Some conspiracy theorists suggested that the overnight rise to 11 degrees from minus three was a consequence of nature taking back control in the face of reduced human activity. Irrespective, the opportunity to stuff the winter coat in the cupboard and step out in a spring fleece – even if only for half an hour at a time – had never been more welcome.
Last year, you will recall, the change happened a month later, and precipitated a rush to the countryside and coast in the last days before the drawbridge was raised. This year the mild spell is turning us all into racing pigeons, waiting like coiled springs for the traps to open. I wouldn’t want to be in the queue for the car park at Fountains Abbey when they do.
The combination of spring sunshine and the three long periods of effective house arrest has made the countryside more alluring than ever, especially in Yorkshire where there is so much of it that we are tempted to treat it as our extended back garden. We might have taken it for granted in the past but we won’t again.
Fountains Abbey is among the attractions that would have welcomed the year’s first visitors right about now, to see the snowdrops bloom. As it is, the first signs of spring will be less of a public spectacle. But we may yet hope that enough freedom of movement will have returned in time for one of Yorkshire’s most dazzling seasonal displays a month or so from now.
The thousands of daffodils that cling to the banks of the River Dove as it meanders through the unspoilt landscape of the North York Moors are a metaphor for this changing relationship between humans and nature. Until the 1940s, uncultivated flowers covered almost the whole of Farndale and had done for as long as anyone could remember. But the war effort saw the land turned over to growing vegetables, and since then the daffodils have constrained themselves to the paths laid out for them.
That was until last year, when for reasons no-one could explain, they began to bloom once more on the hillsides at the southern end of the dale. Perhaps the preceding wet winter had something to do with it; perhaps it was a portent for change. You’d have to ask a conspiracy theorist.
Daffodil Dale, as the locals call it, is a magnet for horticulturists and amateur photographers, disgorged by the coachload every March. It remains to be seen if they will come this year, but other parts of the North Riding have already witnessed renewed enthusiasm for the healing effects of nature.
At Pateley Bridge and outside Whitby, North Yorkshire County Council runs outdoor education centres which have since the postwar years hosted residential visits for tens of thousands of schoolchildren. They have been running at a loss, and the first lockdown last March saw them mothballed.
But the fear that they might never reopen brought out supporters in the same abundance as spring daffs. Within a week, some 16,000 people had signed a petition against their closure. One headteacher said that a trip to the centres had become a rite of passage for children. The council concurred, and on Tuesday committed itself to protecting and even enhancing them. The fact that they face a £1.6m shortfall because of the closure demonstrates that some assets are more valuable than mere money.
The cost of the quarantine on our collective mental health had made this a foregone conclusion. One survey suggested that in Yorkshire alone, one in three people who had swapped their offices for spare rooms at home felt stressed or lonely, and a quarter suffered headaches, a stiff neck or a bad back. No wonder we’re so desperate to flee the coop.
From my own desk I’m fortunate to be able to see snowdrops in the garden. They are thinner on the ground than at Fountains Abbey, but they’ll do. Up the road in Ilkley, the cherry trees along The Grove will soon start to flower, and the seasons will begin to change again. Let’s hope that the blossoming of summer will also come sooner and more suddenly than we think.
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