Nighttime on Still Waters

'Earth stood hard as iron...'

December 18, 2022 Richard Goode Episode 107
Nighttime on Still Waters
'Earth stood hard as iron...'
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Join us around the stove tonight, on a very cosy NB Erica that is currently ice-locked into a frozen landscape, as we think about the Fimbulwinter of old, and why Midwinter might be mid-winter after all!

Journal entry:

 14th December, Wednesday.

“Ridges of frost form ribs on the sweep of hills.
 Two rooks throw calls against a sky
 Marbled by the setting sun.
 Beyond the horizon, a pheasant startles a distant wood.
 My fingers and toes burn.

Episode Information:

In this episode I read very short extracts from:
Christiane Ritter’s beautiful A Woman in the Polar Night republished in 2019 Pushkin Press.
Christina Rosetti’s poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (1872).
The section on seasons from the Anglo-Saxon collection: Maxims II.
Bede's The Reckoning of Time (11th-12th century)

I also refer to:
Alexandra Harris’ (2016) Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skiespublished by Thames and Hudson
Eleanor Parker’s (2022) Winters in the Word: A journey through the Anglo-Saxon year published by Reaktion Books. 

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General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.or

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For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at


 14th December, Wednesday.

“Ridges of frost form ribs on the sweep of hills.
 Two rooks throw calls against a sky
 Marbled by the setting sun.
 Beyond the horizon, a pheasant startles a distant wood.
 My fingers and toes burn.



Starlight on a frozen land. The water's surface, scratched and glazed. This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting on a bitterly cold December night, held fast in the ice in a world of ghostly white. 

I'm so pleased that you could make it. It's not a night to be outdoors, come inside where there is warmth, and light, and quiet company. There's a seat by the stove, the kettle is steaming, make yourself comfortable and welcome aboard. 



As I write this, the skies are steel blue, but there’s a heaviness in the air. Weather fronts are pushing up from the south heavy with rain. When it reaches us, it will be snow. Sometime tonight or in the morning. I have the light above the study desk on. It feels like evening already, but there’s a sound of children playing on the hill above us. The frost has been so thick, it looks and feels like snow. When you walk on it, you scrunch through deep snowscapes and arctic tundra. It’s the sound of caribou and Sami bells.

We’ve been locked into the ice now for a couple of days. Night-time temperatures dropped to below -10 (13-14 F). The water’s surface turned hard to granite, crazed and pitted, yesterday’s footprints from ducks and moorhens, leave fossilised tracks, rimed with new ice that glints. But the surface itself is as dull as an old pewter beer tankard. I fear for the kingfishers. Everything, I have read suggests that they will not have made it through this cold spell. It’s been just a little too harsh, just a little too long. I keep thinking of the last time I saw the male. It was the day before the freeze hit us. It was a dismal dank day. A wren was busying amongst the waterside vegetation, perky, jaunty, tail high. The kingfisher was on the tiller arm of one of the boats. I kept walking towards him slowly and then stopped. It seemed a miserable day to be scared off for no reason. He suddenly dropped into the water and came up with a silver-slither of minor between his beak. The rain softly fell from a sky of gloom. The wren hopped away. I waited while he repositioned the fish so that he could gulp it down. For a short while, we both shared this moment of slow rainfall.

The ice is now very thick. Thick enough to break a barge-pole being wielded at it. Somehow, there is a patch of open water that the ducks seemed to have kept clear of ice. Its not much bigger than a child’s blow-up paddling pool, but it is big enough. They all seem to share it quite happily together – even the swans join them from time to time. There seems to be a cessation in hostilities and the petty tensions and disputes that generally order the Anseriforme days. It is not for nothing that one collective noun for ducks is ‘a battling of ducks!’ It’s something that Christiane Ritter wrote about in her shockingly overlooked masterpiece A Woman in the Polar Night. An Austrian who in 1933 joined her husband in the Arctic Circle to experience the Polar night. It is a work of such beauty and wisdom. “All creatures grow timid in the winter night” she writes as she describes how a juvenile arctic fox slowly befriends them. Her husband and colleague, both seasoned hunters with many year’s experience of polar winters and for whom foxes are their main source of income, also, at this time, live happily alongside him, often sharing their meagre meals with him. There seems to be a tacit acceptance that for all to survive, old enmities must cease… for a while at least.    

When anyone emerges from their boat, loose daggles of ducks stride, like saddle-sore John Waynes, across the ice plains. If food is to hand, and it usually is, these are quickly followed by honking and snorting flights, cutting low across the surface, alighting on the ice with increasing precision and dexterity.     

Last night wasn’t so cold. The outside temperature was around -6.5 (20F), this morning it was just -2 (28.5 F). The boat has at last broken free of the ice and a skim of water, lies on top of it. Turning the leaden stone-greys to glistening slick whites.     

 Every now and then, the ice buckles and surges as the Erica shifts to our movements aboard sending sonar pings and cracks, whipping across the surface. From time to time, it grates against the hull. We have re-joined a world of movement.

The stoves have seen us through, keeping us warm, but more than that, providing us with a sense of comfort and security – snug, cosy, protected. We’re grateful for that. I want to be careful not idealise this. I know of some boaters who have had a pretty miserable time. The temperature on the boat not much higher than outside it. It must be cruelly hard to get by in those conditions. The joke among boaters is that the perennial question people ask is ‘is it cold in winter?’ When of course it is, for most, the opposite. It is far easier to warm a 60ft by 7ft by 6 ½ ft box than it is to heat a house. But it still does require heating, nonetheless. Without heat a boat quickly becomes cold and damp. You have to be able to warm it. You have to work at it. Learn how to use a fire that will burn slowly through the night. It isn’t always easy and can be wretched when you get it wrong. We have all been there.    

We’ve had no water for 8 or 9 days. I suspect it will be another couple before the pipes unfreeze. But we’ve managed and are managing. It’s good to be inventive. Find ways to use the same water multiple times. It’s been a challenge, but for me, not such a challenge as those really hot days in summer were.

However, having said all of that, I am looking forward to a few days, at least, of milder weather. Most of the people I speak to seem to feel this way too. In Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skies, Alexandra Harris notes that the Anglo-Saxons had a word wintercearig the cares of winter. I've seen it translated sometimes as winter's sorrows. Perhaps that's a good rendering and suggests the experience of many with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I also like cares of winter. Many of us, I think, are beginning to feel the weight of wintercaerig about our shoulders and a respite would be welcome. To restock, replenish tanks, clean through. To watch the ducks relax back to their normal modes of living. To go out and look for my little kingfisher friends.   




‘Earth stood hard as iron…’

We are not many days from the winter solstice, the year’s turning. Mid-winter. It’s funny how odd things you hear stick seemingly with a strength beyond immediately apparent significance. Many years ago, a man was talking on the radio on a programme I have long since forgotten. I don’t even recall that it was a programme that I was deliberately listening to. The radio just happened to be on and this man was talking. It’s wrong, he said, to think of the solstice or Christmas (and I think the context was Christmas) as mid-winter. Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ may be a lovely poem and a lovelier carol, but Christmas falls actually towards the beginning of winter not at its midpoint.

I’d always liked the carol. Well, the first verse, anyway.

“In the bleak midwinter
 Frosty wind made moan
 Earth stood hard as iron
 Water like a stone
 Snow had fallen
 Snow on snow on snow
 In the bleak midwinter
 Long, long ago” 

Like ‘O Come, O Come Emanuel’ the words and music met together to create an emotional depth that I still find powerful.

I knew, even before this, that Rosetti’s words were not an attempt to recreate an historical actuality. Like the painters of her time and before, the setting of ancient stories, biblical and classical within their own contemporary worlds was the vogue. Rosetti wasn’t attempting to suggest that Roman Palestine was shivering under frozen drifts of snow. I am sure the disembodied voice on the radio pointed that out too – Rosetti is describing a more northerly European landscape not a Mediterranean one. However, that bit hasn’t stuck in my head. It was the mid-winter comments that did. I am not sure why.

At the time, I was working at my first job. It entailed a seven-mile bicycle ride through the Hertfordshire lanes from Kings Langley to St Albans and then seven-miles home again. Although the punctures, sometimes 3 or 4 a week, used to get to me, over all, I actually enjoyed those rides. It created a special space for my mind to run free and opportunities to explore my psycho-geographical landscape. Then, like now, it created in me an extreme awareness of my environment and the elements. I remember being wet and cold, often both. Cold days were marked by how quickly my fingers burnt – before the turn off the A41 to cross the canal – it must be cold, making it to the top of the valley on the other side (always with scorched lungs on cold days), must be pretty mild. No matter what gloves I wore, my fingers burned, and then just ached, and finally bumping and swinging down the hill passed the Art College and over the railway line, sweeping down into the little nest of shops and the Italian restaurant that we sometimes went for dinner plate-sized omelette and chips or meatballs served with surprising cheese. By now, on cold days, my fingers were numb, white. Like the fingers belonging to another person. It was only their dead weight that I felt – or the sickening ache if I banged them on something.

Battling with the buckles of my saddlebag for my packed lunch – marmite sandwiches; always marmite sandwiches. Or trying to untangle myself out of my wet-weather gear and coat and jumpers. Then the next half hour, as I sipped a mug of coffee, creamy with thick spoonfuls of Coffee-mate, while Terry Wogan played on the radio, the tooth jangling pain as life crept back into my deathly fingers which made my breathing shallow and the world ring in my ears.          

That was a time when I was very conscious of the weather – the little climatic changes along my journey. The spots that were always cooler, those that offered shade, the unaccountable warm spots. Mum used to say that the cold before Christmas had a different quality to the cold after it. Even though she much preferred winters to summers and hated the heat, she said that she always tended to find the cold before Christmas harder to cope with than the cold after Christmas. It was something that struck a chord with me too. Those pre-Christmas cycle rides to work in freezing temperatures always seemed to be more of an ordeal than those after it. Somehow, the cold seemed to penetrate more. I was very aware that the cold weather could stretch long into the following months, but it was also somehow more manageable. I don’t know whether it was a case that my body slowly began to acclimatise to the cold or whether the January and February freezes tended to be drier. Maybe, and I suspect this was the case, it was simply psychological.

Whatever the case, Christmas (and its proximity to the solstice), seemed to me to function as a pivot point – even if it was psychological. Sure, if we follow the meteorological calendar that places the beginning of winter at December the 1st, it makes little sense to call midwinter day. The man on the radio was right. Midwinter – certainly as far as the expectancy of cold weather is concerned - should fall somewhere around mid to late February. And yet… and yet, there’s something that still finds that unsatisfactory. The seasons have always been more than simply meteorological, more than simply being about the weather. Perhaps, what we are seeing here is a shift in our cultural perception. We are no longer so intimately connected with the soil and the communities of life we live among. The outside world (the environment) really only touches us in one way and that is the weather. It is the one element that we cannot control and arguably the remaining closest point of contact with our environment that we share. It is therefore quite natural to think of seasons in terms of cold and heat… weather. The season of winter for us, today, denotes the time of cold, frost, sleet and snow. Things that do not – or to our minds – should have no place in the other seasons. Although we recognise they can occur, we feel righteously miffed when they do. The weather is not playing ball, snow in April is, somehow, not playing fair.  

Of course, this is not to say that weather and temperature haven't always been at the heart of the different characters of the seasons. The Anglo-Saxon poem Maxims II describes the character of three of the seasons specifically in terms of temperature. Although, even here, it is not exactly what we would expect.

The first lines read:

“Winter is the coldest
 Spring the frostiest – it is longest cold.”

Certainly not the lyrical descriptions of Spring that we are used to today!

But the seasons historically have also denoted so much more. It wasn’t simply the shifts in temperature. There is a reason why the agricultural seasonal calendar differs from the meteorological one – and too the astronomical one. And there is a reason why it feels less relevant to most of us today. The spirograph of cycles for livestock and arable husbandry (planting, harvesting, breeding, butchering) that would have been at the heart of a person’s experience for most of history, together with the lunar cycles and the annual ebb and flow of daylight are largely irrelevant to us. Today, the shortening of our days as winter approaches is little more than an inconvenience, if that. Artificial light allows us to retain our daily timetables. The rising and setting of the sun no longer regulates our schedules. People no longer tend to go to bed earlier in winter. Interestingly, there is some research which suggests that we might be counting the cost for this luxury in biological as well as psychological terms. It was another connection between human societies and the world around them. Whilst changes in temperature undeniably have an effect on the natural cycles of plant and animal-life, it is the lengthening and shortening of the days that is more significant for triggering those important cues for growth, resurgence, nesting, breeding, pairing, resting, for floral life as well as fauna.

Historically, it was the darkness as much as the cold that denoted winter. The Fimbulvetr, fimbulwinter, the great winter. A time of darkness and paralysing cold that lasted remorselessly for three straight years without respite, finally to culminate in Ragnarok, the death of the gods. These themes run deep still, culturally and psychologically. The dark, those forces against the light and good, allied with the cold. Alan Garner's use of fimbulwinter in his Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the suffocating snows of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, the endless winter of CS Lewis's Narnia. It's not surprising that the first signals of the light returning were greeted with such celebration. Oh, no doubt, the cold will remain with us for a while, but the light is returning. Fimbulwinter and the agonies it augers has not come. Not come this year, at least. 

I was reminded of it, reading Eleanor Parker’s fascinating investigation of life through the Anglo-Saxon year, Winters in the World. The placing of midwinter around the time of the winter solstice, December 21st, was deliberate. They had no need of a disembodied voice coming out of a radio to remind them that, as far as the cold went, things were only just starting. Maxims II proclaims this loud and clear – which is the coldest of seasons? Not Winter, but Spring! The man on the radio was missing the point. It’s not the turning point in temperature they were marking, but that pivot point that turns the oncoming tide of darkness. It was for this reason Eleanor Parker writes why the solstice was used by the Church to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One of our (British) earliest historians and ecclesiastical writers, the venerable Bede (writing in the 7th and early 8th century), notes how the celebration of midwinter replaces the earlier pagan celebrations of light and motherhood (we have to wait another couple of centuries before the term ‘Christmas’ is coined, and even later before it is more widely used). It is something that I have known for a long time. I have a much loved and battered copy of Bede, but it was only reading Parker that the full significance of it struck home. It’s actually a little more complicated than that (as most things often are), the date December 25th (Gregorian Calendar) was fixed because of an even earlier longstanding belief within the Church that the Jesus’ conception took place on the 25th March (according to the Roman calendar) and therefore the birth needed to fall precisely 9 months later. However, even this date, falling as it does around the time of the Spring or Vernal Equinox is more than certainly informed by its association with new birth and growth.          

Bede offers this as an explanation for the choice of placing Christmas at midwinter:

There are beautiful symmetries here – that work in the northern European languages even more effectively than the Latin or Greek. The Hebrew use of the Persian motifs of darkness and light are rendered anew within the early Christian writings, most notably in John. The presentation of Jesus as a light that has come into the darkness, is now seen to be born in the material darkness of our longest night. That darkness in which the sun is reborn amidst the festivals of Middewinter and Goela (Yule). The near homophonic quality of sunne ‘sun’ and sunu  ‘son’ (even closer in modern English) capture and weld this association into our consciousness beautifully.

And so, Rosetti was right after all and I look outside on this day of failing light nearing midwinter’s day and “the earth is as hard as iron and water [is] like a stone.’ Perhaps Mum was also onto something too. Yes, the cold continues and will continue to continue for some while – in its own peaks and troughs of its choosing – but something does change after Christmas and the turn of the year. The days get longer. Something rises again in our blood and in our hearts. Perhaps it’s more in our minds than in the meteorological charts and statistics. We are mentally better equipped knowing that the sun is making its vernal swing along the horizon to the north and climbing our skies ever higher. But then, as our ancestors knew – and we tend to forget – the seasons always denote far more than simply temperatures.


 As we lie locked fast in the thick ice blanket of ice that creaks and groans, and the brittle world outside awaits the thaw, this is the Narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very warm, cosy, safe, and restful night. Good night.  


Journal entry
Welcome to NB Erica
News from the moorings
Christiane Ritter 'A Woman in the Polar Night'
Alexandra Harris 'Weatherland'
Cabin chat
'Earth as hard as iron...'
Excerpt from 'In the Bleak Midwinter'
Excerpt from Maxims II
from Bede's 'Reckoning on Time'
Signing off
Weather Log