Even by London standards it’s been an exceptionally mild start to winter. Our traditional Boxing Day walk from Highgate to Hampstead revealed dahlias in full spate, rioting red geraniums and walls festooned with Jasminum polyanthum, all blooming cheek-by-jowl with seasonal clumps of Lenten rose (Helleborus niger) and the bejewelled stems of Viburnum x bodnantense.
The biggest surprise of the day was a carpet of daffodils (I believe Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’, thank you Chloris!) outside a house in Merton Lane near Hampstead Heath. They were accompanied by snowdrops and the pale purple buds of Crocus tommasinianus. It’s a scene I’d have expected to see in March rather than December, and a sign of just how much the seasons have shifted in recent years.
On the heath itself the landscape was much more as one might expect: damp, bare and dun-coloured. Every muddy pathway was thronged with the well-to-do, resplendent in Barbour jackets, Hunter wellies and ill-advised bobble hats. During winter nature’s beauty is often found in the detail – in the tenacious strands of ivy clinging to every branch; in the dry, copper-coloured leaves of oak and beech still clinging on for dear life; and in the thickets of flaming bramble leaves guarding the damp ground beneath.
Reaching Hampstead we sought out Mansfield Place, a hidden pathway between two rows of picture-perfect cottages. In one garden a dark-leaved camellia was studded with white flowers of astonishing purity, as white and waxy as any tropical gardenia.
What’s for certain is that winter’s wrath is just around the corner. We’ll soon either be deluged with rain or frozen to the bone, so we must count our blessings and enjoy nature’s unexpected gifts whilst we may.