Blanchland, hygge, Killhope, natural Christmas decorations, Nordmann Christmas tree, north pennines, Seasonal Affective Disorder
I’ve always had a thing for Scandinavia. I’m not sure where this comes from but ever since I can remember it’s held a deep fascination for me. Our honeymoon was spent in Norway. Neither Wellyman nor I have complexions suited to tropical climes so we chose fjords and mountains rather than desert island beaches. If you gloss over the eye-watering prices and the fact that we spent a night in bunk beds in a youth hostel Scandinavia was everything we thought it would be.
My love of all things Scandi hasn’t abated. I can highly recommend the book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, The Truth About The Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth which is an intriguing look into why the inhabitants of the Nordic nations regularly top the tables of the happiest people on the planet. It’s also at this time of year I wonder how our friends across the North Sea cope with the long winters. For me it’s a tricky time of year. My body and brain crave a break from the garden to recharge my batteries. I even like the changing seasons. I’m not sure what it would be like to live somewhere where it was sunny all the time and there was no autumn or spring as we know it, but I do know I’d miss the first leaves unfurling, snowdrops poking through, the autumnal harvest and leaf colour. Oh, but the long dark nights and the gloomy days make everything so much more of an effort. Perhaps if I lived somewhere where snow glistened under sparklingly clear winter skies I wouldn’t mind winter so much. Instead Welsh winters tend to deliver damp and grey. Farrow and Ball might have done much for the colour grey’s reputation, rebranding it from dour to trendy with names like ‘Skylight and ‘Mole’s Breath’, but so far no one has managed to convince me of the merits of dampness. And whose bright idea was it to come up with the name Seasonal Affective Disorder? Yes, I know it sums it up rather neatly and produces the acronym SAD but no one who approaches the lack of light with trepidation wants to refer to the lamp which is a pretty poor substitute for the sun as their ‘SAD lamp’. Even the act of calling it that makes me long for spring sunshine.
Embracing the Danish idea of hygge is one way to deal with winter. After much consultation online I was still none the wiser as to how it’s pronounced – Søren (Flaneur Gardening) can you help? It can’t be translated directly into English but it roughly means cosiness, taking pleasure in the simple things in life such as gathering around a roaring fire, enjoying a steaming bowl of soup, lighting candles, snuggling under a blanket. This is all right up my street. It might be why I love Christmas so much. I know it’s not the done thing to put decorations up too early. Obviously there are the practicalities of keeping a Christmas tree alive for a long period of time in a centrally-heated home. But there’s most definitely a judgemental attitude to when it is deemed acceptable to adorn your home. I’m certainly not opposed to anything – candles, twinkly lights, a sparkly bauble or two – which adds a bit a glam to the house as the nights draw in. Our ritual has always been to restrain ourselves in terms of the tree and full on decorations until the 1st of December. I know for some Christmas Eve is too early!
So imagine how I felt when I was asked to make some Christmas decorations for a magazine and that they’d need a tree, lights, the works. Eek! So Christmas came to the Welly household on the 12th of November this year. We collected a tree from a nearby farm – it was the earliest tree he had ever sold in twenty years of business. There were slightly startled looks and ‘we thought we were early’ comments from other visitors to the farm. They were choosing their tree for collection later on, as we walked off clutching a sawn-off tree and huge branches of noble fir for the wreath making. I’ll admit it was a tad disorientating to have a fully dressed Christmas tree, mince pies and mistletoe in the house in the second week of November. I did have to pinch myself as I was making the decorations. I was an avid Blue Peter viewer as a child and would make the Christmas decorations they featured every year. To be able to come up with ideas and make them for magazines myself is a dream come true.
It was a short-lived burst of festive spirit. Even though we picked a Nordmann non-drop tree we didn’t want it to look forlorn by Christmas Day so it’s having a break from the central heating and it’s in the garden at the moment, tucked away in a corner, where it has so far survived the battering of the Atlantic storms passing through. I didn’t want to take everything down though so we still have lights, baubles and candles dotted about adding sparkle to the house.
We had a surprisingly early taste of winter last weekend. We were visiting family in the north-east when an icy blast of weather from Iceland was forecast. There was the lightest of dustings of snow in the garden on the Saturday morning but I knew that the higher parts of the North Pennines would certainly have more, so we set out to hunt for snow a bit like those storm chasers in America. We headed north to the fascinating village of Blanchland, built from the remains of the 12th century abbey. There was a good inch of snow and the paths were lethally icy under foot and it all looked enchanting under the blue skies. It was apparently -11°C with the windchill and the kind of cold that makes you feel like the air has been sucked from your lungs. It was quite a shock after such a mild autumn to go straight to winter like this. After lunch in front of a roaring fire we drove north to the pretty market town of Corbridge on the banks of the Tyne. From here there’s a road which takes you south over the very tops of the North Pennines, the spine of northern England. Sparsely populated with small villages of sturdy stone cottages and farmhouses, it’s a stunningly beautiful but little visited part of the country. It’s hard to imagine now but this was once a hub of industry. Mining for lead and other minerals was the main employer. Every now and then you’ll spot a cluster of buildings, remnants of the area’s industrial past and at Killhope there’s a restored 19th century lead mine, working water wheel and museum. It was on this stretch that the snow was at its deepest. It was a magical scene from the warmth of the car but a reminder that it must have been an incredibly hard place to live before central heating and electric lights.
It was a short-lived blast of winter and now we’re back home we’ve returned to the grey and damp, but it’s December in a few days and I can’t wait to indulge in some hygge.