Into Winter

In the Château de Chantilly there is a gem of a work of art. It’s an illuminated manuscript referred to as the ‘rich hours of the Duke of Berry’ – Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It is so fragile that it is rarely on display, but on the one occasion that I did see it I couldn’t spend happy hours turning over each page to reveal a new delight, but just two open ones. So I bought a facsimile of the calendar section to turn the pages without fear of cracking the colours on the vellum, and find my favourite for a cosy scene – the February one. There a woman and two men (on a settle) sit side by side, skirts drawn up breeches down, legs wide open, relaxing in front of a blazing fire of winter faggots. Outside a man drives a donkey, another is busy in the woodland and a woman has thrown something for birds – pigeons? – to eat; water is frozen in the water butts. Snow and gales wing through the skeleton-like trees outside; snug bliss inside.

That all came back to me last Sunday when we went walking in the Yorkshire Wolds on a mild day with the sun just peeping through the thin clouds. Sheep were still nibbling what grass they could find on the chalk uplands and the woodlands tucked into the valleys had almost lost all leaf, but for the evergreen holly, yew and mistletoe. A wintry scene, with traces of charcoal burners scattered among the trees. Quite a lot of coppicing had been done with branches piled high ready to be burnt. November 5 has passed, but Guy Fawkes’ Day with all the bonfires, apart from marking an historical event along the path to modern democracy, must be a useful way of getting rid of all the cleared undergrowth. Another way is to make wattle fences.

Wattle fascinates me. If it is made of hazel twigs, it is said to frighten the witches off. That is an old wives’ tale for the south of England as we are too far north in Yorkshire for hazel trees! I love the woven texture of these fences, and the practical way woodlanders used everything they cleared out in the winter months before spring ploughing and seeding. Winter is the time when nature and agricultural workers rest, unless they have animals and poultry to care for. The time to hang up one’s tools and sit in front of the fire.

On a settle, ideally. This is a hard wooden construction with high back and sides and a narrow seat with a lid over a storage place under the sitting area, now empty of cushions and blankets. Space inside houses is as carefully calculated according to season as the activities in field or wood are outside.

Wattle-and-daub was often used to infill the spaces between the wooden framework of houses as it was less expensive than bricks and lighter than rubble or rough stones cleared off hillsides. Daub can be composed of different materials depending on what there is to hand from the earth gouged out for the building’s foundations. Clay, being malleable when damp, was popular especially when mixed with horse urine which scared off insects. Horse urine was also used near where I am writing this to cure cattle hide being turned into leather. Our age of chemicals has abolished many ways of using waste from one process to make something else. Such as the twigs in wattle fences, like the new one I photographed on a recent walk. No waste. It’s a mutual relationship between countryside and the seasons.


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