Kneeling on the stony cold earth, I begin to regret having left bulb planting until the beginning of December. Neither my trowel nor my wrists feel up to the job. Waiting until our first proper cold snap invariably means a layer of cold weather needs to be negotiated before reaching the softer crumbly earth. But it’s a little early December ritual in the month where tradition rules. The quick draining soil is richer than it ought to be but I forget how shallow it is, only a couple of trowelfuls down and I feel the unmistakeable ting of stone. I use the trowel like an ice pick in the hope of gaining a couple of centimetres more depth for the unassuming ball of energy keeping itself tight, carefully collecting moments of rain and sun, cold and warmth before unleashing itself into an improbable explosion of flower. Tiny roots caressing soil crumbles, a frisson of perkiness which will ignite its hidden potential. One down ninety nine to go. Cheery thoughts of colourful tulips and the scent of hyacinths on the spring air keeps me going.
The bitter winds off the mountains whip the leaves from their lofty treetop position. The sky is alive with eddies of golden leaves, dancing a swirling whirling dervish of a dance high in the air. You can’t help admire its intention, it happens so quickly – one moment we are basking in autumn hues and the next the trees are bare apart from the odd leaf refusing to budge, a tattered pennant, tenaciously clinging on. In spite of the cold, this is a month where wintery moments carry a positive air of newness. The hillside is transformed into a palette of buff browns, the rich autumn tones drain into the soil. Form and shape come to the fore, rococo silhouettes of branches and twigs decorate the sky. Intricate corals swaying with the ocean breeze. We get busy sweeping and collecting, hoping to restore a little order before the next wind scatters all across the garden.
I wake in the morning and am transfixed by the fairy-tale pink sky, framed by twinkle-tipped mountains, glittering in the half light. I lie cocooned in bed, too warm to move, knowing that this is a good place to be. The house is cold and draughty especially in these early hours before activity warms it up to a degree.
We turn to tasks that keep us warm in mind and body. When I am cold (which is more often that not) I turn to the kitchen. Lentil rich soups, thick and fragrant with spice and fiery curries enlivened with ginger and cardamon, become the order of the day.
I designate a day early in the month to make the Christmas cake. It is not much different to the one my mother has always made. I use her original recipe, written out in her small, neat handwriting and I prefer to use her battered old cake tin. Naturally I tweak and play with her recipe switching raisins and sultanas for figs and apricots, dates and cranberries. I add more brandy, more treacle, than required. I know mum will approve though, she’s all for it especially as she knows she will be getting a sizeable chunk to take home with her. The house is permeated with the smells of cloves and cinnamon - Island spices. For a moment I imagine the heat and spice market in Stone Town, Zanzibar. It’s a place I am happy to be transported to as my cake transforms itself in the oven. Three hours later it is ready. A jewel studded magnificence, heavy with the weight of spice and sunshine fruit, seeped in brandy and zest of orange and lemons. This year I decide I will give it just half a coating of pure white icing, in reverence to the snow tipped mountains out the window. And perhaps a sprig of holly. It is Christmas after all.
The fire keeps us busy. D cuts and stacks, I move them from log pile to the fireplace in the boot room where they dry out nicely before being transported to the sitting room. Weekends and the fire becomes our focus – let’s have a drink by the fire, let’s play a game by the fire, let’s read our book by the fire. Every activity has a new welcome dimension of gentle lambent candlelight and the fire's warming flames. The house is decorated with berry laden branches, foliage and dried grasses from hilltop walks. The Christmas tree fills the house with the uplifting scent of forest and fresh air.
It may not be quite the Christmas we had envisaged with borders closing, something that always feels so alarming! The threat of curfews and lockdowns hangs in the air and each day brings more restrictions and news of friends and family infected. Still, out my window this morning, there is a cold stillness, the brittle frost turns the grassy terraces into slopes of sugar-studded silver.
The constancy and the intrinsic beauty of nature in all its guises is something that I am forever grateful for.
Wishing you a very warm Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year