We have not had a bitter winter as we did last year, when snow and ice lay on the ground for three weeks at a time. It’s been quite mild, with hardly any of the glittering hoar frosts that usually run through January and only a little snow on the hills. But it has been wet and stormy and we have been hock deep in mud. The thing that wears away at the spirit is the lack of anything growing. At first, in November and December, this stark minimalism can seem quite delightful. The trees look dramatic and sculptural; the single robin stands out like a star actor, because there are hardly any birds around.
But by March, one’s very soul is weary of the nothingness. I suddenly crave green grass and leaves. I stare doggedly at the horses’ paddocks, willing something verdant to begin.
The grass is not yet arriving, and the mud still reigns, but, just as I can’t stand it any more, there are growing things. My hellebores are in their pomp, and the brave little winter viburnum is putting on a show. The snowdrops came two weeks ago and are particularly dramatic this year, bigger and bolder than ever before. The first daffodil shoots, which are only just arriving, are starting to poke through the thin turf as if they really mean it. Tiny, delicate, acid-green leaves have come out on my philadelphus. There will not be a leaf on a tree for a long time yet, but if you look closely, you can see the minute buds filling with life.
Birdsong has returned. I do not realise how silent winter can be until the birds begin to sing again. There is a proper chorus now, so that even the questing lurcher lifts his head to listen. Yesterday, I saw the first pied wagtail of the season. She flew low over the horses’ heads and came to a dramatic landing in the west paddock and preened and flirted about, as if delighted to be back. They go south in the winter, not to Africa like the swallows, but just over the border, perhaps to somewhere charming like Northumberland or the Lake District. The oystercatchers, who take themselves off to the coast, are also back, singing their gaudy songs all night like drunken sailors. They come here to nest and breed each year, and they are the official harbingers of spring. I also saw a perfect gang of black-faced gulls yesterday morning, milling about as if they were at a cocktail party.
It is not quite yet serious spring. But is the promise of spring. And it is like being given a present.