Even in winter, the northeast Norfolk coast has its attractions, especially over the Christmas and New Year period when many flock here to see the grey seals that come to the beaches of Winterton and Horsey to give birth. For many it is an annual outing, an opportunity to walk off seasonal excesses, to get close to nature, to delight in the spectacle of the seals and their pups. Some are tempted to get too close, of course, but these days a dedicated army of volunteers in hi-vis orange jackets ensure that visitors and their naturally curious dogs do not disturb the vulnerable animals on the beach.
We arrive to find grey seal mothers and their fluffy-coated pups scattered like driftwood along the shoreline. Some are on the sand close to the breaking waves, while others are further inshore along the tideline, or even in the hollows of the dunes that back this coastline. Here and then along the beach, a hefty bull seal waddles in awkwardly from the surf to try his luck with one of the nursing females – this is the season for both breeding and mating.
The seals are not the only creatures of interest here today: walking north along the beach, a small flock of snow buntings – perhaps 20 or 30 birds – rise like a flurry of sleet on our approach before setting down again a little further ahead. Winter visitors from much further north in Scandinavia and the Arctic, they resemble frosted sparrows as they peck busily at the seaweed, sticking close together for security.
The seals and birds are engaging but the real star this cold January afternoon is the quality of the light, which morphs from gloom to gleaming in the space of half an hour. At first it seems as if the sky is weighed down like stone beneath a dense slate-grey sheet of stratocumulus but cracks soon appear and, like a hagstone held to the eye, an opening forms in the clouds to reveal the blue that lies beyond. As the sun loses height beneath the cloud layer, shafts of pale golden light break through. The play of light on the dunes invokes a ghostly atmosphere. The wind-bent marram grass of the dunes, caught in the glow, seems almost fluid – an impressionist rendering of a wave-tossed ocean. In the distance, beyond the luminous marram, the Perpendicular tower of Winterton’s Holy Trinity and All Saints’ Church rises loftily above the crouched bungalow roofs of the village. This fleeting serendipity of light gives the scene a numinous quality, an eerie supernatural glimmer. It is a scene that might be co-opted for the cover of a book of ghost stories – a lost work by M.R. James perhaps.
What do you do on a drizzly grey day in Berlin? A midwinter day when the sun is enfeebled and hidden, cowering somewhere beneath a thick duvet of cloud. What do you do in a city that you do not know well and only have experience of in winter?
In early January the detritus of Christmas can still be seen in the streets – fairy lights cling obstinately to avenues of artificial trees, and discarded Christmas trees litter the pavements awaiting collection for recycling. The year has turned and spirituality and festivities will soon give way to politics. In less than a week, Berliners of a left-leaning persuasion will be attending another regular winter event, the commemoration of the deaths of the Spartakusbund (Spartacist League) leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were summarily executed during the uprising of January 1919. Each year on the second Sunday in January Berliners gather at the Memorial to the Socialists at Friedrichsfelde Cemetery to commemorate Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others who perished at the hands of the right wing Freikorps. This year is the centenary.
I am a few days too early for this event so I decide instead to take a walk along the main body of water that flows through central Berlin, the River Spree. I walk out of Berlin Hauptbahnhof railway station and cross the river to its south bank to follow the path to Museuminsel (Museum Island), from where I will strike west away from the river towards Alexanderplatz. Light rain and dense cloud renders the urban landscape almost monochrome. Such colour that there is stands out for its rarity – traffic lights, bright umbrellas, the hi-vis orange jackets worn by street workers. Although this is the heart of a populous capital city there are few other walkers to be seen – the poor weather has seen to that – but here and there is a jogger, a strolling couple, a woman pushing a pram. Tracing the river, I pass a succession of ultra-modern waterside buildings – enterprise temples of concrete and glass that give the impression of being hermetically sealed from the gloom outside. Office workers in a brightly lit dining canteen pay me no attention as I walk past on the other side of the glass wall that separates us. The Foster-designed glass dome of the Reichstag makes an appearance above the surrounding buildings as I progress; black, red and yellow flags flutter in the breeze.
Leaving the canal behind after traversing Museuminsel, the lofty TV tower of the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz comes into view, as eventually do the twin Communist period tiered towers that flank Karl-Marx-Allee. At Alexanderplatz I descend underground to catch the U-bahn and a few stops later emerge once again at Potsdamer Platz where I cross the square to enter the railway station. Past sunset by now, the sky squid-ink black, the fluorescent blaze from the office blocks that fringe the square throws up reflected light from the rain-wet pavement. After colour-robbed days such as this the bright lights of human endeavour contrasted against the intense darkness of night can seem almost a comfort.
(This winter’s berries)
The turning of the year. These past few days mark the interregnum that sits uncomfortably between Christmas and New Year – a week of virtual Sundays and a period when some of us – those who are self-employed at least – do not know whether they should be at work or not, whether they should carry on regardless or surrender to the seasonal zeitgeist of calorific leftovers, television repeats and relentless retail opportunity. This is a living limbo marked by the dull ache of too much alcohol and rich food, and too little sunlight: rural Scandinavia in a parallel universe on a bad day, where Disneyesque fibre-optic conifers and tattered tinsel replaces the glittering white rime of pines, chain store neon glare subs for the aurora borealis and the petrochemical chug of cars queuing for city centre parking space drowns the imagined crooning of fur-clad carollers, the glassy tinkle of falling icicles and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath sensible Nordic footwear. We are now so far removed from the traditional Christmas tropes that any sense of irony has long been lost, and the multiple identities – spiritual and otherwise – of the winter soltice are now commonly, if erroneously, perceived as having been replaced by Winterval, a quasi-mythical simulacrum close to the hearts of apoplectic ‘PC-gone-mad’ bashers.
(Last winter’s icicles)
The weather doesn’t help, of course – too mild, too wet, too windy this year. At least some sort of status quo continues in the back yard where non-denominational (or possibly JW) goldfinches arrive in pairs to feast on niger seeds as they do every day, a suitably attired mirror-image illusion of avian dandies on opposite sides of the bird feeder. Meanwhile, out in the dun damp arable fields that surround the city beyond the new-build green belt, fieldfares flock – newly arrived winter visitors from Scandinavia, the real place that is, not the parallel universe version. Elsewhere, the TV flickers like a well-behaved heart monitor as a nation prepares for the ritual liver damage and rictus-grinned high spirits that signify New Year’s Eve. Or, rather, the younger ones do: most older folk ensure they are safely tucked up in bed by the witching hour when a nation stumbles forward, arse over tip, across the calendar date line. The circle is, as they say, unbroken. Happy New Year.