The ethereal beauty of a cold, crisp, frosty morning is an increasingly rare, yet splendid sight, enthuses Antony Woodward, as he marvels at the hedges of white coral and cobwebs of iced lace created by Jack Frost.
At last, it’s as if Elsa the Snow Queen from Disney’s Frozen has flashed her hands over our soggy land. After months of rain and damp, mush and muck, a magical crystalline kingdom has emerged.
‘It was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar. Everything was rigid, locked-up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.’ Anyone who’s read Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959) remembers his child’s-eye account of winter in the Cotswold village of Slad in the 1920s, one of the best-loved literary evocations of an English winter. And still, when we see frost through the curtains, even the crustiest curmudgeon slides an inch or two back towards his inner six year old.
The adventure begins even before we’re outside. We’re so used to never being cold these days, heated in homes and offices, shops and cars, that we’ve almost forgotten the simple delight of wrapping up warm, of ferreting in drawers for thick socks and gloves, scarves and hats. Open the door and the freezing air is like stepping off a plane into Alaska. The first white plumes of breath: you may be too old to be a dragon or a steam engine, but don’t pretend you don’t notice.
For a moment, the transformation is too dazzling to take in, crystals glinting in the low morning sun. The dogs cavort crazily, jumping and barking, paws sliding they know something’s up. Stepping briskly out… whoops! Not so fast. As a foot slides on a flagstone, a timely reminder: this world has different rules. Even flat surfaces and the most modest inclines are now potential death traps. (Round us, it’s frozen sheep droppings, lying silently in wait like spilled ball bearings.)
The beauty is preposterous, profligate: hedges of white coral and cobwebs of iced lace. Even car windscreens, ice-etched, have become works of art. Science may supply prosaic reasons for these patterns, to do with surface imperfections, dust and scratches around which the ice nucleates, but all we see are ferns and feathers and tangled rainforests tessellating impossibly.
Follow the children’s lead, as they snap icicles to suck (is there a natural form more beautiful?). By a dripping tap, a sea of glass has formed. Hungry for further freaks of frost, we check the spring, where bewildered wagtails try, again and again, to drink. Where it runs into the trough is a frozen waterfall. ‘The British invented ice climbing,’ I tell the children. ‘And curling.’ They’re not listening they’re off into the lane.
Freeze-ups these days may be no match for the fearsome frost described by R. D. Blackmore in his historical Exmoor romance Lorna Doone (1869) arguably the second-greatest English literary winter with its ‘iron hand and step of stone’. Blackmore caught the last gasp of the so-called Little Ice Age, the severest stage of which, from 1650 to 1850, brought the Frost Fairs to the Thames. But the personification of winter, in the form of Jack Frost, goes back much further, to the Anglo-Saxons or before. These days, we’re lucky to see 20–50 frosts a year, in inland, lowland areas, and most of those aren’t hard ones.
On the track, where has four months’ worth of muck and slime gone? We can feel the crunchiness, even through wellies or stout leather soles, a newly assertive landscape of rut and ridge, tiny brown mountain ranges forged by cleated tyres and cloven hooves. The puddle issue presents itself. What exactly is the morality of breaking ice?
In the distance, a chainsaw, a tractor, a train. In the frozen air, sound travels further or perhaps it just seems that way. We can’t stop a spring in our step, a skiving cheerfulness it’s hard to say exactly why. If we have a stick, we jab and prod contentedly.
What is this strange euphoria?
A lifetime’s collected winter lust, perhaps, bursting like water pipes once did. Robins and rosy cheeks. Narnia and The Nutcracker. The Winter Palace from Doctor Zhivago. Skating scenes (although has anyone under 55 ever skated on natural ice?). There is a frozen north of our imaginations, however, populated by snowy owls and arctic hares and funny old winter actions, such as stamping our feet, throwing our arms round ourselves and blowing on our fingers to keep warm.
The only winter days we remember are days like these. Which is why we know that, when we were little, winters were frosty every day and they started in November and lasted until March. By the time we kick off our boots, our noses are running and our thoughts are of hot chocolate. Lee knew that the joy of winter is as much about cosiness and getting warm as about ice and cold, about hissing kettles and roaring stoves.
Like so many enchanted places, this wonderland is transient. A full day’s frost, or ‘ice day’, is, these days, uncommon below 1,000ft or outside ‘frost hollows’. By mid morning, certainly by lunchtime, the mist has cleared and the mysterious force is receding, its power melting before our eyes. Everywhere is dripping, the ground darkening and softening. Until, with a squelch, mucky mildness is back. Did it really happen? It seems hard to believe until next time.
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