22 Dec 2015
The Reversal of the Sun
Last night, the skies cleared and, even here in well-lit urban London, there was a glorious bright moon and lots of glimmering stars to be seen. It was an awesome portent of the solstice to come in the early hours of this morning.
Solstice translates as 'sun standing still' but it's a misnomer because the solstice defines the moment that the earth shifts so that the North Pole starts to tilt back towards the sun and our days lengthen in the Northern Hemisphere. For our Antipodean friends, the opposite is true - sorry, guys, your days are now getting shorter. For any gardeners not bogged down in the more commercially oriented event of Christmas, there might be a frisson of excitement at the thought of our days slowly getting longer and lighter over the next few months. But I'm warned by my diary page for today ominously declaring: 'Winter Solstice. Winter begins.' Suddenly I have visions of Narnia's winter descending across the land. But without kindly Mr Tumnus.
The solstice was officially at 4.48 this morning although there would have been very little to see as sunrise wasn't (allegedly) until 8.05 a.m. Although at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, it's the sunset that is more important in winter. Stonehenge, with standing stones reckoned to be over 5,000 years old, is a site sacred to neo-pagans who turn up to celebrate the solstice twice a year. Scientists believe that the site was originally a burial place for over 500 years before the stones were erected. Whatever the truth, there's a powerful atmosphere there for a fanciful child. I vividly recall walking among, and touching, the stones as a young child; my dad liked to take us kids off to see sites of cultural or historical interest (Dover Castle, Land's End, Magna Carta, the Round Table, etc). Maybe I was a geeky kid (no response needed, thanks) but those visits have stayed with me and the stones, especially, wow, they exerted a powerful magic over my imagination. At the time they weren't roped off. Anyone could park up on the road and just walk around; you can't do that these days. I don't think we gave a lot of thought to the possibility of the stones toppling, despite evidence that some of them already had.
What is remarkable is that the solstice has been marked in many different cultures for hundreds of years. The winter solstice has always been an important event in the northern world; it was a day that marked the start of winter and a time for slaughtering cattle. In that way winter feed was saved and meat added to food stores over the coldest winter months. Our ancestors traditionally lit fires, told stories and generally hunkered down in the dark days of winter, cheered up by beer and wine brewed during the year that was then ready for drinking - a tradition carried on today by those (myself included) who prepare sloe gin or other festive treats from foraged, or home-grown, fruits.
I'm hoping that the solstice isn't going to be a harbinger of imminently plummeting temperatures. Inevitably, they can't be far off but, for now, I'm revelling in milder conditions to get jobs done in the garden, usually just managing a couple of hours before darkness falls at 4 pm. We had lukewarm sunshine and temps of 60F on Sunday; if it had been February, we'd have been welcoming in an early spring. Today was greyer, wetter and a lot windier but, waiting for a pause between gusts of wind, I managed to photograph a few of the plants still flowering to show how mild it is. I have snowdrops in flower next to summer's bright red geraniums and calendula next to primulas. The echinacea is, admittedly, the last one for this year.