In the grip of a proper winter

It was fascinating to see evidence of extensive nocturnal activity printed in the snow ...

Bets on a white Christmas in our area would have been money down the drain; but New Year was another matter. On the last morning of 1996 I awoke to find the valley glowing silver in brilliant moonlight, with a blanket of snow laid smoothly over the ice.

When I left the house at 6.30am, on the way to my deer-stalking grounds, the air was sharp enough to sear my lungs, and the lanes were treachery personified, even for a Jeep in four-wheel drive. Along most of the 15- mile route the snow was virgin, but when a single set of wheel marks showed that the vehicle ahead of me had performed several figures of eight before hitting a chunk out of one bank, I took things even more steadily.

When snow is lying, it has the effect of advancing daybreak: the light, reflected from the ground, seems to come up earlier, and this, combined with my slow passage, meant that I arrived slightly late on the scene. Deer that had been feeding out on sheltered fields were already back in the safety of the trees.

As always under snow, the woods were transformed. It was as if the weather had staged a giant X-ray, for the white covering on the ground laid bare the bones of the forest. Looking into steep banks from a distance, I could see detail never visible on normal days: hollows, ridges, badger setts, fallen trunks.

Twice, also, I saw a small group of deer: grey, rounded shapes, with a texture indescribably yet definitely different from that of their surroundings. But in that intense frost they had an overwhelming advantage, for they were standing still, and I was on the move. Creep as I might, I could not advance quietly: every footfall on iced-up leaves crackled as loudly as if I had been walking on cornflakes.

Attempts at stalking were hopeless; but it was fascinating to see evidence of nocturnal activity printed in the snow. The deer had moved around a good deal, feeding off their favourite bramble leaves. Fox tracks led everywhere - lines of elegant, single prints - and badgers had been digging down into the leaves in their search for worms or insects.

Back in the village, turmoil reigned. People had abandoned their cars and walked to the shop, and the postman, unable to drive up any of the hills out of the valley, was distributing mail by hand.

At home, tracks showed that we had entertained numerous prowlers during the hours of darkness. Foxes had paraded through the farmyard and across the lawn. Rabbits had bobbed all over the fields.

The most laborious task was that of smashing the ice on water troughs. So thick was the crust - 3in in the middle, 4in at the edges - that only a heavy, wood-splitting maul would do the job. Then it was a question of carrying out buckets of hot water, so that the sheep could get a drink before it went solid again.

And yet, in the evening when I walked along the valley, I saw how treacherous ice can be. The static contents of our troughs had been frozen hard for days, yet the mill-pond, through which a stream runs, was open at one corner, kept clear by the small yet constant movement of the water. When I threw a pebble, it fell straight through the ice, which was no thicker than cardboard.

The lake downstream was in a similar state. The ice that covered much of it was strong enough to bear the 21 resident greylag geese, but any human venturing on to it would have gone straight through.

New Year's day dawned exactly the same: another crunching frost, another diamond-bright sky, the snow still lying, the Siberian wind still blowing, and the cold so intense that ice had formed on the inside of some window panes. Now more than ever I was glad that I had a goodly store of seasoned firewood, ash, oak and beech. When I brought in three basketfuls and let the wood-burning stoves rip, the labours of the summer seemed infinitely worthwhile. The challenge now is to keep ahead by laying in supplies for 1998.

As 20 intrepid starters gathered in the village street for Ron the shop's traditional New Year death march (ultimate destination, the Old Crown), everyone was stamping feet and flapping arms. But once we had moved off into the hills I believe all were agreed, deep down, that it felt natural and right to be starting the year in the grip of a proper winter.

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