When a Man is Tired; Winter Has Come; Space and Serenity.

To plagiarise Samuel Johnson:

“When a man is tired of dawn, he is tired of life, for there is at dawn, all that light can afford.”

London, (and life), the correct nouns from Johnson’s famous quote in 1777, clearly had and still has its multiple diverse attractions, but for those of us loving a more rural existence, simpler charms often suffice.

I’ve reminded myself of this through most of early December, as I’ve tweaked the curtains at first light. More often than not assessing that no matter how chilly the bedroom is, let alone the frost-encrusted pee can outside, it’s worth pulling on extra multiple layers over nightshirt and long johns, pulling down a beanie, and grabbing not just the camera but a sturdy tripod to set exposure times long enough to capture the stunning colours that have often filled our skies in such unpredictable fashion.

As the context of life beyond these hills continues to surprise, if not alarm, since alarm fatigue set in a long time ago (– for posterity, or overseas readers: galloping inflation; a plethora of striking nurses, ambulance drivers, postmen, train drivers, border staff, civil servants, etc. in the run-up to Christmas, a huge foiled plot to overthrow the German government; mass protests against zero Covid policies in China; yet more carnage and destruction in Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine; Oh, and the novelty of many results from a winter-time football World Cup zenith in Qatar), the garden is in wintry stasis.

But the vistas from our elevated viewpoint are both static and ever-changing.

I read here this week, in the regular CAM magazine feature on college student rooms, that Sir Trevor Nunn, the now elderly British theatre director, is convinced that the height of a ceiling has a big impact on one’s psychological well-being. He was fortunate to occupy in one of his student years a large, old college room at Downing, Cambridge, with two nearly full-length sash windows, with views over the court. I’d never considered this possible benefit of room height before – we have both vaulted and really low ceilings in different rooms here! I’m tapping this out with a roof purlin barely 2 feet over my head, and a sloping ceiling 3 feet in front of me. The significance of ceiling height is also discussed here, where research purported to demonstrate that higher ceilings tend to encourage more abstract, free-form thinking, whereas lower ceilings encourage more focused detail-specific thought, and can thus be incorporated in contemporary building design to influence behaviour, and in a retail environment, marketing and purchases!.

This line of thought made me wonder about the psychological impact, not just of exposure to “nature” which is now widely recognised as being beneficial, but also of landscapes, and more particularly the consistent views possible from any particular locus within a landscape. One of the features of Gelli Uchaf which has always appealed to us, is the way the landscape opens up in front of us, immediately, the moment we walk outside – a wonderful contrast to the small windows and limited views from within the house itself. But I’ve only recently reflected on just how unusual this is for a property unless it’s located up a hill, with land falling away in front of it, so that even mature trees, (or in an urban environment other buildings) don’t block the potential for views to a distant horizon.

Maybe such extended vistas and space have an equally beneficial impact on thought processes? After all, wouldn’t that have been the normal hominid life experience for so many thousands of generations.

Is this partly why we’ve always found this to be an inspiring place to live?

Who knows, although I’ll also reference this recent paper which explores the possible benefits of distant, even virtual views on well-being. (“Impacts of Landscape Type, Viewing Distance, and Permeability on Anxiety, Depression, and Stress” – Yun Shu, et al.). Or read this fascinating discussion in the New Yorker magazine by Alex Hutchinson, on the benefits of viewing trees in an environment both in terms of cognitive function, and even recovery from surgery. And why this might be.

During this burst of dry weather induced dawn activity, there was some added excitement one morning after positioning myself for the actual moment the sun rose above the distant Carmarthenshire fans, wrapped up well at minus 8. Suddenly a dark moving smudge appeared from behind the shoulder of the hill beyond Llansawel. On such a still and silent morning I could hear the engine noise, as the “paramotor” flew higher and onward, West. Perhaps it was a BGD “Blizzard”?

Whatever, I hope the pilot was well wrapped up and that he or she, though somehow I suspect that this early dawn thrill seeker was probably male, would certainly have taken some spectacular footage from such an amazing vantage point.

In recent times a sustained, calm, freezing spell here in early December is unusual, and although we’ve been spared the significant snowfall in many parts of the UK, temperatures have consistently dipped to minus 10 degrees C at night and barely risen above freezing all day. At least the wind has been none existent most days, although this has had a big impact on UK electricity generation, now increasingly dependent on wind generation.  Strong winds and any form of precipitation really suck the heat out of a building, but fortunately, our wood burner has helped to keep the house’s core temperature at a reasonable level, and small, dry, unsplit hawthorn logs are perfect for keeping the fire going all night. Just turn the stove air inlets right down, and revive the fire in the morning by holding the door very slightly ajar. Never mind riddling the ash out. (It’s taken me over 30 years to work this trick out, which is also well worth doing for 5 seconds before and after opening the door to add another log – the air boost avoids any tendency for smoke to enter the room).

An extra delight during this same period followed my decision to shun listening to the shooting football stars of France and Morocco battling it out on the evening of Wednesday, December 14th, and instead head outside around 7.45 pm for a glimpse of the Geminids. It was a rare night (in this fortnight of calm weather) when the wind had picked up from the North, so the minus 7 felt much colder, but sheltering in the lee of the Southerly gable wall, and training my eyes South East towards the belt of 3 stars at Orion’s centre, it wasn’t long before I spotted my first shooter. I’d intentionally left the camera inside since I usually fail miserably with any images of shooting stars, but suffice to say that my patience was rewarded with 15 shooting stars, over about a 30 minute period, by which time I’d had enough, and probably eclipsed any previous bout of meteorite viewing I’ve enjoyed. Several were really bright, slow-moving trails covering large arcs of the sky.

The Geminids are unusual in that they’re the result of debris not from a comet’s trail, which is the source of most of the earth’s regular meteor showers, but rather an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon, which is a roughly 6 Km diameter mass of rock first discovered in 1983. It was quickly realised from the location and timing of this asteroid’s pass close to earth that this was the likely origin of the Geminid meteor shower, which had been observed for the first time way back in the 1860’s. Click here for more on the history and origin of the Geminids. I’ve included a photo taken the following night of the sky in this location, when in somewhat warmer conditions, I stood for 15 minutes or so and didn’t see a single shooter! Perhaps gazing into space, the final frontier, is equally beneficial for one’s mental state and imagination? Though it does leave you with a cold, stiff crick in your neck.

This intense 2 weeks of severe cold has halted the emergence of any more snowdrops, and currently, it looks like it will be a delayed flowering season for many very early-season flowers. However, a single snowdrop has emerged close to the base of a Sorbus, that not only emerged very early but seems to have extreme cold tolerance, not even ” wilting” as is typical for most snowdrops in temperatures this low, as the antifreeze-trapped water molecules micro-crystallise which reduces cellular turgidity. I’ve no idea which snowdrop it is, and it may even be a Gelli Uchaf seedling – for many years I’ve hand pollinated any early forms, and have a vague recollection of transplanting a couple of seedlings of G. “Three Ships” to this location a couple of years ago. One to watch in years to come.


Before the big freeze had set in, I’d spent a bit of time re-locating the 4 X 1,000 litre second-hand IBC water containers we acquired in the autumn, to give us a little more resilience in the event of future summer droughts. This required a bit of thought to choose positions where they can be filled fairly easily, can be drained out easily for watering the different parts of the garden, and also screened from view. They may prove to be invaluable in keeping plants alive in years to come, in extremis, but frankly, they’re really ugly. In the end, 2 were tucked under the cover of existing roof/PV panels, and the other 2 hidden behind stained pallets which had the added feature of harvested Miscanthus stems rammed between the pallet timbers. This proved to be a surprisingly time-consuming job, but did at least upcycle materials already to hand on site. I recently watched the 2019 environmental documentary film “Planet of the Humans”, written, directed, and produced by Geoff Gibbs. (Looking at the credits he even wrote and performed much of the backing music, so a hugely impressive, creative effort – I bet he spends some time in high-ceilinged buildings, or gazing into space!)

It’s a very provocative watch that sadly offers no real solutions to what we’re doing to our planet but generates many challenging questions for anyone keen on making personal lifestyle choices to help the situation. As well as questioning just who is (financially) behind many of the eco-friendly green options we’re being persuaded to adopt. (Mind you, I did wonder who financed this particular put-the-boot-in documentary, which as is now the way in the “free” West, was initially blacklisted by YouTube after pressure from the criticised big players in the green space). I suspect few readers will consider watching it, since it’s not an uplifting story, but it does make one reflect on modern materialism/consumerism, which is perhaps no bad thing just before Christmas.

Apart from the IBC project, such harsh weather has limited outside efforts to a bit of hedge laying, felling some diseased self sown ash trees in danger of taking out the greenhouse in years to come, and even some internal decorating with casein distemper (remember that, anyone?) to keep us from becoming too bored.

It’s been a tough time for all wildlife, and there was a sad discovery finding one of our several friendly robins, dead on the cobbles, outside the front door one morning. A day later, ice crystals had formed on its feathers, a patina of temporary, delicate adornment on a now lifeless, though still beautiful, form.


As winter has clearly now come, at least here, I’ll also mention that I finally dug out and finished the secondhand copy of Gary Kasparov’s 2016 book “Winter is Coming – Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped “, which I bought back in the spring. It’s a detailed description and assessment of recent Russian history, and most particularly the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin. Kasparov, as older readers will remember, was both a world chess champion for many years, and also latterly became involved in politics in Russia, before deciding he had no choice but to leave his homeland and base himself in New York, where he now heads up the Human Rights Foundation. It’s chilling to read his analysis, explored in interviews like the one below, which made it into his book, 7 years ago, that unless Putin was confronted, the price for eventually having to do so, would only increase. Rarely can writing have been so prophetic, as the winter he predicted so accurately has clearly come to pass. The interview below from 2015, gives an insight into Kasparov’s book and thoughts.

With the risk of the war in Ukraine slipping from our minds, at this festive time, I’ll take a chance on including a couple of screen captures of the central square and theatre in Mariupol, from Christmas 2021, and more recently, and conclude that however inconvenient, Western democracies really can’t ignore Kasparov’s unpleasant point that one can’t hope that Putin will go away, or change, without robust and actioned challenge. It’s really difficult to imagine how desperate it must be for Ukrainians as their own winter arrives, and Putin repeatedly seeks to destroy their country’s energy systems, along with everything else.


And finally, for some much-needed pre-Christmas serenity, I’m indebted to my younger brother Mark, who not only sent me the CD highlighted below but also tells me that he was one of the interview panel who decided to appoint Anna Lapwood as the Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge. She’s a hugely talented organist, and also director of two choirs at Pembroke, and has just released the CD of Christmas music she discusses below.

I sat down, put the CD in the player, and imagined that it would be just another Christmas carol collection, but was bowled over. Not just by the choirs’ standard of singing, which being largely acapella, was superbly detailed and nuanced. Not just by the standard of album notes, and the recording quality, which was as good as any choral work I can remember. But also by the selection of pieces and their ordering on the CD. Nearly all the works are contemporary, and a few were arrangements or compositions by choir members, so if you’re like us, it’s unlikely to duplicate any other Christmas music you might have listened to.

I’ll leave you with one item I particularly adored, in a recording also made in another lofty church in Stockholm by the Swedish group, S:t Jacobs Vokalensemble. (Sadly there’s no YouTube of Pembroke’s rendition online).  Recorded, I notice, in January 2020, just before the world was about to be changed, though not so much in tolerant Sweden, it seems. A stunning work for choir and single cello, by the Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo titled “Serenity”.

Perhaps such a lofty space acoustic, such spiritual music, and such singing may help to inspire us all?

I hope that you enjoy this, wherever you are, and that it brings a moment of serenity for you, and wish you a Happy Christmas, and a peaceful start to 2023.


O magnum mysterium
Et admirabile sacramentum
Ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
Jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
Meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum

What do the lyrics mean in English?

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.