Tag Archives: seasonal

Apple blossom and seasonal walking

Seasonal walking has been at the heart of my Druidry for some years now. I have a calendar of what happens where and when and I walk to meet various manifestations of the season. At this time of year I would normally be planning a big walk to take in bluebells, wood anemones, wild garlic and new beech leaves. Lockdown aside, my body is not in a good way so long walks aren’t currently an option. I will have to find alternative places to go.

Yesterday I had a surprise encounter with apple blossom. There is a cycle path near home, but one of the stretches runs down the side of a duel carriageway, so I don’t normally walk there. However, one of the gifts of lockdown is far less traffic, so that stretch of footpath has become far nicer to walk. It also tends to be fairly quiet at twilight, and I’ve walked it a few times in recent weeks.

Last night all of the apple trees on that stretch of cycle path were in bloom, and it was incredibly beautiful. Normally this wouldn’t be part of my seasonal walking because traffic noise and air pollution have put me off. I’ve been feeling unsettled by not being able to do so much seasonal engagement through walking, so this was an uplifting gift of an experience.


Seasonal Cold

The temperature often defines how I experience winter days and what I’m able to do. A milder year is likely to be wet, and while that’s no joy to be out in, the footing is safer on tarmac. In wet winters, paths that aren’t hard surfaced can become unwalkable with all the mud – which makes walking slow and hazardous. A warmer, wetter winter means more cloud and less sun, which has an impact on my body chemistry.

I can enjoy a crisp, sharp winter day – the bright blue skies and crystalline clarity. However, these tend to go with colder conditions. Icy ground is more likely to give me numb feet, running the risk of chilblains. There’s the risk of falling. My entire body will be sore to a greater degree in really cold conditions – so being out is a mixed bag. I weigh the attraction of sunlight and fresh air against the state of my body.

Of course, a warmer winter is much more easily dealt with indoors. Cold weather makes it harder to keep warm. I can afford to heat my home at the moment, but not everyone can. Being cold all the time is exhausting and if you are ill in any way, that illness will be made more miserable. It’s difficult to relax and harder to sleep when you aren’t warm enough. It will also make you hungry, and anyone choosing between heating and eating won’t have a budget for extra food.

The winter days I like most are clear and bright, but a degree or two above freezing. Enough to seem like winter without causing any problems. They’re rare, but when they come round, I treasure them.


Seasonal greening

There have been leaves emerging and plants growing in my area since late February. However, in the last week, there’s been a distinct rush of growth as many of the trees have come into leaf. The difference has been visible day to day.

The slowest trees – the few local oaks – still haven’t started, and the ash is slow. What dominates around here is beech. The smaller trees have their leaves, and the large ones clearly aren’t far behind. From the hilltops you can see how patches of woodland are developing – and each wood is different depending on how its slope relates to the sun.

For me, the new beech leaves are a seasonal wonder. They unfurl as flimsy things, incredibly pale so the light passes through them. When the sun is on them, they seem to glow, and they slightly colour the light as it passes through. A spring beechwood has a distinctly otherwordly feel to it.

As the year progresses, the beech leaves become darker and more substantial. The whole character of the woods changes, as shade deepens.

Alongside the trees’ unfurling leaves, there’s an eruption of foliage at ground level as well. On the commons, the cowslips are blooming in great profusion, and I’ve seen a few early purple orchids.

As the leaves change, my relationship with the sky will change, too. With the hotter part of the year underway, I will seek the welcome shade of trees, and tend to avoid the large open skies – except at twilight. I’m grateful for the opportunities to do that, also.

 


Spring in the microclimates

Stroud has a lot of microclimates. The folds of the land, and how they catch the sun at this time of year produces little spots that are not only a bit different in climate when you enter them, but can even have different relationships with the seasons.

Over the weekend I found a south facing bank, protected from the wind. On it there were violets and wood anemones, in bloom. It’ll be some weeks before those show up at some other spots around here. Wood anemones usually bloom with the garlic and bluebells, in early May.

The shape of the land in relation to the sun equally creates places that are darker for longer, where frost and snow linger after everything else has melted.

The process of winter turning into spring, from Imbolc to the spring equinox, is complex. It doesn’t all move at the same speed even over a small geographical area. The seasons are not events, but a day by day shifting of warmth, light, growth and life. If we focus too much on the seasons, or on specific Pagan festivals, we can easily miss the details. It is all about the details really – our arbitrary divisions of the year into four seasons and eight festivals is misleading and can take us away from the everyday nature of seasonal change.


Seasonal wandering and snowdrops

This is a difficult time of year for walking. Footpaths through fields and woods are muddy, which can make them slippery and treacherous. For anyone less than perfectly confident on their feet, this kind of walking condition can be really off-putting. Add to that the unpredictable weather conditions, the cold, the potential for ice, or for rain turning into ice as it hits the ground, and it really isn’t walking season. Shorter days in terms of light also make longer walks less feasible.

However, walking is what I do to commune with nature, it is a big part of my spiritual life, so even in January when it’s cold I need to get out. I’m lucky in that there’s a lot of canal towpath in Stroud, and a good length of cycle path – both of which are reasonably passable in all weathers. There’s also a fair amount of lanes in villages around the town, so winter road walking is an option.

Lane walking is a bit of a mixed bag. On the whole lanes are good because they take you through the countryside without requiring you to tackle a mudslick at any point. Predictable footing is worth a lot. Mostly lanes are quiet, and you can hear vehicles coming. However, close encounters with passing tractors can be unnerving, and all it takes is one idiot racing round the bends at high speed to make it a dangerous place to be. Having done years of walking and cycling in country lanes, I remain unscathed, but I’ve been worried a few times.

The margins of lanes tend to be good places for wildflowers throughout the year. That starts now, with snowdrops putting up leaves and already flowering along the lane margins.


Wandering in early spring

January and early February are quiet months in the seasonal walking calendar. I don’t plan big walks at this time of year, because the weather is too unpredictable and I don’t like slippery surfaces much. Plus, tramping about in mud can do a lot of damage to land and plants alike, so I tend to limit walks to lanes and solid footpaths.

My seasonal plants of preference – snowdrops and catkins – are available right outside my front door, so seasonal plant-orientated pilgrimage does not have to involve much effort!

However, we’ve reached that point in the year when there are odd warm days, its drier underfoot and it can be good walking weather. It’s tempting to get out, but still risky. How risky walking at this time of year will be of course depends firstly on where you live. Are sudden blizzards a risk? Could sudden loss of visibility put you in danger? What’s the footing like and can it change quickly if the weather changes?

I live in a fairly mild part of the world, and I don’t walk in the mountains. My risks for this time of year are about getting cold. With crappy circulation, I suffer a lot if I can’t stay warm and while walking is good for circulation, if the ground is cold enough, or the wind chill fierce enough, it can get challenging.

I know for a lot of people the great challenge of pitting self against nature is an exciting prospect. I don’t have a body or a mind for conquering anything, so I have to work cooperatively with the natural world. I have to walk when it’s passably sensible and stay in if it isn’t. I have to consider how cold I can afford to get when thinking about distance. There’s no one right way of doing this stuff, but I assert that it’s absolutely ok to be not in the least bit macho about it.


Fair Weather Pagan

I admit it, I’m a fair weather Pagan. My willingness to go out and celebrate the seasons depends highly on weather conditions and temperature. This summer we started a monthly venture of going out to celebrate the full moon in a bardic way. The last session was in September because by October, the idea of standing round outside, at night, for an hour or so to share songs and stories, held no appeal whatsoever. We’ve moved to the pub, where there is less sense of the magical natural world, less of the shining full moon, but also less risk of accident, injury, or just getting very cold.

Having had chilblains during several winters, my willingness to stand around in the cold is not what it might be. Having fallen on the way out of a session in the dark – painful and embarrassing – I’m in no hurry to put myself forward for that again. Being out as a bard by the light of the full moon is a glorious thing, in the right conditions, but during a British winter, the prospect does not inspire.

There are always balances to strike between connection and viability. The younger, fitter, healthier and better resourced we are, the easier it is to do more extreme things. Gone are the days when my body can easily bear the experience of a sleepless night on the cold side of a hill.

I’ll continue to connect with the seasons, but I have to do so on terms that work for me. Daytime rituals and gatherings in the winter mean better light levels for dealing with the more slippery ground conditions – be that mud or ice. Staying warm, not being out for as long, not being as far off the beaten track, are all part of how I respond to winter. Waterproof trousers and thermal socks, a flask of something warm and a flashlight. These are not things my ancient Pagan ancestors would recognise, but then that’s true for the larger percentage of how I live my life.

‘Getting back to nature’ is something we as modern Pagans can often only do because we have a car to get us there and a washing machine to deal with what nature does to our trousers. It’s easy to kid ourselves that our particular work-around is somehow more natural, or more authentic – be that ski gear, energy drinks, or thermal underwear. We don’t live close to the land and seasons in the way our ancient ancestors did. Most of us don’t have the physical capabilities, knowledge or experience to live as our ancestors did. Doing what makes sense to you is fine, but don’t avoid looking at what you’re doing.

I think it’s better to be honest about what we are, and aren’t, and to modify ritual behaviour according to what we can genuinely cope with. Driving out to ‘nature’, dressing up in expensive, modern kit and knowing we can warm up with something hot from the microwave when we get home does not mean being especially in tune with our ancient ancestors. It just means we can afford this stuff – not everyone can. It’s worth thinking about the kinds of effort involved in winter rituals, and being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. It makes more sense to me to have a practice that reflects how you live, rather than having to do things that are otherwise quite unnatural to you, (or prohibitively expensive) with the idea that this will bring you closer to nature.


Signs of Imbolc

Late January into early February isn’t a great time for walking in the UK – The weather is unpredictable, but tends to be unpleasant. If we’re going to get any snow at all, the odds are it will come now.

Fortunately, the vast majority of seasonal things I am interested in, are not hard to find and don’t require long or complicated walks. Snowdrops are all over the place, including on the cycle paths and towpaths that are frequently part of my routes. Little white flowers that will come up through snow, for me they are the emblem of the season. They are easy to spot as well, but they certainly aren’t the only thing waking up.

In some places crocuses will be out, and a little behind the snowdrops are the celandines – a low to the ground yellow flower. On the towpath, celandines and snowdrops are blossoming together. The blackthorn flowers about now as well – more delicate white flowers on its as yet unleafy black branches. Other fruit bearing trees also put out flowers – I’ve seen cherry and a wild plum in this last week as well. The pussy willow will be opening out its soft and fuzzy catkins, other trees have their catkins on. Anywhere that has anything by way of green spaces will likely have signs of spring as well.

The traditional association with Imbolc is lambs, and the first ewe’s milk. This is not however a time of year for seeing lambs in the fields, at least not in the UK. The lambing season has been artificially extended for a long time, for the convenience of people. Lambs born in winter are born in sheds and stay indoors until the weather picks up – which is also more about our benefit than theirs. When they go out will vary depending on the weather and when, exactly, they were born. I’m lucky in that there’s a field nearby where I can reliably see lambs most years, and I can watch out for their coming. I don’t have to take any extended walks on the off-chance of seeing sheep.

One seasonal shift that particularly affects my walking options at this time of year, is the increase of light. Back on Christmas day, being out the door at 7.30 am meant leaving in the dark, but now the sky is significantly lighter at this point. I like early morning walking when it’s quite, and Imbolc marks the time of year when I can start doing that again. I now also have some semblance of twilight, and the option of twilight walking. At midwinter when the sun sets at four, what twilight there is largely passes me by. Having twilight for a while in the evening, when I’m not working and may be out and about delights me. Not being able to engage with the twilight through the two darkest months is tough for me. The return of evening twilight means soon I’ll be seeing the other crepuscular creatures again, and this cheers me greatly.


Walking Calendar – Boxing Day

Boxing Day lends itself to a walk – the post-Christmas over-eating guilt encourages people to get out. Amongst the set of people I was at school with, there’s a long standing tradition of walking over the hills from Dursley to Waterly Bottoms (we have fantastic place names round here) to a pub, and then coming back. It’s a steep walk, and not the easiest in the dark. I’ve done it a couple of times, and while I like the theory, I struggle with the practice. It also doesn’t help that not living in Dursley I need to get home after the return from the pub, sans car.

This year I thought it would be fun to start my own Boxing Day walk, for which I managed to lure out a few intrepid souls. While I like the idea of committing to a walk on this day, I have no sense of a fixed route I want to adopt – that may settle in time, or it may not.

The inspiration for the walk came from Gloucestershire Ghost Tales (History press, Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiosis) – the mention of a place called ‘Woeful Dane’s Bottom’ and reference to a standing stone that I didn’t previously know about. I spent a while cross-referencing the story with the local ordinance survey map, but then failed to take the map with me on the day, which had consequences.

We walked from Stroud to Nailsworth, and thence to Avening, where there was a detour to the graveyard. My great uncle – Wilfred Hunking – and his wife Anne are buried there. They are just on the graveyard side of the wall, and on the other side is a stile, and it was at that stile that they kissed for the first time on the night that they met at a local dance. They were a case of love at first sight. Romantic to the end. But also cantankerous – it was a romance that looked a lot like fighting and point scoring from the outside.

From Avening, we walked up the edge of Gattcombe Park, an exercise in trying to keep my inner proletariat from rioting. A vast tract of beautiful landscape and woodland largely inaccessible because it’s owned by a royal. There is now a gate in the field that allows people to access the barrow there – a really unusual barrow with a stone on the top, called The Tingle Stone. I’ve heard stories about Pagans trespassing in that field and finding themselves in conversation with armed police. And so we trespassed, but an unlocked gate is an open invitation, and I think it immoral that anyone is allowed to prohibit access to such places as these. The history of land ownership in the UK has a lot to do with conquest, which can equally be described as violent theft.

We found the long stone, but, without the map, were on the wrong road and the wrong side of the field, so we missed the second barrow, and we did not get to Woeful Dane’s Bottom. That will be for another day.

As is so often the way of it, this walk suggested the scope for another, and one that might be especially suited to early spring.


Walking Calendar – Christmas

Seasonal walking is a practical issue as well as a way of connecting with the cycle of the seasons. It’s something I’ve been exploring for a while. One of my personal traditions is to walk to my mother’s house at Christmas, with my husband and son. The first few times we did this, we were walking up from the canal (low, flat ground) into the hills. It wasn’t a charming route – the necessity of crossing a motorway and the scarcity of places to do this meant mostly road walking, although on Christmas morning there’s never much traffic. One year we did this in heavy snow, and had the odd experience of someone passing over us in a hot air balloon!

The last three Christmases, we’ve walked over the hills from Stroud to Dursley, taking in several barrows as we go. On a few occasions, this year included, we’ve done it in less than ideal weather. Last year was exquisite, with light and colours that you don’t often see at any time of year, but especially not the middle of winter. The Severn River tends to be grey, or muddy browns when you look down on her from these hills, but for that one walk, with the fields shining in greens, the river was the kind of blue that children paint rivers. It was unreal in many ways, and wondrous.

This year we had to modify the route, because there’s a small pair of hills we can come in over – again the views on a good day are stunning, and there’s something exciting about finishing the walk with these final hills, separate from the Cotswold edge, taking in the views and coming down into the small town feeling triumphant. However, the hill is steep and in wet weather, too slippery to be faced. We took the lanes, an old holloway, weaving between hills and farms, past the hill that homed a small pox isolation hospital. The ruins of that were still visible when my great grandmother was a child. On maps, the hill bears the bland name of ‘Downham’ but to local people it is Smallpox Hill. In mist it is an eerie place.

We paused to talk to some friendly sheep, saw a retirement home for old horses, and were charmed by a sleeping goat. These are the kinds of experience that you can only have when moving through a landscape at a human pace. We also got cold and wet.

One of the highpoints of the walk for me, came as we were moving over the top of the Cotswold hills in driving wind and heavy rain. It wasn’t easy walking, we were all starting to feel tired by this point and the battering by the elements wasn’t easy to bear. My son expressed his enthusiasm for what we were doing, because it was real; an immediate encounter with the reality of the land and weather. He put it more bluntly but I can’t recall the exact phrasing. It was a moment of pride for me. I don’t want to be at the raw edge of existence all the time, I doubt my son does either, but to be willing to go there, to experience discomfort so as to meet the season and the land – that’s powerful.

Walking through a landscape with history, folklore and tradition is an opportunity to talk about it, and to pass down knowledge. Walking past Smallpox Hill created time to tell my son the stories of the hill – the history of the hospital, and the mystery of the bumps. There are two large, rectangular constructions on one side of the hill. Local myth has it that these are mass graves from the hospital. The more likely version is that these are mediaeval rabbit warrens. It’s an interesting example of how we make intelligible stories out of landscape features when we don’t know what’s going on.