We’ve been waiting for winter with bated breath. Insanely mild temperatures have tempted flowers and shoots out, causing horticultural pessimists to shake their heads and mutter.
And lo! A couple of days ago the skies cleared, the wind dropped and the temperature plummeted to… well, about -3C. I know this won’t impress my Norwegian and Canadian friends, but here in the Cotswolds it was heady stuff. I was supposed to be doing paperwork and housework that afternoon, so of course I grabbed my camera and went out.
Batsford Arboretum is only ten minutes away from our house, and, what’s more, entry is free to RHS members at this time of year. As soon as I arrived I knew I was investing my time wisely. There was no wind, not the slightest puff. It was quiet, so quiet that all I could hear were the flitterings and cheepings of birds. A raven cronked heavily from the top of a Sequioadendron giganteum and the sound must have carried all the way to Stow-on-the-Wold.
Just inside the entrance there was a smattering of Helleborus, Eranthis hyemalis, and Cyclamen coum. So far, so wintery. But then I saw a large shrub splashed with gold – hang on a minute, surely those flowers were a bit early? “Aren’t those flowers a bit early?” said the one other visitor, “What is it?” “Erm, yes… oh it’s a Genista,” I replied casually (not admitting that I’d just checked the label).
Further on down the path lay a host of golden daffodils. Wait! What? Yes, a blithering host of them. In January. In fact as I walked on I could see that quite a few varieties of Narcissus were in full flower, and not just the ones in the most sunny positions either. I was so distracted by them that I slipped on a slope and only saved my camera at the cost of muddy trousers and my dignity.
I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve seen kingcups (Caltha palustris) flowering in a frozen pond in January. You’ll be glad to hear I was careful not to fall over again.
Round the corner I found the less surprising Hamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’. A goldcrest fluttered among the golden shred flowers – I held my breath and willed the autofocus to work faster. This was the only shot I got, those goldcrests are speedy little blighters. Still, slightly blurry is better than nothing.
By this time I was in full Fotherington-Thomas “Hello trees! Hello sky!” mode. The air was clear, the sky was blue and all around me tree and shrub treasure was glittering. Hydrangea paniculata in particular was showing its winter value in the low rays of sun.
As I left the arboretum a silver moon stood high above the bare branches and the sun dropped like a golden penny into the ridge of the Cotswolds above Bourton-on-the-Hill.
I knew that the next night would bring a heavier frost.
The following morning, despite the lure of my filing cabinet, I was off up the hill again.
This time it was noisier. There were dog walkers chatting. Chatting! Why weren’t they studying the fluffy silver buds of the Magnolia? Or sniffing the Daphne? Some of them were actually chatting to their dogs. Apparently it was one dog’s birthday. The dogs took no notice, they were busy scaring off the birds. I went a little more off the beaten track but the frozen ground meant that birds heard me crunching miles away. The best I managed was a blurry treecreeper, complacent in his camouflage. So I concentrated on less mobile subjects. Hamamelis, Cornus and Parrotia persica were providing constellations of colour.
As the midday sun burned away the frost I walked back to the café and used coffee and cake to put off my return home a little longer.
I’m glad I did, there’s more mild weather on the way – there may be no more silver-gilt on our gingerbread this winter.