Whither the withering winters of yesteryear?

Damien Enright looks at the sacrifices we make in the cold to be outdoors and whether or not they're worth it.
Whither the withering winters of yesteryear?

Although the temperature was a least two degrees above freezing, the dense, damp fog leeched a deep chill into the very marrow of our bones, and I think I felt colder in that Hertfordshire ‘Country Garden’ than I ever felt in the January streets of New York despite below-zero temperatures and a blast off the Hudson River that brought the wind chill factor down to -30C.

Trees, and family members, loomed out of the fog in the arboretum, and I thought “What the hell are we doing here?! Outdoors is great but at the cost of a week indoors in bed!” Someone had to voice the question, and as soon as I did so, I found all-round assent.

“Let’s get back to the house! Sweetmeats and hot toddies —yeah!!” Half an hour later we were back in the warmth of Whistler’s Cottage, eating Christmas cake.

Blighty was fine, the welcome exuberant, the family gatherings joyful and heart-warming, and the weather pleasant and walkable most of the time. However, the last two days, fogged in in the Chilterns 80km north of London, were, for diabolical weather, unlike any I’ve ever experienced here.

We said goodbye to my son in the monotone half-darkness of a Heathrow carpark with all the atmospherics of a 1940s black-and-white film noir (The Third Man, perhaps —one could almost hear the Harry Lime theme) and boarded our flight to Cork.

In Cork, we found, by utter contrast, Mediterranean weather — nine degrees above, could we believe! Sad it had been to say goodbye to family, sons, daughters, grandchildren, but it sure was good to be back on the Irish Riviera.

Next morning we woke to bright sunlight in the yard catching the ivy on the old beeches, making them shine like silver. We did a tour of our garden, much in bud, much already in leaf, montbretia and wild garlic green and pushing forward as if it was already spring, winter heliotrope in flower and honeysuckle budding. Two robins sang in competition; tits of all four species flitted about the peanut feeder.

So glorious was the weather of these early January days of 2017, that I twice walked to the cliffs to see if, by remote chance, the ravens might already have started building, but no.

In fact, I’ve never recorded them nesting in January but, in 2009, noted that they were scouting the site together on January 8 (and had three chicks reared and ready to fly by April 25). Mid-February is the usual date for the nest to be completed, a deep cup lined with horsehair in a cleft of the cliff, 10 metres above the sea.

The pigtails descending from the crown of our domestic (but not domesticated) heron are three-quarters grown, 15cm long and shiny. He is altogether well-dressed, and adding to his elegance by the day. The hunched, grey-feathered spectre of the moult is replaced by an upstanding, mottled-breasted, black-and-white masked bird, upright and strutting, coal black epaulettes on his shoulders.

And he’s not finished with the finery yet: in another few weeks, his veil of chest feathers will descend almost to the knees, his pigtails will have gained five more centimetres, and his long, spear-head beak with be bright red.

Will he get a mate? Certainly! Why, he must be the best-dressed, fittest and best-fed heron of the 30 or 40 herons that colonise Courtmacsherry Bay, an alpha male, sure to engender offspring any mother could be proud of!

Out walking, I found myself looking down on the vast expanse of Broad Strand on the Seven Heads. The sand, still wet and slicked by the ebbed tide, had become a golden mirror reflecting the low clay cliff burnished by the winter sun at one end.

Beyond this mirror, the bright blue bay lay beneath a cloudless sky, framed by the Old Head of Kinsale and Barry’s Point to left and right. As I walked along the edge, small waves were creeping in, all but soundlessly, to reclaim the sand.

Later, I came across a couple of grey crows posing on an ash tree (like ravens, they mate for life), six stalks of three-corner garlic in flower, and a single celandine. The latter, especially, is a harbinger of spring.

So, is it here already? Did winter pass, without my noticing? The weather was cold, yes, but not the wintry winter of 2015 I heard about when I was, happily, researching in La Gomera (gathering Canary Islands info which I hoped would entertain my readers.)

This ‘winter’, I’ve been here all the time, and it seems that, so far, there’s been almost no winter at all.

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