The first of December sees us snowbound and temperatures plummeting to minus 18°C during the night. This, our second winter at Bridge Eal, is even harsher than the first – the snow is up to my knees, with blizzards adding layer upon layer. The empty valley is stunningly lovely, and it is so cold that there aren’t any rabbit tracks. Even so, David shovels the snow from the outside of the drystone walls so it doesn’t build up and create an easy way in. it is tough walking in the deep snow, but it is much easier for David, who gets about on skis. The main river is frozen over in places with dark water running under the ice, though the dipper still slips into the flow, then pops up to preen and shake its tail. It feeds on caddis fly larvae, so hopefully it has plenty of food. With such a weight of snow, it’s vital that I brush it from the topiary and from the box hedge. This hedge has suffered enough already with being dug up and moved here, then subjected to deep frosts last winter. it struggled to pull through in the drought of early summer, and before this month was looking very sad in places. I have more box plants in four-litre pots as replacements for some areas. These have been grown from cuttings from the same source material – so the hedge itself will be identical -and I will plant them in spring. This morning I wake to see the garden is no longer white or even patchy but bare earth thanks to a sudden thaw. I wander around, well wrapped up, to assess the damage: crushed sedums, broken branches on all the new roses and leeks that look like a lawnmower has been over them. This amazing amount of damage is down to the voles that live in the drystone walls. I can see where they have left squiggly tracks as they channelled under the snow, safe from the owls. They have even obliterated a clematis that I had caged in fine mesh, by burrowing up from underneath.
The garden looks such a mess of soggy foliage that when the snow comes again it is a relief to look out on its concealing purity. Not as deep this time, it gently transforms steps, paths and outlines so the perennials look like charcoal marks on white paper. It is bitterly cold, more damaging to plants than when they were insulated by 18in of snow; the day before the solstice, the temperature plummets to a numbing minus 10°C in the afternoon.
I take a bucket to the wood and gather soft moss from fallen trees, peeling it off in thick wedges; collect lichen-covered twigs from the path; and cut fern fronds. I cut branches of berried holly and spruce for the greenery and add these to a stash of found materials to create a Christmas wreath. It’s easy to make, but I have to work fast because of the cold.
Taking a double base ring, I hold the moss between the brass hoops and fix it on using florists’ wire. I use the ferns (fronds of the male fern are still green in the wood) together with the spruce to give a dense background to the wreath. The luscious, scarlet holly berries sing out against the greenery. The larch cones are wired in too – I love their nutty brown colour and shape – and the grey, lichen-covered twigs add lightness at points on the circle. Finally, I tie a red ribbon bow at the top. Against the dark green of the front door, it looks very welcoming and festive.
For Christmas, I’m given a present that turns out to be quite addictive! It’s a weather station with a sensor that we fix to the back of the summerhouse. This sends a signal to a receiver inside, so we can tell what the temperature is without venturing out. We have a three-year weather log, so can compare it with last winter, but now we can do it from the warmth of the kitchen. It’s so helpful to know when to rush out and fleece plants, so we intend to put another sensor in our greenhouse.