Last year we had quite a mild December, and a good cold January, with the first daffodils blooming by the end of January – and then a brutally cold spring with plenty of snow and ice. What does this year have in store for us?
Friday night, (the 21st December) was the Winter Solstice. It occurred at exactly 10.23 pm, so the following morning (Saturday 22nd) was in fact the closest to the event. This marks the start of Astronomical Winter, which in many cases is the true winter, although in Ireland 1st December is usually considered the first day of winter by meteorologists.
Incredibly, yesterday I found daffodils were not only up, but some had flower buds! How long will it take for them to bloom? We’ll have to wait and see, but this December is certainly a little bit warm:
Incredibly, I also found Primroses in full bloom! It is extremely early for them, although they are often earlier bloomers than others:
Yes, we’re almost at that time again. This year the Winter Solstice occurs at 11.03 pm GMT (which is also our local time) so the first sunrise of our natural New Year is tomorrow, Monday. So do enjoy it. For those visiting Newgrange there will be no perceptible difference in light effect. Anyhow, take a look at what I found rising from the leaf-litter today:
Believe it or not, these are the fleshy leaves of Bluebells. Normally they emerge much later than December, but although it has been quite cold we have had few hard frosts. But whether we get snow or not is another matter, but I suspect not. Bluebells are very hardy though. But there are more than Bluebells around…
The bumblebee above is a worker Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) part of a nest of bees harvesting pollen from the yellow blossoms of this Mahonia tree which it is perched on. Unfortunately this bee will not survive the winter, but the much larger queen will, and she will start a new colony later, in the spring. Keep an eye for bumblebees though, because they are still around in small numbers.
Wildlife is not quite so noticeable in autumn and winter due to the short days and the poor light making it harder to see, but although you might not see it, it will definitely see you. For example, look at this Robin watching me from an arm’s length away, and I barely noticed it:
Today the precise time for the end of the natural year is 11.12 am Universal Time, formerly known as Greenwich Meantime (in about an hour’s time as I write this). It is our Winter Solstice and I marked it by visiting a local standing stone, which I have been studying with my brother for the past decade.
There does seem to be a strong alignment with the rising sun, as the flat face of the stone faces the sun, but its narrow edge points almost due south-south (it’s not perfectly flat being somewhat concave at the sea facing side). As many people will know, today has been hyped up as the end of the Mayan Calendar, and some unfortunate people have imagined this is the end of life as we know it. But it makes perfect sense that the Mayan Calendar ends today as it is the true end of the yearly solar cycle. In ancient times in Europe, and even much further afield, the sun was considered to be asleep for three days after the Solstice, with the actual rebirth, the birth of the new solar year, occuring on 25 December (most years), which you may choose to believe to be an incredible coincidence matching Christmas, if you so wish.
It has been long noted that the days immediately after do no grow noticeably longer than the day of the Solstice until a further three days have passed, so this could have something to do with it. Either way, it highlights just how important the sun is to our lives. But who were these ancients who erected these stone monuments on such a massive scale all across Ireland, and even in the difficult landscape of Wicklow? The monuments date to the Neolithic at least. The stone in the photo, which we refer to as the Leabeg Stone, is just to the north of Newcastle on the coastal plain and there are apparently references to this object in records going back to at least the 16th century. It can easily be seen from the road, especially by anybody seated on the top of the 84 double-deck bus as it makes its way either to or from Newcastle Village. Remarkably, it has an apparently related standing stone about 5 km to the west, on almost precisely the same latitudinal line. In a map you can draw and almost perfect east-west line from one stone to the other, with only five actual metres between them, which might actually be a discrepancy in the maps rather than any meaningful difference between them. Anyhow, out with the old and in with the new – happy new Solar Year to everyone!