A feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

But as the Springwatch 2019 Almanac reminds us, February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

presian-nedyalkov-445146-unsplashSYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Perfect time for a winter’s tale

JANUARY always seems the bleakest, dreariest, greyest month of the year.

But for anyone feeling down in the mouth about the lack of sunshine or suffering a bout of the New Year blues, help is at hand.

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The 2019 almanac from the BBC’s Springwatch team provides a timely reminder that spring is around the corner – and in the meantime offers a host of tips of ways to step outside and make the most of the British winter.

The good news begins with a table of daylight hours: true, it’s a little depressing to be reminded that at the start of the year sunrise in London is after 8am and sunset a whisker after 4pm. But flick ahead to the next chapter and you’ve got pretty much an extra hour of daylight to look forward to in February.

For now, you can take advantage of any mud or snow on the ground to look out for the tracks of some of our more surrepticious wildlife, from hedgehogs to mink, weasels to water voles.

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The bare tree branches make it easier to spot visiting birds and you can always take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which has been monitoring the drastic decline in our bird population since 1979.

The sharp-eared can listen out for the vocal exchanges between little owls or barking calls of flirtatious squirrels, while more intrepid winter walkers may head to the coastline on the lookout for treasures washed upby winter storms.

The chapters are not a day-by-day guide to the natural calendar, but a series of snippets of seasonal delights, with occasional offbeat and quirky facts thrown in for good measure.

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You can find out about an ancient ceremony in Herefordshire to banish evil spirits, for example, or learn some of the score of different regional names for the humble woodlouse, or chiggywig.

Along the way there’s time to recall the horrors of the Big Freeze of 1963 or how the red kite was brought back from extinction to become a familiar sight once more, soaring on the thermals over the Chiltern Hills and elsewhere across the country.

Before you know it, you’ll be in February – the shortest month of the year, with Valentine’s Day a reminder that nature also has an extraordinary array of courtship unfolding during the month.

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True, it’s a little early to say spring is on its way – but the almanac provides a perfect way of keeping the winter blues at bay until those welcome longer days arrive.

The Almanac 2019 by Michael Bright and Karen Farrington features a foreword from Chris Packham and is published by BBC Books at £12.99.

 

 

 

Nature duo reach for the stars

THERE’S an easy chemistry between Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan that always makes them a delight to watch on screen.

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It helps that the pair have known each other for so long, “growing up” together over the past three decades, because this is the sort of TV magic which you can’t create artificially.

They first met back in the 1990s when Michaela joined the Really Wild Show, taking over from Terry Nutkins as one of the main presenters. The pair clicked instantly and have spent many of the intervening years renewing their on-screen partnership on Springwatch and its seasonal spin-offs.

Adored by fans for their cheeky banter – which has also led to BBC bosses ticking them off on occasions when the innuendos have become a little too saucy – the pair were reunited for a surprise Christmas special that found them setting off on a quest to uncover the wonders of the winter skies.

The trip takes them from the wilds of the Arabian Desert in search of the fabled Star of Bethlehem to the opposite weather extremes of the Arctic Circle in the hope of witnesssing the magic of the Northern Lights.

“I’ve worked with many, many male presenters over the years – but with Chris there is instant chemistry, that little spark of something on screen,” Michaela told the Mirror last year.

“We both really enjoy working together, we work well together and we have a lot of fun.”

It’s a winning formula for television and what has worked so well on Springwatch translates easily into this exploration of celestial wonders.

Mishaps with camels, sandstorms and snow sledges create a chaotic backdrop for their journey from Jordanian desert to Arctic tundra, with some rare oryx, friendly reindeer and welcoming bedouin herders helping the duo share a little festive spirit along the way.

When the Radio Times asked the pair to identify each other’s most attractive traits, Chris mentioned Michaela’s “unwavering optimism and joie de vivre” while she referred to his intelligent humour and expansive knowledge – “not just about wildlife but all sorts of other random things”.

Perhaps it’s that mutual respect that is the secret ingredient which makes them such an appealing duo on the small screen. For anyone who missed the Christmas Eve special, Chris and Michaela: Under the Christmas Sky is available on BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks, with the promise of a new Winterwatch series to come from the Cairngorms later this month.

Beyonder holds litter ‘audit’

THE BEYONDER is holding a ‘litter audit’ across South Bucks to help assess the best way of planning a clean-up campaign in the area.

Editor Andrew Knight has written to local parish and district councils asking for information about the scale of the litter and fly-tipping problem and for information about how current resources are organised.

The initial area covered stretches from Marlow to Denham, Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross, Chalfont St Peter and Chalfont St Giles. It includes the whole of South Bucks District, along with parts of Chiltern and Wycombe district council areas.

Mr Knight said: “It’s a beautiful part of the Chilterns which includes three country parks but there are some through roads which are badly affected by littering and some tiny back routes which suffer from occasional fly-tipping.”

The issue has been getting increasing national exposure, most recently on this year’s BBC Springwatch series, when Michaela Strachan spoke to a number of groups in Bristol about their efforts to combat plastic pollution.

DfFhmjFXUAEZuoW.jpg largeCOTTON BUD CRACKDOWN: Michaela Strachan meets Natalie Fee in Bristol

Meanwhile Michelle Medler  in Kidderminster recruited hundreds of helpers from youngsters to pensioners to join her Facebook group litter pick-up squad.

MICHEELECLEANING UP: Michelle Medler and fellow volunteers in Kidderminster

Now, to work out the scale of the problem in the Chilterns and the best way of tackling it, The Beyonder has contacted a score of parish councis asking what they are doing to cope with litter and fly-tipping, what problems they are encountering and how much it all costs.

Approaches will also be made to the three district councils in South Buckinghamshire, which are responsible for waste collection, and the county council, which looks after the highways and deals with fly-tipping complaints and waste disposal.

The survey follows consultation with campaign group Clean Up Britain, which recently launched a pioneering year-long anti-litter project in Leamington Spa, and Peter Silverman, whose Clean Highways website has long campaigned for the Highways Agency to do more to tackle litter on local motorways and motorway slip roads.

Mr Knight said: “Although our circulation area stretches over quite a large area it made sense for us to start off by assessing things on our doorstep, where we can see the scale of the problem for ourselves.”

The online magazine hopes to speak to countryside rangers, ramblers and dog walkers as well as campaigners and the relevant councils, with the aim of drawing up detailed plans for the best way of volunteers being able to play a part in tackling the problem.

For more information, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk or via the Facebook group, The Beyonder.