Wednesday 3 April 2013

Anticipating Spring

The Equinox has come and gone, the clocks have gone forward, April has begun. Yet the winter continues with snow and ice the dominant feature of the mountains. Spring, it seems, is on hold. A few years ago I wrote a piece for TGO about the joys of spring and the excitement of watching it development. This seems a good time to post it here.

April camp in the Black Mount Hills

Anticipating Spring

The sun was warm but the wind was chill
You know how it is with an April day
Robert Frost   Two Tramps In Mud Time
Backpacking is a year-round activity. There is no backpacking season and every time of year has its attractions and rewards. However one time of year is special and that is now, the early spring, the months of April and May. If there was a season for backpacking this would be it. Spring is traditionally the time for journeys. The reawakening of nature, the return of life to the woods and hills with fresh greenness, bird song and the first flowers, the strengthening of the sun, the lengthening of the days all stir the desire for adventure and travel. “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” as Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales before his travellers set out in April for Canterbury. My pilgrimage is to go into nature, to watch the spring develop and restore the world to life.

The short days of winter, the blizzards and storms, the bitter cold, the long dark nights, the monochrome landscape are all fading and the prospect of warm sunshine, endless daylight and the bright colours of summer are approaching, soon to arrive. This is an exciting time, full of anticipation for the joys to come, of days spent enjoying the weather rather than fighting it and time in camp spent sitting watching the world rather than huddled in the tent away from the snow and cold, days where an eye no longer has to be kept on the time for fear of being caught in the early dark, days where you can walk for hours over the hills free from fear of avalanche, ice and blizzard. 

The Last Snowfields: On the Cairngorm Plateau in May

Of course spring days can often be wet, windy and cold. Snow may fall and night frosts chill the air. But in my head the winter has gone and there is a feeling of lightness and freedom. I know the dark cold is fading, I know the sun is growing more powerful. The hills may still be snow clad but they shine in the sun brighter and sharper than in the dead of winter. The sun is now high in the sky, rather than creeping along not far above the horizon, and there is warmth in its rays not felt earlier in the year. Winter is retreating even if frosts and snow linger on.

Long winter backpacking trips are challenging and arduous. Most people make short forays into the wilds, a night or two here and there, then retreat to the warmth and security of solid walls. After a short time long dark stormy nights in a tiny tent can lose their attraction. In spring there is always the hope that tomorrow will be sunny and dry and the awareness that the hours of darkness are shrinking day by day. Even snow camping, usually thought of as a winter activity, is more enjoyable as winter weakens and spring takes hold.

April camp in the Fannichs
Once summer is in full possession of the world, once the days are so long that darkness is slept through, once the concern is that nights might be too hot rather than too cold then the excitement and anticipation fades. Summer is fulfilment, satiety even. And at the back of the mind is the tiny but growing thought that the direction is now for light and warmth to diminish as the year moves towards autumn and winter. Summer is fine but spring is finer.

In spring the energy-sapping heat of hot summer days and nights is absent. There is still a sharpness and bite to the air that encourages striding out. And whilst new life is burgeoning and the fecundity of nature is everywhere to be seen biting insects are still to come and you can sit outside the tent on calm evenings without head nets, insect repellent, mosquito coils and tightly woven clothing – paraphernalia that usually drives me into the tent. Sunrise and sunset can be viewed in the fresh air rather than hazily through insect mesh or not at all due to the hordes of midges hovering just outside the tent. One of the main reasons for holding the TGO Challenge in late spring in May is because it’s before the midges (I know in recent years a few have appeared in a few places but I have never been bitten on the Challenge nor ever carried any insect repellent).
Relaxing on a summit in May sunshine on the TGO Challenge

Spring is the ideal time, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, to undertake a long walk, a pilgrimage to the wilds, a celebration of nature and the eternal turning of the seasons bringing restoration and revival. My first long distance walk, long ago, was the Pennine Way in April, a walk that saw every type of weather (though mostly wind and rain) including snow at Tan Hill but which always had that promise of more warmth, more sunshine. A few years later I followed the spring north from Land’s End to John O’Groats, keeping pace with the fresh growth, the first flowers and the increasingly vocal birds from the wild Cornish coast to the even wilder Scottish Highlands. Others have felt spring is the right time for long walks too. Two of the books that inspired me when I began backpacking tell of spring backpacking trips – John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain and Hamish Brown’s Hamish Mountain Walks. Both started in April and walked through the spring, Hillaby from Land’s End to John O’Groats, Brown over all the Munros. Neither gives a clear reason for choosing spring. I guess it just seemed the natural thing to do. A later inspiration, John Muir, reckoned spring was the best time to visit his beloved Yosemite Valley. And Henry David Thoreau says that one reason he went to Walden pond was “to see the spring come in”. The power of springtime is great.

April camp by Loch Skeen in the Southern Uplands

The real joys of spring can be summed up in two words: warmth and light. The return of the sun is the key to these and everything else to do with spring. Increasing sunlight causes natural processes, dormant through the autumn and winter, to start into life, to recreate the world. In northern countries it’s not surprising that the return of the sun has always been marked with festivities and celebrations. It is a sign that the world is not ending, that the growth of plants and wildlife will begin again, that there will be food. Today we no longer live so close to nature. Winter is not a time for food shortages or fear that crops will never grow again. But it is still a time of darkness and cold and we still carry the memories of past generations stretching back to the dawn of humanity. We still feel the excitement, relief and joy when spring arrives. The power of nature still surges through us. For walkers this can be celebrated in long backpacking trips, in feeling close to, perhaps part of, the new life and brightness of the soaring sun. Spring is a wonderful time to be in the hills and the woods and to glory in the beauty of life renewed.


  1. Nicely written, Chris! The warmth a tad optimistic from today's Midlands' perspective — though at least the sun is out. When the real spring does arrive, and it will be soon, all will be a giddy rush.

  2. Lovely post Chris.
    I remember reading that article somewhere recently - an old TGO perhaps or have you published it elsewhere too?
    Regardless - it is well worth reading again :)

    And like The Solitary Walker, I too am from the Midlands where it is cold, but gloriously sunny today. I only hope for similar weather (albeit a tad warmer) when I go on the Pennine Way walk next week.