Opinion & Features

I grew up in a house of priest holes – which sometimes came in handy

A priest hole ( Sjwells53/Wikimedia)

Someone once told me that there is no higher point between the spire of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and that of the Cathedral of Ss Peter and Paul in St Petersburg, so the biting easterly winds we are so used to in the East essentially whip in straight off the Urals. Regardless of whether this is true, East Anglia is besieged by winter cold in a way that I imagine would be alien to you if you lived in a Cornish valley. Winter is just starting to make its assault.  

Last week, when I staggered out after dinner to gather the children’s school bags from the car, for the first time this year little sparkles winked up at me from the brick path. But the cold has only just begun to wrap itself around our garden in Essex and the season doesn’t truly know itself yet. The week before, I was still shooing sleepy wasps drunk on fruit from the orchard out of the nursery.  

Throughout the year twigs are gathered as kindling from wherever they can be found and there is now a giant stack in one corner of the barn. Large boughs felled in previous years have been waiting for the attention of the axe, and now I need to split them down into usable size. Once this job is done, and the log store generally put in order, I will feel I have taken a stand against the impending season.  

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The answer to a truly cold winter’s evening is of course a cozy hearth, a glass of something fortifying and a dog. But getting a little chilly first heightens the pleasure, and in this household we raid the firework cupboard as often as possible. But given that three of our five children, my wife and at least one dog have winter birthdays, we don’t have to make much of an effort to find an excuse. We tend to let off a few fireworks when friends visit too.  

The Japanese word for firework is hanabi, which literally means “fiery flower”. I think the Japanese have this right because a carefully executed firework display is rather like a carefully executed flower border, just sped up and airborne.  

As it happens, our eldest daughter’s birthday is on the Fifth of November. I rather like the fact that I can, privately at least, concentrate on celebrating her birthday rather than thinking about the other grisly matter. I grew up in an Elizabethan house that had been home to a Catholic family. It was replete with a nun’s walk, an escape tunnel and large and varied priest holes.  

I hid in the priest holes myself, though only against the charge of having stolen an inordinate amount of chocolate from the kitchen. Even so, it is perhaps as well to remember, from the comfort of our winter firesides, what it must have been like in less clement times, and what it must still be like for those who face persecution, and for those who take their life in their hands every time they attend Mass. Always winter, never Christmas? 

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Last week we returned from a rare trip away. On this occasion to my parents-in-law, who live in Cirencester. Despite having seven seats in our Land Rover, there is no longer room for our dogs, so they went on their own holiday. Even without the dogs I have had to resort to one of those roof box contraptions. Pirouetting in the rain on the roof of the Land Rover trying to squish bags of dolls into the box was tremendously enjoyable.  

There was a prize for the effort, though. Together with a break, I realised upon my return, more fully than I have before, that our garden has moved from being something that was merely “happening” to something that has in a small way “happened”. Sometimes it takes going away to gain perspective. Anyway, this is an interesting thought as we approach our seventh winter here, and one I will pin, together with my memories of summer, above our hearth through the colder parts of the year.  

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My father-in-law was given frankincense on a recent trip to Oman, so he burned some. It filled the drawing room with a hallowed aroma. Of course, a fireside is a perfectly sensible place to think about prayers rising to heaven, and a comforting thought it is too.  

As I left the warmth and aroma to walk around the town, I had to intentionally fasten my coat for the first time this year and it made me think about time. The seasons are, above all else, a giant celestial clock. I was struck with the thought that sleepy, immovable, comfortable, utterly English Cirencester was completely Catholic for almost a thousand winters. There is another thought to pin above your hearth this winter.    

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Even a three-day absence left half term jobs stacking up back home. Writing deadlines, eye tests, dog vaccines – and that is not the half of it. The drive needs a full day of raking and weeding if I am to ward off winter potholes. Sybilla and I pass in the corridor with the greeting: “You can only get through what you can get through!” We wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Charlie Hart is a gardening writer. He is the author of Skymeadow: Notes from an English Gardener (Constable)