Lighten up

I’m not good with winter: I become cranky (crankier) and I crave hibernation, I hate the short, grey nature of the days. We have passed the very shortest day, thank goodness, but spring can’t come fast enough for me. It’s true that what little natural light there is in winter can be astoundingly beautiful, sneaking up on ordinary scenes and transforming them briefly with its slanting magic. But I want more.

Ridge and furrow in the Cotswolds

Ridge and furrow in the Cotswolds. At its best in winter light.

Guardians of the light

Guardians of the light

I enjoy the tacky fairy lights of Christmas and am grateful to the people who festoon their houses madly with glowing santas and skeins of retina-etching LEDs. In grey winter garden centres I can see why people spend their hard-earned on amusingly shaped solar garden lights. We’re all trying to fend off the darkness and it makes perfect sense for people of the Northern hemisphere to have festivals of light at this time of year.




Window at Hidcote Manor

Window at Hidcote Manor

Quite a few gardens open to the public light themselves up in the depths of winter nowadays, usually in a slightly more tasteful way than the flashy grottoes of commercial Christmas. I suppose it brings the punters in during the slow season, but I’ve never been very keen on lights in gardens, it seems wasteful, and invasive to neighbours and wildlife. I like to see a glow from uncurtained windows (it always makes me think of advent calendars) but I don’t like the fad for aiming spotlights at mediocre garden features which was ignited by garden makeover programmes of the 1990s.




Beech avenue at Hidcote Manor Garden

Beech avenue at Hidcote Manor Garden

Despite my misgivings about light pollution, the lights at Hidcote Manor a couple of years ago did give a small dose of twinkly feelgood to my winter. The features of this garden are familiar to me –  I live only 20 minutes away and was a volunteer there for a couple of years while I studied horticulture – and it was fun to see them given new colours and warmth, but at no point did I lose sight of where I was and what time of year it was.





This year we went to see the Bruce Munro light installations at Waddesdon and for some reason, even though I was wrapped against the cold almost as thoroughly as the statues which inhabit the grounds, and even though there were Christmas trees and a gaggle of little festive sheds selling baubles and mulled cider, I found myself thinking about summer.

Statues at Waddesdon wrapped up for winter

Statues at Waddesdon wrapped up for winter

One installation resembled a clutch of moons – but on the night we went the full moon was doing a pretty good job of upstaging those. Another installation, fluorescent pegs on washing lines accompanied by recordings of chattering birds, made me chuckle and think back to my trip to New Zealand last February, where I saw a washing line in Whakatane pegged by young swallows.

Bruce Munro's washing line

Bruce Munro’s washing line

Whakatane swallows in February

Whakatane swallows in February

The things I liked best, however,  were the lights which reminded me of summer plants. Globes, domes, glowing colonies of fruiting bodies, all linked by electric cable hyphae, filamentous roots… they all sent me time travelling forward into the days of glowing flowerheads.20141206-DSC_0015


Bruce Munro geodesic bottle dome 'Beacon'

Hydrangea 'Annabelle'

Bruce Munro installation at Waddesdon


As we drove home I thought about lanterns and lamps, how their forms are so similar to the forms of flowering plants. I suppose it’s no coincidence. Flowers are built to reflect certain wavelengths of light, to be incandescent with scent, to spread the message to pollinators. Therefore they must stand up and radiate.




And so as I sit in my study with my SAD lamp blazing I thank my lucky stars for the ability to imagine future sunshine, and for the knowledge that the days are lengthening despite today’s grey drizzle and we’ll soon be basking among flowers again.

Categories: Gardens, SeasonsTags: , , , , , ,


  1. As we were driving home at 4.00pm today, after a walk, I really felt that it was late and time for me to start preparing for evening meal then bath and bedtime. My brain was shutting down ready for sleep. Then I thought, this is crazy, it’s only 4.00! A few months ago I’d be starting tasks in the garden not winding down for sleep! I have a SAD lamp, I’m not sure how well it works.. I usually get so SAD I can’t be bothered to use it..


    • Arabella I know exactly how you feel. And I often get a bit “Oh what’s the point”-ish about the lamp, about getting outside, about taking exercise… It’s hard to get past the overwhelming sluggishness of this time of year. But at least the longer days are marching forward again.


  2. thanks Harriet – this is lovely – beautiful pictures and reflections. You and I share the urge to hibernate ! as you know. The hope of a springtime resurrection in the death of winter drives me too !!


  3. I think it is only natural at this time of year to want to hibernate and eat (all those protective layers of fat are very important, that is what I tell myself anyway!). January always drags, and the light levels seem very slow to change, but the spring will come, I promise! Then all hell breaks loose and we wish those bl***dy weeds would slow down …. Happy New Year to you both xx


  4. I feel the same way about winter: Dread the inconvenience/mess/icy cold/etc but I am a sucker for a pretty holiday light display. However, some people go in for such over-the-top productions (I’m sure you know what I mean, lol) that my only reaction is to wonder how in the world they can afford the electricity bill!


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