Despite the huge changes that are playing out in our country at the moment, it’s important to recognise that, as far as nature is concerned, this week witnesses a point of perfect balance on the journey through the wheel of the year. Night and day are again of equal length and in perfect equilibrium but we are on the cusp of transition. From now on, the year begins to wane.It will soon be time to focus on our inner world, to reflect, slow down, make plans. But before we do that, there’s time for one more party.
We have an equinox child with a birthday this week. Well, not so much a child as a young woman, about to embark on her first solo adventure to university. The garden is full of reds, burnished orange and gold and there’s plenty to harvest. Harvest suppers and flower and vegetable shows are being advertised. The mid day sun is still hot on our backs but there is a nip in the air at dawn, after dark and whenever the sun hides her face behind a cloud. I want to throw a party; the kind of party that takes place in the woods or the garden, with sweaters and blankets, fairy lights strung between the trees, lanterns, a campfire and a long communal supper table, the kind that local chef and foraging queen Beth Al Rikabi arranges in the nearby woods. (See pic).
Now is the time for completing projects, clearing away and letting go of what is no longer wanted or needed as we prepare for winter’s time of reflection and peace. I find it much easier to clear clutter in the autumn than the spring. It is also a time to plant the seeds of new ideas and hopes which will lie dormant but nourished in the dark, until the return of spring. I have plenty of fruit to harvest and preserve and a box of bulbs arriving to plant. Gardening keeps me in tune with the wheel of the year. So does walking. At this time of year there’s plenty to forage – wild damsons, sloes, rosehips, elderberries, blackberries, hawthorn berries and conkers. Our kitchen windowsill already has a few in a jar. And if you want to know what to do with conkers, in true Blue Peter style, here’s one I wrote earlier.
Beltane – the start of Summer if you’re a Celt – and the beginnings of all sorts of outdoor shenanigans. It may have brought the first rain in weeks – always a bonus if you don’t have to water your seedlings in May – but there are stirrings within me to cross the threshold, get outside, move more and be less reflective and more outgoing than I have been over the Winter and Spring. This move from reflective to outward-looking is an annual event for me. It lasts for six months until the end of October, when I want to batten down the hatches again and stay at home more. Over the years I have learnt to listen to my body and my mind and to accept that this is part of my psychological make-up. It keeps me centred, grounded and content. I don’t fight it anymore. Wisdom and acceptance has been the gift of aging.
Yesterday we went for a wander round nearby Iford Manor Gardens to admire their tulips, breathe in their fabulous array of woodland wild garlic and commiserate with them about the wisteria blossom, which had been killed off by the frost. Today I indulged in a bit of retail therapy at Great Chalfield Manor‘s May Day plant fair. The bluebells are out in force in the garden and in the woods around about. We have a new fire basket to sit around on the terrace of an evening over the coming months and I have limited amounts of marking to do this weekend. All’s right with the world.
The Beltane festival is one of the great fire festivals when cleansing bonfires are lit and cattle are prodded out of their comfortable winter lodgings and driven into the freedom and opportunity of summer pasture. I’ll be prodding my year 11 students out of their comfort zone and towards the opportunities of the GCSE exams. Well dressing, Morris dancing, Maypoles, handfasting ceremonies are all traditional May Day pursuits but there are a number of traditional ways to celebrate Beltane at home, of course.
Dress in Green – Too bad, I went early. Yesterday’s attire was green.
Stay out all night – You must be joking. I can barely stay awake past 9 o’ clock.
Conceive a new project – Already in hand.
Dress your home and/or altar with greenery– Do pot plants count? My focus is on the garden at this time of year.
Dress a tree. Hang ribbons from its branches, each ribbon represents a wish or prayer. – More our kind of thing when the children were little. Spending time with the trees in the garden,ensuring they’re growing well must be good too.
This is the festival of Flora. A little jug full of flowers grown in the garden will lift the spirits at any time of year.
Make some Hawthorn Brandy – Why wouldn’t I?
So easy. You will need a 375ml bottle of brandy and at least 225g of hawthorn flowers, plus a little sugar to taste (up to 125g). Pick the flowers over carefully for bugs. Wash and dry them. Mix the ingredients together, shake well and leave away from direct light, for a couple of months. (This is where I am smug about the recently acquired capacious pot cupboards. So much more room for preserving like this.) Shake every day for one week and once a week for two months. Strain into sterilised bottles and enjoy. Hawthorn is renowned as a tonic for the heart.
‘Twas a beautiful full moon last night – the seed moon or paschal moon so called because, well, it’s sowing time and Easter. I always find full moons amplify my emotions and the urge at this time of year is to take courage, seize the day, clear the clutter and make a fresh start. So that’s what I’ll be doing.
This time of year is practically perfect for noticing what parts of your life have run their course, letting go of whatever weighs you down and keeps your life out of balance. Easier said than done, I know but also remarkably freeing. It’s in the quiet moments that enlightenment truly floods in – like at 6am this morning outside the church door with a dozen or so friends and neighbours. We lit our candles from the firebowl and proceeded into the dark church to welcome in Easter Day once more. The reflection of Lent is over; the pain and sacrifice of Holy Week is done and we are free to move forward, albeit with a little uncertainty at first. But confidence will grow. Work-life balance is something that definitely needs attention. I hope that by Easter next year I will have spent more time with my family and less time marking piles of exercise books late at night in the kitchen.
When you’re too overloaded at work to properly celebrate the Spring Equinox then you’re honour bound to go large at Easter, right? I love the opportunity to mix celebrating the old ways and an important Christian festival. It’s what the early Christians did after all. There are rituals associated with every school holiday but the ones in Spring always seem so hopeful and expansive. The family is back together for a few weeks; walks and picnics to local beauty spots are once more; the garden has come through the winter and is full of potential and there is a sense of perfect balance on the journey through the wheel of the year. The days are getting longer and warmer, life moves outside and the energy is expansive and exhuberant. I need that sense of renewal right now. If you live in the countryside the symbolism of the Spring festivals is all around – hares, eggs, chicks and nest building.
We’ll be collecting twigs to make up our Easter tree, baking simnel cake and chocolate cake, walking at Stourhead, Lacock or Great Chalfield, attending a dawn service on Easter Day and celebrating a couple of family birthdays with a special Easter tea. There are seeds to sow in the garden, garden furniture to repaint, spring cleaning to do and plans to be mulled over. I’m spending an hour in the garden with a notebook and a hot cross bun – powerful Christian symbol of resurrection and Celtic Cross, two Equinoxes crossed by the two Solstices, the four seasons, the four Sacred Directions of North, East, South and West and the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water with Spirit at the Centre. The circumference represents the cycle of the year, the circle of life, with the still point of balance at its centre. And you thought it was just a tasty treat spread with butter?
Christmas seems a lifetime ago; COVID has reared its ugly head again at home and in the classroom; my marking mountain never seems to get any smaller and every time I want to get out in the garden, the weather turns or I have too much school work to do. I have been in danger of losing my sense of perspective and, worst of all, my sense of humour. BUT the start of Spring is just around the corner; there have been two magpies in the garden for the first time ever; the snowdrops are blooming. This beautiful photo from a Facebook friend reminded me to check out our snowdrops at the bottom of the garden this weekend. I hadn’t spotted them until now, what with leaving for work and getting home in the dark every day. A tiny habit which reset my internal barometer from stormy to fair.
I’ve written about the start of Celtic spring – Imbolc – before. I started this blog thirteen years ago at this time of year around Candlemas when I was looking for a new project. The urge to embrace the green shoots, shake off the winter blues and start new projects, spring clean, clear clutter in the house and in the garden is strong but I’m going to have to resist for the time being. In the garden it’s probably a good idea to wait for warmer weather anyway. Pollinators are often wintering in dead leaves and hollowed out stems so it’s best to let them bee (sic). In the house, clutter clearing as my husband sorts through the endless contents of my in-laws house moves very slowly. The major spring cleaning work this year has been internal in the letting go of ways of being and working that are no longer fit for purpose and are certainly not conducive to wellbeing.
I’ve set myself a long-term goal. By Spring next year I hope that much will have changed about the way I spend my time, my priorities will be different and I’ll feel more grounded. I’m in it for the long haul. Evolution not revolution. Not my usual approach but all the better for that I think.
I’ve never been one for the upscaling of festivals and a blatant disregard for seasonality. No strawberries in December, no birthday weeks and definitely no Christmas all year round. The beauty in being a Celt with a passion for the ancient festivals is that there is something new to celebrate every few weeks. It brings a rhythm to life which is grounding and healthy.
January may be dark and drear but it is an opportunity to bring an end to Christmas by celebrating Hen Galan or Twelfth Night, perhaps in Tudor style or in a more homespun fashion. You may even go wassailing. I’ve only recently discovered the Holly Man of Bankside, which combines many (or all) of the traditions of this time of year. Bedecked in greenery, the main man arrives over the Millennium Bridge in London to the accompaniment of Wassailers and mummers who perform a traditional play featuring St George. After the play, cakes are given out and those who find the concealed bean and pea in their cakes are crowned King and Queen for the day; a procession then makes its way to the George Inn on Borough High Street for more dancing, mulled wine, the Kissing Wishing Tree and storytelling. What more could you want from a winter festival except for an orchard of your own, a recent snowfall and all your neighbours coming together to look forward to a good harvest later in the year?
All being well the Bankside festival should be tomorrow at 2pm. The festival is free and goes ahead whatever the weather, as festivals should. We’re not in London any more but I can definitely see the attraction. You might go if you’re in London and it’s safe to do so. In COVID times you might recreate your own festival in the garden, embrace the atavistic, bang a few pots, drink mulled cider, wave goodbye to Christmas and look forward to fruitful times ahead.
You can’t top a country Christmas. Somehow the values of the season – simple, slow living in the company of family and friends, hunkering down beside a crackling log fire, sharing hearty meals, long walks, good books and big skies are rooted in the country. Country folk are masters of upholding the family rituals of years gone by and the cost-effective creativity of homemade gifts at the expense of unrestrained commercialism.
I stumbled upon a series of programmes on catch-up – I suspect made by the Countryfile team – about Christmas in the country. It was a comforting watch in spite of the uber-styling. Nigella clad in a scarlet coat and pristine wellies walks an adorable dog through the woods then returns to her fairylight-festooned kitchen grotto. She quickly whips up chocolate and pistachio treats to be shared with impossibly attractive, jolly friends around the garden firepit as the snowflakes flutter down. My life is less styled, more homespun and mud-splattered and yet there have been a wealth of perfect country Christmas moments over the years.
Many of the pleasures of a country Christmas are in the preparations for the day itself of course: making a door wreath from foraged greenery; drying orange slices to hang on the tree or to adorn gifts; baking an enormous Christmas cake or popping a batch of mince pies in the oven to the strains of Carols from Kings; making chutneys, piccalilli, sloe gin or cherry brandy to give as presents. And whilst Christmas Day is a day for family, Christmas Eve and all the days between Boxing Day and Twelfth Night are full of delights to be had further afield. Some of my highlights over the years are documented here.
Nativity Plays – Long before The Vicar of Dibley filmed the iconic pet service and the Netflix ‘Nativity’ loop existed, we held a nativity play in the stable of a local farm. Candle lanterns, straw and a range of farm animals are a health and safety nightmare obviously. Somehow we got away with it. This year’s nativity took place on the village green in the drizzle using the wooden shelter as a stable. Many children came dressed in their nativity costumes, joined in and it was all the better for it.
Carol singing – singing features significantly in any country Christmas. Whether standing around the tree on the green or wandering around the village with an accordion and charity buckets it’s good for the soul. A bag of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges to share is optional.
Candlelit Crib services and Midnight Mass – There’s something quite magical about little children singing Away in a Manger in candlelight on Christmas Eve, even if you are praying not for peace on earth but that your toddler doesn’t set light to the hair of the child next to them with their taper (hands protected by a cardboard square a few inches beneath the flame). As I recall this is the reason we have a large collection of sealed candle lanterns around the house. Gradually during the service the crib figures are set in place. I remember fondly the year when we were asked to deliver the baby Jesus to the crib as the parents of the youngest member of the regular church congregation. It proved a far more significant moment than many people would have realised as our infant son was much-longed for and arrived after a series of miscarriages that everyone we knew were completely oblivious to. Midnight Communion services also hold a special place in my heart. Heading to church after an evening of Monopoly to meet up with friends and neighbours and welcome in Christmas Day; then home to see if Santa has remembered where the contents of the childrens’ stockings have been secreted.
Boxing Day Boules – Whilst a sea swim is underway in my native Pembrokeshire, in our part of Wiltshire the village turns out for the annual boules tournament on the green. By 10am on 26th the green is marked up and cordoned off and teams of four challenge each other in a knock-out tournament. Gluwein flows, university students at home for the holidays reconnect, grandparents pass on tips to their grandchildren and teenagers take on their parents. Children are keen to show off new toys, bikes and scooters and then the whole village repairs to the pub for sausage rolls and a leisurely pint. Occasionally this lasts all day and includes choruses of Alouette led by one of the more merry village elders, perched atop a bar stool.
Morris men and mummers plays – the village morris men (and women) are always keen for an opportunity to jangle their bells energetically around the village on Boxing Day and work off the excesses of Christmas Day. There’s plenty of hospitality for them too from villagers who appear out of their houses with plates of Christmas cake, cheese straws and the odd nip of whisky to ward off the cold. This year there was a traditional mummers play too. I remember at least two village pantomimes after Christmas too and a vivid emerald green costume in which I created the role of Fairy Liquid. Happy Days!
New Year’s Eve safari suppers – a particular highlight for a number of years was the village safari supper on New Year’s Eve. Couples agreed to take on a starter, main course or pudding for six (four and themselves) and someone with more tact and organisational skill than me managed to achieve the impossible. The Russian roulette of not knowing either what you would be eating, where or with whom until minutes before was the perfect way to see out the old year and welcome in the new. Having spent the evening visiting a different house for each course by midnight we were all upstairs in the pub comparing culinary experiences, singing Auld Lang Syne and hugging each other. Of course there was the year when our main course hosts presented the first vegetarian option they’d ever cooked ( fish pie – no kidding!) with great ceremony and my co – conspirators produced Oscar-winning performances to keep our hosts out of the way whilst I fed my portion to the cat and the magical millennium eve when we’d just found out I was pregnant and couldn’t let on.
However you’ve spent Christmas this year, I hope you’ve been able to reflect on happy memories of years gone by and made a few new ones. This is our first year without any of our parents being alive and with three grown-up children in the house. Time moves on, ready for them to embrace some Christmas traditions of their own and what better place than the country?
From time to time I miss the buzz of Christmas in the city……ice skating at Somerset House, a wander through the Christmas market in Trafalgar Square, authentic pizza and gelato in a busy eatery in Covent Garden, the fair on the South bank, shopping (for books, smart boots and the odd sparkly party dress) and lights.
Lots of lights.
A few years ago we all took a trip on the London Eye between Christmas and New Year on a crisp, sunny day. This year the weather was grey but the lights were just as bright.
A Boxing Day walk is traditional; in more recent years around Stourhead. It’s here that we’ve walked off the Christmas excess of roast potatoes, our own bodyweight in cheese and, this year, a raspberry roulade that would have fed the entire avenue. We’ve been there on crisp, cold days with grandparents – now achingly no longer with us; with friends when the snow was melting; on grey days, just the five of us when clouds hung low and gloomy. We’ve completed reindeer trails with our three lively pre-school explorers and imbibed gluwein or hot chocolate beside the Christmas tree in the thatched cottage with them transformed into teenagers who raced ahead together, chatting or sporting headphones. There are dozens of happy memories woven into the fabric of the place. Rarely though has it felt less Christmassy than today.
Perhaps the Christmas spirit had been packed away carefully by the National Trust staff until the after-dark Christmas light event. It’s hard to sparkle all day long when the weather makes it feel more like October. Three cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ (I have one in the garden) put on a brave show near the temple of Apollo however, as an aide memoire that we have just celebrated the Winter solstice and there was room for a mince pie or two in the cafe. Finding it difficult not to roll my eyes at the conversations taking place around us about how keen people were to dismantle Christmas “now that it’s over” I popped into the shop to pay for the last cornus in the plant section and carry it home. A celebration of Christmas 2021- still at its height in our house – and of those yet to come.
Driving back home in the late afternoon, the mists were beginning to weave and curl through ancient forest on either side of us, caressing the gnarled bark of ancient oak and ash. There’s still midwinter magic to be savoured if you open your eyes and your hearts to it.