Winter strode out today, the sun bouncing up, white-gold and the cold like a snow queen, stamping in frigid perfection down an icy catwalk. How many enchanted memories of winter days are brought back by such a morning! Steam from boilers takes me to Manhattan, to cliffs of shining windows seen from the Chelsea hotel. Hoar frosted thistles, like cake decorations, transport me to winter in my childhood’s Wales.
In this seasonal series it is to be my privilege to lead a series of short written tours around four versions of our continent’s winter, for the sheer pleasure of your armchair travel, dear reader, I do hope.
We will go to Sicily, the heart of the Mediterranean, the ancient world and the Europe presently coming into being. Sicily in winter is the seat of secrets, the best food south of the Alps (too right I am biased – I lived there) and antique truths: ‘Everything must appear to change so that everything can stay the same,’ as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa put it in The Leopard.
To follow my favourite island we go to sea, heading out into La Manche, the dear old deadly English Channel. This unsleeping world of ships, stars and watchkeepers is a formidable winter environment. I first became fascinated by it as a child, pressing against the windows of cross-channel ferries. The news now has it as one of the world’s most active fault-lines: the actuality is a mulled and mulling, watched and vigilant sea.
And then to Paris. On days like these I find myself longing for a grand café crème, ideally outside Gare St Lazare where the boat train deposited us before the Chunnel, but anywhere in a frozen Paris would be perfect: imagine the Eurostars sighing and clicking behind you as you swing out into the queen of cities.
Our final journey is a walk through a riverine composite, from Strand on the Green at Kew Bridge to to the Spree in Berlin, perhaps, or the Adige in Bolzano, finishing, most certainly, at our gateway to the wider world, Venice, so peerless in winter that Joseph Brodsky vowed never to visit her in any other season.
No tour of winter worth taking would pretend the season is all immaculate pistes and fairy lights. Winter is also death and the blues. It is the light-starved and mind-pressing season. Many of us either suffer winter in some way or worry about people who do.
I wish I could tell you that my days begin with sunrise over the Pennines, where I live. I long to describe the new light setting the frost to steam and the heron stalking the freezing beck. But the fact is I am writing from my room in the secure unit of a Yorkshire hospital, where I have been detained under the Mental Health Act. Seasonal stress is an old story in our culture and in my family, but I blew a fuse – in fact an entire fuse box, week by week, hour by hour – over Christmas and New Year, culminating in confinement here. I am a voluntary patient now, free to come and go, but for days all I knew was the horror of a quadrangle of corridors and rooms (think budget hotel minus lavatory seat and bathplugs) around an exercise area. Returning to the world this week has been extraordinary. I have felt I was encountering birds, bare trees and snow drops all for the first time.
A lyrical journey through winter does not mean starry-eyed story. We may end with lambs skipping but we will not pretend abattoirs do not exist. Beauty, cheer and trepidation will surely all attend us.
Horatio Clare’s first winter notebook on Sicily will follow soon on Spectator Life.