Old Man Winter: Delight and Demise [Part 1]

by matthay44

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I’ve been meaning to write this post since November but, as is so often the way, life has provided me with endless cause to procrastinate. I’m determined to try and contribute more regularly to this blog this year, and hopefully this will be the start of that increased productivity. I’m also slightly changing the tone of the content on the site…the really ardent fans amongst you will have noted the change in name to ‘Stravaiger’, and this rebranding comes as I realise that I want to write about much more than travel and place. I have high hopes of meandering through a really diverse array of topics this year, alongside the usual environmental lamentations of course. I’m hoping to touch on issues from feminism to agriculture, marine biology and British politics. I am even on the lookout for one or two guest contributions later in the year, so get in touch if you’ve got something you really want to say.

To start with though, I want to reflect a little on my favourite season: winter. I’m coming the end of my third consecutive one, courtesy of a stint in the southern hemisphere, but my affection for the old man has not lessened at all. Don’t get me wrong, I will not be unhappy when the long days of spring bring forth the warmth of summer; I’m long overdue a serious vitamin D fix. But I still feel that winter provides a connection to the natural world that no other season comes close to replicating and that is something I value immensely.

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I think this very reason, the fact that no other season disrupts our lives to such an extent, is why most people resent winter. Cold temperatures force us to wear extra clothes, icy roads make travelling by bike or car dangerous and less efficient, bad weather takes its toll on our buildings and infrastructure and relentless rain can flood our fields and spoil our walks. On top of this it is dark for much of the time and this predisposes us to stay indoors and to limit our activity.

Contrast this with summer, when warmer temperatures mean we can wear fewer layers, not more. Long, light evenings encourage us to socialise after work or to exercise and everything is that bit more comfortable. The season abets our everyday existence.

Now I don’t pretend to be immune to these charms, or to not relish the long days that summer brings. I’m also not saying that I never resent winter, of course I do. When its been raining for most of a week and the sky is a seemingly impenetrable shield of leaden (and laden) cloud it makes me feel gloomy. Likewise it is annoying having to scrape the windshield of my car, or wait for a train on a freezing platform – these are not pleasant experiences. But there are also times, nearly every winter, when aspects of the season blow me away (sometimes quite literally), and fill me with a sense of awe and wonder that I cherish. Let me give you just a few examples from the last couple of months…

November 2017: Driving along the A93

Back at the very start of winter, just after I’d returned home from the Falkland Islands, I was delighted to discover that a fairly potent Arctic airmass was making its way south to Scotland, ushering in an early start to the cold season. Eager to greet the old man in person, I drove north from my house up the A93 road to Glenshee ski centre, in the highlands, to go ski touring. It was a wild and wintry day, with strong winds and deep drifts of snow. I found some fairly sensational powder tucked away in one of the burns and had a good few laps of this gully with my loyal and long-suffering hound, Tobermory, in hot (cold) pursuit. Fun as this was, and amazed as I was to have such good quality snow, in Scotland, in what was still technically autumn, the highlight of the day was driving home.

It was about 3.30 in the afternoon as I rolled down the long hill from the ski centre itself and into Glen Beag. At that time of year, the sun was starting to set and it illuminated the chaotic sky wonderfully, catching clouds at different heights and painting them gold, or pink or bright orange. The texture of the glen too was thrown into sharp relief by this same lack of incidence, with long shadows reaching out from the ridges and peaks of the snowy hills. As the wind poured down the sides of the mountains, accelerating through catabasis, it picked up the powdery snow and carried it in drifts and billows across the road and across the bottom of the glen.

There was no escaping winter as I drove along the road. The wind buffeted my car and the blowing snow sparkled in the sunlight, sometimes dazzling me and sometimes obscuring my view. All around me the elements raged, with utter indifference to me or my agenda; demanding my attention and commanding my respect.

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Tobermory – well and truly out of his element

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A frozen Loch Vrotachan, just outside of the ski centre

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Midwinter colours in the mist, cloud and blowing snow

December 2017: Bodyboarding on Ballycastle Beach

Fast-forward a month, to the very end of December, and I was in Northern Ireland with a bunch of friends to celebrate the New Year. Our location was on the north coast of County Antrim, in my opinion one of the most magnificent stretches of coastline in the British Isles, just above Ballycastle beach.

Like lots of places, the Antrim coast’s character is best exposed in certain weather conditions. For me, this northwestern frontier of the U.K. comes alive in cold, stormy, changeable regimes. The roaring waves and howling wind seem to amplify the spirit of the coastline, whose rugged backdrop served as the location for the ‘Iron Islands’ in the immensely popular HBO series Game of Thrones.

As luck would have it, the tail-end of 2017 saw Ireland in the grip of a cool, cyclonic, polar maritime set-up, with strong westerly winds blowing squalls and showers across Co. Antrim and long-fetch Atlantic swell crashing all along the shoreline. Every morning when I woke up the first thing I could hear was the thunder of breaking waves, often accompanied by the rattling assault of rain or hail being driven against the bedroom window. It turned the banality of being inside and being warm into the ultimate privilege, something to enjoy and luxuriate in.

On Ballycastle beach itself a small collection of rocks lie just offshore, accessible at low tide by scrambling across a semi-submerged boulder field, or else by a slated, wooden bridge. These rocks used to house an iron salt pan and their name, the Pan Rocks, still pays homage to that industrial past. Now though, they form the perfect viewing platform from which to watch Atlantic breakers roll into Ballycastle beach, growing quickly in size as the steep submarine topography compresses the water column until, eventually, its height becomes unsustainable.

Staring down the long faces of individual waves, I found their power and size mesmerising. The wind would chisel fine tufts of spray off their crests long before they broke and this elemental interaction of air and water added further rawness to their character.

Even better than watching the waves though, was being in amongst them and on several occasions I donned wetsuit and flippers and headed out into the surf to try my luck with a body board. Waiting for lulls between the bigger sets I paddled hard to get out just beyond where most of the waves were breaking, searching for one of the right size that would break just after I had caught it.

I had several fairly spectacular failures, including one wave that pummelled me for what felt like a minute before ripping the cord out of my board. But I also had a few successes, waves that I caught before they broke and then skimmed across, just out of reach of the breaking surf behind me. The thrill of coupling to such a vast source of power was immense, as was the acceleration that came with it. Ahead of me a wall of water kept rising, forming an almost limitless slope which eventually forced my trajectory towards the shore. A few seconds later I lay washed up on the sand, part of the dying gasp of the wave that had carried me.

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Watching the breakers from the Pan Rocks

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Surf, spray and sun

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The virga of an incoming hail shower sweeping closer to the shore

January 2018: Ski-touring in Glen Lyon

The final example comes from last month, when I headed up Glen Lyon in Highland Perthshire after a week of heavy snowfall. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get into the Glen, it’s only serviced by a minor, single lane road and isn’t exactly the gritters’ top priority; nearly all of the locals in this part of Scotland have fairly aggressive 4x4s for this very reason.

Sure enough the road was dicey and my poor old Mazda 2 wasn’t really up for the job. Unfortunately though, by the time I’d decided Glen Lyon was a bad idea and I wanted out, I genuinely couldn’t turn around. All the passing places were buried in several feet of snow and there was nowhere wide enough for me to execute even a one-hundred point turn. Up and up the Glen I drove, with my cortisol levels rising all the while and every little hill causing me consternation. Eventually, determined to go no further, I ditched the car in a passing place and attempted to ignore the problem; I’d go for a ski and work out how to get my car out of the Glen later. The issue played on my mind all day though, a low-level, gnawing anxiety that I couldn’t quite put to bed.

So far, so bad you’re probably thinking…how does this nightmarish drive link to a love of winter? Well firstly because it was unbelievably beautiful; the amount of snow was staggering. The Scottish Highlands seemed closer to Norway than to the rest of the U.K. and although snowfall of this magnitude isn’t uncommon in northern Scotland it is still very special to see places you know so well, sitting under a depth of snowpack that alpine ski resorts would be proud of. You also just don’t really get winter weather like this in other parts of Britain (anymore). For those of us born after the 1980s we have most likely never seen our backyards transformed to this extent, except perhaps in 2010.

The other reason I enjoyed the drive up Glen Lyon is simply because it was inconvenient. The entire journey was a tangible reminder of the wider natural systems at work on our planet. Such experiences, which happen so rarely in our major towns and cities, connect us, albeit briefly, to phenomena vastly greater than ourselves, which treat our roads, our lives and our agenda with an equal and refreshing indifference. Old man winter reminds us, when he feels like it, that we are still very small and insignificant.

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Roads turned to pistes

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A herd of sheep kindly blaze a trail up the glen for me to follow

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Skiing beautiful powder snow on the northern ridge of Meall Greigh at sunset. Fin glen, from the Gaelic ‘fionn’ meaning white (snowy), below.

Of course these local examples of winter’s power and fury must be tempered with the growing realisation that the old man is not invincible. His hiemal hands may still feel as strong as ever when we’re in their grip, but winter is without doubt, and like all old men, slowly dying.

As the season most able to connect us to the wider workings of our planet, this inexorable demise is something that fills me with great sadness. Acutely as I may feel them though, my personal sentiments matter little in the face of the actual consequences that a lack of winter will bring.

This post has been my homage to the old man, explaining why it is that I value him so highly. My next one will focus on his demise and why that matters so much more.