Winter light

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
December 2017

Steffie Shields celebrates the Christmas season for stimulating light and winter walks.

In the deep midwinter, dealing with Christmas, for a few optimistic, highly-organised people, is as easy as a walk in the park. For most, the first hint of shortened daylight hours brings pressure – so much to do, so little time to gear up enthusiasm for organising parties, writing cards and present-buying. Socks for granddad, hand cream for Aunty Iris, board games and chocolates for the grandchildren will not wash these days.“Let’s go for a stroll” seems a crazy suggestion.

Time was, everyone used to walk to church on a Sunday, before tucking into a hearty lunch with friends and family. Later, an afternoon perambulation amused and kept tiny tots out of mischief. This common-sense rhythm to life brushed away cobwebs in fresh air.Now scientists tell us Vitamin D levels are falling, and with it, our mood and feeling of well-being, something even the latest must-have gadget or gizmo will not fix.

Sunshine is a far healthier stimulant than supplements. Wrap up, stride out and clear your head of worries. Why not play a mind game as you walk? Observe the silhouettes of bare trees and verdant conifers. With winter the best time for planting trees, choose just one tree either to add to your garden or to give as a present. Will it be a white sentinel, a silver birch, such as Betula jacquemontii? Some diligent gardeners scrub the algae and dirt from the bark to make them shine! If you wander through Queen Elizabeth Park in Grantham, you will discover the ‘Diamond Grove’, sixty birches planted five years ago to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The elegant, feathery Robinia pseudoacacia, the biblical tree, will set off any limestone house handsomely.Its wood is said to have been used to construct the Ark of the Tabernacle. When mature, the bark is a living sculpture, reminiscent of Gothic architraves. A weeping willow has unique, trailing light, buff-brown branches. When snow blankets the ground, its ephemeral winter silhouette offers a gratifying contrast to sturdy evergreens, be they cedar, pine or cypress.Tie a red ribbon around an exotic Chinese willow for an unusual gift. Its contorted form is intriguing, especially when narrow, curly leaves turn to golden ringlets. Among the last leaves to fall, they make spectacular abstract patterns among bronze intertwined twigs when laced with hoar-frost.

Perhaps the X-factor winner is the Tibetan cherry, Prunus serrula, a favourite tree for winter gardens. Coppery bands make the most striking bark, as if wound round with red and bronze satin ribbon. I am sorely tempted to order one to warm future wintry views and to hang twinkling lights, a Christmas surprise as cheery as cherry brandy, and a hopeful reminder that cherry blossom time is around the corner.

Wherever you choose to exercise the leg muscles, study early Christmas decorations in windows and on doorsteps as you pass for present ideas. A bay tree tied with a bright red bow, or a pear tree with gold ribbons, would please any cook; a tinsel covered rose would thrill any flower arranger. This year’s must-have: a pair of topiary ‘lollipop’ holly trees in pots could be a great gift for friends or family who have just moved to a new house. Imagine these shining evergreen balls, planted with ivy at the base, and all wired up with sparkling fairy lights! Buy a ticket to a photography workshop at Doddington Hall for sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, keen to hone their skills. Choose from an array of creative workshops at Easton Walled Gardens: art, cooking, gardening, willow weaving, printing and stone-carving, could be an unexpected luxury for someone you love, to look forward to in 2018.

The poet Dylan Thomas raged ‘against the dying of the light’, but even in darkest December, despite drab, decaying shrubs and foliage litter, sudden shafts of winter light can dazzle the eyes and lift the heart. Just ask the photographer twitterati who have seized the day to submit stunning images now gracing the impressive @LincsSkies 2018 calendar sold in aid of the Lincs & Notts Air Ambulance. Low sun makes for more engaging, memorable pictures. Long shadows contrast highlights where surprisingly rich colours and textures are brought into sharp focus. In glowing moments, if you are lucky, fleeting glimpses of wildlife happenings will excite and entertain.

‘The best things in life are free’ still holds true. Aim for a brisk circuit around a nearby lake, such as in Hartsholme Country Park or newly restored Boultham Park. It’s easier to read the past layers of history in the landscape in winter months. In Culverthorpe Park, there are still signs of early farming ridge and furrow, despite the planting of magnificent veteran lime trees that date back to the early eighteenth century, when Queen Anne was on the throne. As your circulation gets going, imagine, centuries past, those who have walked the same path.

Explore the banks of the River Witham weaving through the county, or set out to inspect the Grantham Canal’s restoration progress. Head to the coast and Skegness. Here, the Esplanade and Tower Gardens, designed by engineer Rowland Jenkins in the 1920s and 1930s, and largely still intact, have just been added to Heritage England’s Register of Parks and Gardens of National Significance. Abandon the car in Lincoln’s city and walk through the Arboretum and Temple Gardens, before facing the crowded shops and lively Christmas market. Whisby Nature Park has six miles of walks and seven bird hides.

Enjoy stirred memories as you go, plan menus and imagine gifts. Gather material for an Advent wreath and natural decorations. There is nothing more romantic, more thought provoking than candlelight. It’s easy to order a unique personalised candle if you think about it in time! A garden lantern could be an appropriate present for music lovers who go carol singing. I give thanks that the Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther thought of adding lighted candles to an evergreen tree. Take care.Blow tree candles out if you leave the room. When we lived in California, every Christmas Eve neighbours lined their drives and garden paths with flickering candles in brown paper bags weighted down with sand, an enchanting tradition to light the path for baby Jesus to come to their house.

One winter’s afternoon, the light covering of snow was beginning to melt in the sudden warmth of late afternoon sun. It was bitterly cold, trudging along Church Lane. My camera weighed heavy around my neck, but there were pictures to be had. Ghastly, giant hogweed stopped me in my tracks. Its desiccated, skeletal seed heads were transformed by clasping glistening snow crystals, like clusters of brilliant diamonds. I could see exactly how Art Nouveau jewellery designers found inspiration in nature. I felt enriched, my mood was worth a million dollars when I got back to a blazing home fire. Who needs the real McCoy? Happy Christmas everyone!

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