BBC Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison talks about finding light in the long winter months
But aren’t you worried about the axemen in the woods?” I asked a forester who was giving me a tour of his beautiful Hansel-and-Gretel one-room cabin amongst the trees. “I am the axeman in the woods,” he replied without flinching. I swivelled my eyes towards the crew. Alone in the countryside and in the dark is tolerable, even desirable to some folks.
Near here, there’s a gothic mansion at the bottom of its own dank valley, unfinished amid rumours the owner drowned in his own lake. It’s so eerie that Katie Price filmed Strictly-Come-Celebrity-Ghost-Hunting there a few weeks ago. The ranger lives in the only finished part of the house, all by himself. He told me he hears conversations through the walls most evenings. And there he is, perfectly happy with the whole arrangement. That is an exquisite kind of horror to me. Fine by day surrounded by beautiful nature; torture by night when villains lurk across the countryside, ready to get me.
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Villains in the night
I’ve always been afraid of the dark. In the suburban and urban years of my life, it has never been a problem. But in the countryside, where true unpolluted darkness is found, my movie-watching mind creates imaginary enemies who silently watch, for no good reason. (Or in the case of this summer, burgled our house while we slept upstairs). No matter the limited night-time visual acuity of the human eye, I believe they can see in full technicolour over great distances.
Movies (and my uneasy imagination) are powerful. I’d urge anyone against allowing a child to watch Jaws, for example. My 10-year-old self could probably even recognise the plastic mechanical movement of the shark that emerged from the sea, yet, even now, alone in a chlorine-filled indoor pool, the possibility makes my front-crawl a little faster. My rational mind knows what’s really out there. (Incidentally, a German friend of a friend had heard so much about dogging that they had assumed it was a common British pastime.) Filming other wildlife on a bitter winter’s night in the Highlands using night-vision equipment, in the green glare were only near-silent red deer – like many mammals, evolved to favour the night and avoid the daytime human threat. It turns out the villain in the countryside is me.
But the darkness cometh, regardless. This month marks the solstice, a chance to make peace with the night, when half of the globe is tilted away from the sun at its most extreme angle. On the shortest day, the sun’s arc across the sky, which has been dropping lower since June, has reached its very lowest. At noon this day, shadows are the longest in the entire year. It may be the darkest, but it’s not the coldest; that’s still a month away, because the sea and land are slow to lose the heat-energy absorbed by our searing summer.
Our celebration of the winter solstice goes back years before Christmas entered the mix and borrowed the traditions. As early Christianity – an urban phenomenon – spread into Europe, missionaries lumped all the rural regional religious creeds together under the term ‘pagan’. Even as Christianity took hold, pagan traditions remained: evergreen trees inside, Yule logs and even Father Christmas came from pagan ideas about spirits travelling in the midwinter sky. He didn’t bring gifts; they were historically given to celebrate a new year, but that changed when even Her Royal Miserableness Queen Victoria began to give presents to her family at Christmas. Then as now, the dark and cold compel us to create light and feasts to ward off the depression of the season.
If nothing else, the solstice is a reminder of the earth still turning. For people in the throes of suffering, it’s a torturous concept that so much continues while their worlds stand still in grief. Nowadays, western traditions mark ‘blue Christmas’ on the longest night, with a service to honour people who have lost loved ones in that year. The earth turns – even the solstice is only a moment in length – and will continue to long after we are gone. It advises us that our time here is short. Use it well. Happy solstice.