A Month In The Countryside

The first snow of winter brings life – and memories – into focus, finds Helen Walmsley-Johnson.

Illustration by Claire Jones

There was great excitement in the Invisible Woman household at the end of December with the arrival of actual proper snow. By “proper” I mean snow that remains crisp, pretty and unsullied. In southeast London where Mr Pushkin Cat and I used to live, snow doesn’t do this. For a start, if snow is forecast for our great metropolis it rarely falls south of the Hanger Lane Gyratory and any that does is quickly scooped up into malnourished snowmen (and the ubiquitous cock-and-balls) before being gritted to within an inch of its life. Then, after a brief and relatively pleasant interlude of looking a bit like Demerara sugar, it degrades to dark grey slush concealing god knows what. London snow is filthy stuff. Rutland snow is just as I remember it – the real McCoy – and I’ve been confidently looking forward to its arrival since I moved back.

A large part of the fun with rural snow is in the being prepared for it, because then you can tuck up snugly – and smugly – at home to enjoy it properly. And boy, was I prepared. The larder was full (for human, Cat and wild birds), the heating oil had been delivered and two cubic metres of logs had arrived in the drive. As it turns out, two cubic metres is quite a lot of logs and I stacked them all myself. I am proud of this.

Just as old houses have their own particular noises, so too does the wind when you live on top of a hill. This snow wind blowing in from the north had an eerie low moan and hit the back of the cottage square on, so when I got up in the morning it was no surprise to find the kitchen filled with a brittle blue-ish light that told me there was a decent covering. The north-facing kitchen windows were plastered with flakes and when I opened the door I looked out over a real-life Narnia – gin-clear air, a vaulted blue sky and everywhere white. I haven’t forgotten this view, I remember it very well, but it still took my breath away. Not so the Cat, who regarded this twinkling masterpiece with utter contempt and stalked off upstairs to his favourite chair, which was a pity because he missed the kite.

There is a red kite that regularly hunts above the escarpment, which starts at the bottom of our little garden. Once through an inviting little gate the land falls steeply away to a broad valley floor through which a small river runs, its erratic course marked by stands of trees and crimson dogwood. When I follow the line of trees away to the west my eye eventually comes to a line of medieval fishponds, usually thick with noisy water birds. The kite coasts above all this and, rather in the style of a sushi diner, picks off his next meal from the conveyor belt of pigeons, rabbits, voles and ducks all busily occupied and fatally unaware below him. I am always thrilled to hear the mew of the kite as it glides majestically into view over the roof of the cottage. It has a special significance for me. When my father died 18 months ago my brothers and I were talking about the way we’d noticed a hawk of one sort or another at certain turning points in his life and illness. It became a sort of motif to those last months. Last year as we walked back along the wild Suffolk coastline after scattering his ashes at a place he particularly loved, sure enough there above us and slightly ahead was a marsh harrier. Funny that. Anyway, to see the kite that particular morning was a little benediction on an already special day. As has become my custom I raised my hand in salute and whispered, “Hello, pa”.

That’s the thing with snow though, isn’t it? Such is its essential purity that everything else seems amplified and sharpened. Colours are brighter, the air clearer, sounds louder, emotions intensified. Eventually the lure of this strange new landscape proved too much even for Pushkin Cat and he requested I open the door for him. We had his usual performance of standing alert on the doorstep, ears pricked and whiskers a-tremble, as though he was about to rush out and do proper cat things (as if). And then, for the first time ever, he delicately laid a pampered metropolitan paw on the snow and found he liked it.

The snow has gone for the time being but I have two particular memories of that week: one is of the Cat, looking small and doubtful in the snowy landscape and the other, oddly, is of rediscovering the delight of warm pants, straight off the radiator on a cold morning. Small pleasures.

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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear