Snow and ice, and all things nice

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The Independent Online
L ike everyone else, we were caught out by the sudden late stab of winter. For weeks I had been keeping an eye on the pundits who swear by 16-year cycles: because we had severe weather in 1946-47, 1962-63 and 1978-79 (they wrote), there was every chance that 1994-95 would be a shocker.

Events seemed to have confounded their predictions; and in fact the winter had been so warm - though atrociously wet - that spring had set in earlier than ever. Because the ground had never been thoroughly chilled, snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils had come up with unprecedented despatch; in the woods, primoses had long been in flower and the wild garlic was already six inches high.

Then winter struck. With us, the snow set in about tea-time, giving a perfect demonstration of the effect of altitude on temperature. Down in the valley the flakes were large and wet, melting as they hit the ground; 400 feet up on the plateau, with the air three or four degrees colder, they were dry and brittle and began to settle at once.

Late in the night, frost clamped down at all levels, freezing our troughs and farmyard taps, which we had not thought to turn off, and converting roads into ice-rinks. In our own lane, which climbs at an angle of one in four, it became impossible to stand up, and a friend took 45 minutes to ease his car down the half-mile of another hill into the village - a mere one-in-eighter - because his tyres were barely able to grip the glassy surface.

Morning revealed a scene of magical beauty. When I looked out across the valley, the fields were white, the woods above them silvery; and, as the first sun stole on to the laden branches, they lit up with a hazy pink glow. Later, as the sun climbed higher, they blazed like massed chandeliers, for every twig had been coated by a flashing combination of snow and ice.

After breakfast, padding silently up into the wood behind the farm, I found tracks ahead of me. Fresh feathers and a spatter of scarlet blood- drops showed where our resident sparrow-hawk had just downed a woodpigeon. Deeply indented slots revealed that a roe-buck had crossed the path within the past few minutes. In the fields above, fox tracks came and went in all directions. At the point where I re-entered the wood, a badger had squeezed under the gate and trundled down the path, pausing to make small, experimental excavations among the beech leaves beneath the snow, before going to ground in the sett at the corner of our land.

As if to assert my own feeling that spring had been no more than temporarily rebuffed, a lesser spotted woodpecker kept drumming crisply on a hollow tree. Brrrrrrrp, it went, brrrrrrp, its head hammering back and forth with a speed and force which one would have thought must scramble its wits.

Down in our own fields, I was amazed by the multiplicity of rabbit tracks. I knew that we had a few rabbits living along our bottom hedge, but from the footprints it looked as though the place had been over-run by an army of them. That is one of the advantages of a good snowfall: it reveals the extent of nocturnal activity, which normally goes unnoticed.

By midday the sun was striking hot, but the temperature was still below freezing, and the air had a positively Alpine feel. As always, our north- facing slopes fetched out the tobogganers from the village, and nightfall brought on another cracking frost. By morning - again brilliant - many precocious plants were looking decidedly sick. Whether or not wild garlic is capable of feeling sorry for itself, I would not like to say. I can only report that all those green spears, as they poked through the crusted snow, had taken on a slightly martyred appearance.

Two days later, we were back to normal. The snowman built by the tobogganers, originally with a figure which bore a striking resemblance to that of Norman Lamont, had dwindled to an insignificant pale blob on the horizon. The fields were green again. Rain was falling.

Is that it? Are two days of winter going to be our ration? Or will the 16-year lobby yet be proved right?