As I grow older, I swear the years turn faster and faster, taking me far away from childhood. Yet, when I was a child, all I wanted was to grow up, to be a grown up able to do grown up things in a grown ups world, which sounded exciting and dangerous. In the past year, strange times for all, so the seasons have galloped on, and I have watched the progression of green and wild things more closely than ever, by intention and looking.
I am lucky. My mother taught me this kind of attention to detail, on our walks, once or twice a day, ranging from our crouching village bungalow, out of the 1960s cul de sac that had been added on to a much older single street of houses. We would walk the length of a disused railway line, between our home and the next village, where my grandmother lived. All the while, my mother would be eyeing treasures in the verges and hedgerows, and pointing them out to me. Here are white violets and primroses, these are harebells, did you see the wren flashing into the hawthorn hedge? I wonder now if this connection with the natural world on an intense and personal level was my mother’s way of coping with life as an adult, and I realise that it is definitely my way of coping too.
It was hard to take our christmas tree down in the grey and biting days of January. My children pleaded for it to stay, and for the first time, I agreed that twelfth night might not be so important. The beautiful silver spruce, decked with tiny glimmering lights, and a rainbow of baubles made us very happy. The tree was a blessing in the sitting room, until the need for heating to be cranked up sent a shower of needles into the carpet, and into small socked feet. It was finally time for the tree to go back outside.
Our sitting room felt empty, and I felt the deep need for something else. Not just things to fill a gap, but an urge to turn the wheel of the year, to see the hope of new life shining up at me out of the relentless mud that seems to have bookended the year. I have followed a calendar of solar festivals for most of my life, learning of different ways of celebrating the procession of the seasons. As a curious teenager, I mined the local library shelves for traditions and folklore, searching for stories to live by. I taught myself to map the year through the small things, that are also the big things, the little nuances of life that really matter. Late January, I found myself watching the garden for the emerging shoots of bulbs, more keenly than ever before. We cannot grow snowdrops at home, so I make journeys to seek them out, and they are something I look forward to seeing with great anticipation – somehow, once I see a snowdrop, I know everything will be ok.
I live in a land of stories, and am lucky to be able to access anchor points in the landscape as readily as I choose. I love to go to favourite places again and again, seeking spring flowers in country churchyards, leaving a small offering at a magical holy well, ascending to the ridgeway to walk the land’s white spine surrounded by swathes of blackthorn blossom, that always seem pinker and brighter every year.
So, late January, after a supermarket trip, I travelled across the city, east to west, following the path of the sun, over bumpy roads to look for the markers of time that make me so happy. The past few weeks had seen snow and repeated rainfall, so the path I must take was flooded in places, and I took childish pleasure in driving through the spreading puddles, not quickly, but fast enough to to create waves and spray, though I only do this when there’s nobody nearby – I would hate to splash a walker or cyclist.
When I reached my destination, along a single track road, companioned with young trees, it was clear that I was in some kind of water land. The fields had receded, and gulls and geese swam and dived over what usually was grazing land. People were trudging the paths nearby in wellingtons and waterproofs, but I was fortunate to have the little churchyard to myself.
I love this trip every year. Usually I come with the whole family, the children delighted to know they are seeing the Treacle Well from the Alice in Wonderland stories, and treading in St Frideswide’s footsteps. Snacks and hot chocolate are compulsory. Sometimes I come alone, as for me, this is a trip that must be made, it somehow secures the year’s turning and maps where I am going. It is a special thing I do each year, and as I maneuvered the car to turn it around on the tiny lane, I was filled with anticipation of what I hoped to find, just behind the mossy walls that border the space.
I was glad to have come prepared in raincoat and boots, because the ditches, normally awash with flowers, were full of floodwater. Rounding the bend, noticing the bloom of rich lichens like misplaced yolks, I realised I was holding my breath, waiting for what would unfold, hoping. I am never disappointed, the snowdrops are there, of course they are, clumping around the base of well tended gravestones, spreading over the ground like a carpet of twinkling stars. There are not just snowdrops but shimmering aconites, cheerful little suns creeping close to the earth, tiny Tete-a-Tete daffodils, and heady Paper White narcissus, that bring me so much joy when I see them, and velvet crocuses in rich Cadbury’s purple gowns.
Every year this, and other spaces like it work their magic on me, as January sprawls on through weather fronts and depressing news. Whenever the world feels too much, I know that a glimpse of a little flower reaching up from the mud to the sun will lift my heart with it. I knelt to smell the glorious scent of primroses, that remind me so much of my grandmother’s cottage garden, making the knees of my jeans muddy – not caring. I am always completely caught up in the spirit of the place and all its stories, the tales it has held over time, the ones I have made with over my years of visits, and the heritage it holds for others.
Going to see the well head is always a treat, and I feel, every time, that I could fall into it and discover other worlds, where white rabbits chase time, and mad hatters proffer tea in delightful china cups. It is a special place, the holy well housed beneath an arch, with steps to take you down, to where the water bubbles up. Legend tells that here St Frideswide prayed and the water sprang up, healing, giving, helping her would-be husband to see again and realise the error of his ways.
On this day I saw something totally unexpected – often the water is low, but this year, the volume was so great that the pilgrims’ steps were flooded, and offerings floated up and processed in circles in a glassy square of liquid that captured the sky and everything in between. Offerings are an interesting thing. I see no harm in leaving flowers and fruits, I am less sure about objects and pieces of plastic that could harm the wild creatures who also live in these spaces. I had brought a tiny nosegay of flowers from my garden, winter jasmine, rosemary, some laurel berries and a full bodied hazel catkin. Someone had left a pineapple, which the well house wore like an eccentric jaunty hat. I stood in amazement, a little bereft that I could not climb down, yet pleased that the water had come up to meet me.
Moments like these are precious time, out of and in between my mundane world of schedules and planning, meeting everyone’s needs, sorting mountains of laundry, cooking meals and providing endless supplies of clean socks and snacks. I always tarry as long as I can, but when I had taken a turn around the space, admired the budding trees, and taken a sojourn beneath a magnificent yew , I saw other people coming to the gate and I knew that my time here was at an end, for the moment. I needed to take the spirit of it home with me, to fill the gap in the sitting room, where the christmas tree stood, a space waiting for something hopeful to help me map the days forward into spring.
I know we are halfway there, it’s now roughly six weeks until the equinox, when my family makes a full and joyous celebration of Perisan New Year. As I drove back along the bumpy road, it was busier. More people had come out to walk, and see the water. I wound myself back into the city, and go home to a zoom meeting, an errand for a neighbour and many other requests. Later that afternoon, I managed to sneak out again, in the opposite direction, alone for the second time in months. I had a plan, which I knew would work.
I thought of making the same trip last year with my mother for a special birthday, and how we marvelled at a tame robin and a sea of colourful flowerpots, holding precious plants almost as far as we could see. It was snowing then, now I was followed by cold insistent rain. There was hardly anyone in the garden centre, so I had my pick of the pots. Most people, it seems, choose to stay home on raw afternoons like these. I filled my arms and parted with my money, pleased to bring my gatherings home.
When I returned, my children wondered at the green leaves in pots that I set in the kitchen. My daughter watches them with hawk-like attention. Each day something happens. A stalk reaches for the light of the window, a small neck stretches. Bright yellow petals are revealed like fairy gold and we are all waiting for the joy of tiny trumpet like flowers.
As these bulbs give us their gifts, the earth moves on around the sun. We marked the season of growing light with a white cake covered in sprinkles, and stories of magical hares bounding through the now, the then and the always. We always make candles together, every year. I placed the flowers and our beeswax handiwork on top of the ancient and battered bookcase, to stand where the Christmas tree once held court.
In gentle candlelight, something shifts. It is not springtime yet, I remind myself we are still in the depths of winter, but we are ascending, back to the light and warmth of lengthening days. These flowers pushing up from dirt in vibrant plastic bowls bring us a different kind of hope, the dreams of better days to come, with sunshine and picnics, long walks around the parks and all good things. They will give us the simple pleasure of attention to the details of their unfolding, as we travel on through the season.
As I work at home, each day in the sitting room, I think of my mother, alone in another Oxfordshire town, and friends, nearby and further away, all watching the soil for green shoots , buds, and the tiniest markers of change. The flowers open and fill the lower floor of our house with scent, and I wonder how many people, over time, all over the world, have looked, and breathed in their auspicious perfumes, and felt thankful to be alive and in the moment, just for a short time.