaves, a handful of stinking Iris seeds in their pods. Somehow I had expected more signs of spring, given the lack of winter, but the spring flowers remain firmly beneath the soil and the trees are still naked.
The reeds are spun gold. Skinny fingers of willow drape the pond. It is full of activity. A flock of black-headed gulls roams between water and grass. Mobs of mallard drakes gather around the hens. A moorhen chases another, channelling water across the pond. The air is full of the gentle quacking of the ducks and the low cries of the gulls. People and dogs wander the paths and feed the birds. This is not a winter’s day as we know it.
A few days after Candlemas, winter pays a visit. The old crone whips up a storm of freezing wind, rain and sleet. But it all seems too little too late. In just a few days, signs of spring have appeared. A single pink cyclamen flower brightens the rubble of a wall collapsed by Storm Arwen. Crocuses sprout like small cups of honey and I see my first daffodil. I can’t be sad that spring has arrived, but I am sad for the season lost.
By late February there have been five named storms. Some unlucky areas suffer flooding and power cuts, a few have snow, but there is no retreat from spring. We walk through the cemetery at the tail end of Storm Franklin, the wind a soft roar through the trees. The grounds are full of windfallen trees, large and small. Chaffinches hop among grounded branches. Magpies squabble high up in those still standing. But mostly the birds offer a muted soundscape, as though cowed by the wind.
The light swings between sunshine and gloom. Rain is in the air; later it will rain all night. I hunt for hibernating ladybirds. Since Bug Woman wrote that they like to huddle on grave stones I have looked for them. I’m delighted to find some harlequins huddled in a crease of stone and orange ladybirds tucked into weathered letters.
But here, spring means snowdrops. Enclosed by graves, blanketing the ground under the trees, sprouting in small clumps and shimmering rivers. There are a few purple and yellow crocuses, but they can’t compete with the sheer volume of snowdrops. Luminous and almost transparent when the sun catches them, they are like pools of light. A stone angel boasts a bouquet, but snowdrops quietly adorn the home-made cross left for ‘Joe’. There is no doubt here that spring has arrived. There will be more storms to come. And more uncertainty. We wake the next morning to war in Europe and wonder, yet again, what the future will bring. All we can be certain of is that winter has ended and spring will always come.