Winter always does this; luring us into dreams of long warm days before slamming the door shut with icy fingers. The clue was in the wind all along. As it moved around from southwest, the rainy quarter, a finger of high pressure on the map brought first the sunshine – but before we could rejoice, it carried on cycling through northwest, north and northeast until finally today it blew hard and freezing cold from due east. We dressed up like deep sea divers and waddled down to Portscatho to get some supplies; but once we were back at the van we got itchy feet and put on our boots and down jackets and walked the track down alongside the Percuil river and after mooching about for a bit near the boatyard we retraced our steps. We once paddled up the river on a rising tide in the kayak, but mistimed the tide and forgot a fierce onshore wind; paddling back all but spent. At one point it started to hammer down with rain and we laid in the boat and laughed ourselves silly; much to the consternation of our guide who clearly thought we were a pair of geriatric escapees.
Percuil – especially at this time of the year – is preternaturally quiet. The boats are all laid up for the winter and the summer sailors have gone. As we walked along the river we stopped frequently just to immerse ourselves in the silence. The deep sided valley sheltered us from the wind and even the rigging on the few boats left at anchor in the water was listless. All I could hope for was the song of a curlew, but we were denied that thrill until later in the walk when we were almost home. We did, however see a little egret feeding in the low tide shallows on the far side. We are the only campers on the site at the moment. Two others left this morning which was just as well because the cold weather and the fact that the days are still shorter than the nights has meant we’ve hammered the leisure batteries without which there’s no light or heat. So as the last van pulled out, we ran the engine for an hour to pump some juice back in.
But there was a surprise as we walk the last hundred yards to the boatyard because the blackthorn bushes there have started to blossom. Today there were only a handful of flowers but in a couple of weeks the abundant thorns will look as if they are covered in snow. For me they’re the real sign of winter’s ending and – as I’ve argued before – it’s more likely to coincide with the equinox than the first day of March. The couple of gallons of sloe gin we make; (for overseas readers it might help to know that sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn; tiny, hard and bitter as gall) – so the couple of gallons of sloe gin we make in the autumn have been steeping for almost exactly six months. The sloes go into the freezer for a week or so and are steeped in a mixture of gin and sugar. The skins break and the clear liquid becomes the richest purple. Initially the sloe gin is undrinkable and bitter. But after six months – like today, for instance, you can have a first taste. Fortunately for us – because we’re enjoying a period of abstinence at the moment – sloe gin goes on getting better and better for the next three or four years, So I suggest we invent a totally spurious tradition which, for the sake of making it sound truly authentic, we could call “Wettings”, and all get jolly and hammered at the equinox and share our plans for the summer. The person who brags the most gets thrown into the pond and has to say cuckoo instead of hello until the autumn equinox – for which I haven’t thought of a suitable ritual yet.
So it’s been a quiet but lovely day under grey skies and true to recent form I idly picked a stalk of grass that caught my eye on a stone gatepost and it turned out yet again to be a difficult one that hasn’t been seen hereabouts for maybe thirty years. So I dutifully took the diagnostic photos, filled in the record and paused for an hour before I pressed send – wondering if I really did want to make a fool of myself again.
So here are some more pictures I took today and one a couple of years ago to show the glory of full-on blackthorn flowering. The other two are the male and female flowers from a row of Corsican Pines above Percuil harbour. They certainly know how to strut their stuff!