December 2010

When, during the last few days ofJanuary, I heard that the keeper’s wife had found her false teeth embedded in ice over night (resembling those prehistoric insects which have been found embedded in amber) I knew that this winter was becomlng pretty rough. I awoke on the 26th to find all the outside pipes frozen, and there was a sullen lake in the bottom of the bath which refused to gurgle away. I have no truck with blowlamps. I wrap rags round thc pipcs and set them alight with the help of paraffin. Then I sit down and await that discreet gurgle and the subsequent rush of water down the plug hole. This system of unfreczing pipes is better than calling the plumber or fiddling around with blow lamps which snuff out in the slightest breeze. But don’t make the fire too big or you may have to call the fire brigade. This method is not recommended for wooden bungalows or lath-and-plaster Essex walls.

Denys James Watkins-Pitchford

by fake science

One pair of winter boots, a fleece, a down gillet, a buffalo and two woolly hats were required this evening. The rest was supplied by the bowl of stars that is the heavens.  Before dinner I had seen shooting stars interrupt the view of the multitude of stars in the pleiades.  I saw the band of Jupiter and his Galilean groupie moons.  I had picked out the double stars inside double stars around the plough.  Orion was just beginning to rise from the trees and it was time to go in and eat.  The scope stands sentry with the snowmen, ready for later.  Later I will try and pick out nebulae and clusters and the craters on the moon.

A few nights ago I looked up at the stars and Orion was hunting the moon.  I wondered what our ancestors would have made of such a sight.

orion over the cottage on the 18th

The image shows Orion, a well recognised figure in the night sky and a thing of much importance thousands of years ago in Ireland.  On the night of the 18th of  December he was hunting the moon with his bow held forth.

he has the moon in his sights (18th)

This morning the moon had still eluded him as I caught a moon rise in the hours before dawn.

this morning before dawn the moon is still bold and un-scratched (8 second exposure on camera)

Orion, (or Lugh, or Cúchlainn, or Setanta, or The High Man) still has his other arm with the club, or maybe spear, or fist.  Tomorrow morning the moon will be in range and The High Man will strike the moon and it will bleed red.  Then, as the moon is wounded, the sun will begin its deep cycling up of energy.  From tomorrow the sun will start slowly clawing back the darkness from the fallen moon.  We shall see warm days again in the far future.  The High Man has triumphed.

stellarium predicts the moon will be caught just before dawn tomorrow morning

Tomorrow morning is the solstice, and full moon, and lunar eclipse, and a horizontal eclipse.  At 7 to 7:30 am the full moon will turn blood red before it sets (in the north west) and falls and is replaced with the solstice sun from the exact opposite direction.  No one is really sure how red or it will turn, deep, or ruby, or pink, as the exact colour is weather dependent and unpredictable.  However, it will be worth getting up and seeing if the clouds are not in the way as it is an extremely rare event.

Image via irishweather online

Another 5 to 10 cm predicted for localised parts of Ulster for tonight.  Hard to predict where as they are showers from streamers from the Irish sea, but North Antrim seems to be in the line of fire.  Another 5cm seems to have fallen here today.  This makes me wonder why I cleared the drive.

The chickens aren’t enjoying it all. Although they do have some new friends.  Garden birds are finding their way into the coup every day.  Warmth and food are the main attractors.  I keep releasing them but a handful keep returning.  One of the robins (I know, I should, by logic, only have one) has taken up permanent residence and refuses to leave when I release the others.

The Christmas carols are blasting out around the cottage. Massive icicles are hanging from the eaves.  The snow is lying one foot thick and it is snowing some more now.  Tomorrow a 4×4 is being driven far by a colleague to pick me up for work.  If you are imagining a Landover then don’t, it has leather heated seats and he keeps randomly switching them on so I think I am wetting myself.

Tonight I cracked open the last bottle of the fat black cat real ale.  I promised myself that a new batch would be started only when the old batch had finished.  A couple of months ago I tentatively sipped a quarter bottle.  Two nights later I tried a half bottle.  Two nights later I braved a full bottle.  I seemed to have got the microbiology correct and it actually tasted good.   When I first bottled it all I was surprised at how much I had made, but most of it ended up being given away to friends.  So, a week ago I looked at the last two bottles and was surprised at how little I had made.

With the carols and the holly and the twinkling lights I got carried away and began to brew.  Pots of water boiled and measuring scales were out.  Culchie living meant I could stand in the patio, at minus 8, with a big plastic barrel and swing it about manically without anyone seeing and wondering (sterilising it with solution means it can pop open mid shake or swing, not advisable indoors).  I was all finished and sealed the fermenting mixture up when the lovely Sharon popped in and reminded me that fermentation usually takes six days.  In six days time I will have to set aside a couple of hours to bottle it all.  I mentally counted six days from now and sighed. Whoops.

That special time of year is nearly upon us and this year it has many more reasons to be special.  It is the solstice.  It is no coincidence that Christmas falls so closely to the solstice.  Many believe that the Christian festivals were timed to replace the festivals of old religions as a smooth transition rather than out with the old and in with the new.  If you are not convinced of this, then ponder the things that define Christmas other than the birth of Christ.  Things like the tree indoors, the red and white man that can travel up and down chimneys and the flying reindeer.  The Fly Agaric may be able to answer some of these oddities.

Equinoxes, solstices, and full moons were all significant gathering times for humans for tens of thousands of years.  This might explain the strange wandering timing of Easter; the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

Some books state the summer solstice as being the most important event, others say that it was the winter solstice.  In Ireland the winter solstice seems more significant with places like Newgrange aligned to it.  The winter solstice is the point where the sun is at its lowest in the sky and the shortest day and the longest night. The solstice was the sign to everyone that, although the hardest part of winter was yet to come, the sun was slowly crawling back and spring will return eventually.

This winter we find ourselves in a second cold snap before it is even January.  The metoffice suspect that it may end up being the coldest December since records began.  Is this a randomness of the weather system or has it deeper connections?

the waxing moon today

A more special and strange event will take place on the solstice this year (21st December).  It is irrelevant to the weather and would take place if we were here or not.  It is a stunning example of the mechanics of the sun, earth and moon.  Not only is it a full moon on the same day as the solstice but there is also a lunar eclipse!

how the moon should appear on tuesday just after 7am – close to the horizon looking NW

On Tuesday morning between 7am and 8am the moon will turn blood red.  If the sky is clear and it is visible it should be quite dramatic as it is close to the horizon.  Just before half seven would seem like the best time to see it as dawn will swamp it at 8am.  Look for it at the point were the sun normally sets on these winter nights, to the NorthWest.  I wonder what our ancestors would have concluded from such a sight if they too had such a winter.

The lovely Sharon, the little man, and I ventured out today.  The day’s mission was to make it to the shops to get essential supplies.  When I say essentials, I mean the luxury items that cannot be purchased by walking the one and a half miles to the village.

The first step was to clear the depth of snow on the driveway to ensure the car would not be swamped in it.  I even put together a crude snowplough of planks and rope.  This was quite effective and made the whole process easier.  For a brief moment it was extremely effective; I tied a rather large flagstone to it to weigh it down.  This made it bight down deep in the snow and clear it very well. . . . for three feet, where I could no longer drag it further.  I wonder what the combined pulling force of two cats and four chickens is?  I could put a bowl of sliced ham at the bottom of the drive to entice Tillie and a warm bed to entice Tallie.  The chickens would prove more difficult as they hunker down to the ground so much that we nearly step on them all the time.

An hour later and the lane was clear, ish. The roads were the worst I have ever seen.  I am pleased to say that most people were taking it slow.  I am not pleased to say that some people have no concept of a safe breaking distance.  One person had their distance behind as less than safe for a lovely summer day never mind conditions were breaks don’t actually work.  Rant over.

The lovely Sharon usually enjoys shopping.  She likes to wander the isles and ponder all the items and think of lovely things she can make.  However, today she had her composure tested and did not enjoy the experience at all; it was end of the world shopping at the supermarket.  I am not brilliant with crowds, so to distract and amuse myself I counted the shoppers with walking boots and rucksacks.  Attached to a couple of pairs of Wellington boots were friends of ours.  They too had their little man in tow.  It turns out that they would not have been able to get their supplies today if it had not been for the kind help of a local farmer who ploughed their road and lane.  I imagine that this is the story over much of the land today.  Before we parted and battled the trolleys we were reassured that we were not mad, when we confided that we each had shovels in our cars.  It’s s’no joke.



I walked down the lane.  On the way, I collected the eggs from the coup and excited the chickens.  They thought it was time for a feed.  I ignored them and carried on.  The frost is beginning to coat things.  The stars are hiding behind the clouds.  The geminids are streaming across the heavens, but only in my imagination as I see nothing of them.  I do see the moon though.  It is waxing now and looks like maybe a week and a bit from full.  Then, when it is big and bold, the sun will be at an all time low.  It will be at solstice and it will begin its long slow pulse to drag us all along the seasons.  The moons name is cold moon at this time. The magic weather people are casting their algorithms and they predict we will be in a deep cold, in the darkest of days and longest of nights.

unknown source

unknown source

me want this

unknown source

Over half the schools in Northern Ireland Closed. There was traffic chaos the night before, and the roads were treacherous in the early frozen hours this morning. This was a day that, for us, Christmas had begun.

part of the holly harvest

At the weekend we got our Christmas tree and it stood under-decorated and forlorn in the corner until today. We unpacked the Christmas decorations and ruthlessly decided that we had too much. This year, less is more. We wrapped up against the winter chill and ventured out as a family to the hedgrows near the cottage. We had our scissors and buckets and we went Holly harvesting. The holly is a typical Christmas season decoration. It is still thick and alive with green in the depth of winter. A few weeks ago we watched Edwardian farm and learned that holly used to be tied to a rope and used to clean the chimney. Alternatively, a chicken can be used, being dropped down and its distress ensured a clean shoot. This option is not the best as we have a narrow pipe wood burning stove it is just plain cruel. Tonight I read that the holly option is not advised in Ireland as it is thought to annoy the fairies!

winter rose hips

Earlier that day I did something a little clichéd for this weather. I went for a long walk, through deep snow, to the nearest village to get the little man his food. To be honest, we had plenty but I needed very little excuse to get out roads untouched by cars. It is the first time I have ever popped out to the shop in my winter mountain boots.

the village burn

Meanwhile, the lovely Sharon built a snowman. The powdery conditions required a bit of skill to get him to stick. She took great delight in showing him to me, and I took delight in telling her that it was only a matter of time before the chickens discover that his eyes are made out of clusters of raisins.

the snowman preparing to hug the chickens

The weather is truely amazing here as it is everywhere at the moment.  However, the trips into and home from work are not so amazing.  I think I got off lightly today as I have heard some stories of people trapped in traffic for ages and people having to book into b&bs near to us as they could not make the journey at all.  For me a  forty minute journey turned into two and a half hours.  None of it was stuck in traffic, all of it was on insane roads.

I would love to take some pictures of this winter beauty but I leave in darkness and then return in darkness.  Darkness is a steady presence this time of year.  Any wonder that at the deepest point of the depth of winter we have a festival of light to brighten the cheer.  A time for family and gathering and excess of food to laugh off the chill and cold.  This is an old festival that has now taken on a brighter light in recent times (read recent as over a thousand years).  A time of love and joy and hope.

I did have a chance at the weekend to catch a few pictures of the winter sun as the fields around the cottage began to gather the first seeds of fog.  The mercury was falling as it is now.

One last thing two say; a driving tip from the lovely Sharon.  She always carries two empty coal bags in the boot of her car.  The use of coal bags came into action today when she got her car buried at the end of the drive.  She used empty coal bags to put under the wheels and get her out of the deep snow.  Don’t be getting the wrong impression of this wonderful (and lovely) woman.  She is certainly wiser than I in ways too much to count, but she did forget that she always carries the bags in her car and she instead carried herself and the little man all the way up and down the long lane to the garage to get two empty coal bags.

Tonight I fed the fire then I stocked the pile of fire feed for the night.

I fed the little man then I sat down to feed myself.

Only minutes later I fed the little man again because apparently, through cries and screams he informed me,  I did not feed him enough.

Then I fed myself and sat and digested and chilled.

Later I went out for the chores.

I fed the parcel box at the end of the lane a third of a can of antifreeze until it yielded its christmas deliveries.

I fed the cats and hissed at the stray who steals and cheats his way into the sheds.  The residents seemed to approve with excess leg rubbing.

I fed the birds who seem to be devouring peanuts and seeds at an astronomical rate.

I fed the chickens who are still laying one a day each everyday and are dandering about in the snow in the daytime.  This is against how their breed are supposed to behave, but they are stupid and no-one has told them any wiser.

After all that I had a few brief moments to stand and catch a few falling stars.  The clouds to the south show a weak band  far off and the clouds to the north are heavy with snow.  But here in the middle we have Orion and Cassiopeia and the mercury is down to minus eight and a half.

Good night, and it is ….. a good night.