The thing about coming to the UK in March is that you get two springs. At home, the snow still lies deep across the flower beds. The Bohemian waxwings have been, and stripped the pin-cherry tree bare, and now the robins cock their heads to one side and look like they’re listening for the sound of the first insects. Spring is not in sight, and the pack ice still piles up on the northern shore.
In North Wales there are already signs of spring. From the front window of my mother’s house I look out towards the Irish Sea, now grey and with a fret hanging low across the waves. The ocean holds on to the last vestiges of winter. There are gulls riding the wind, wings outstretched as they glide, heads peering downward as they seek a floating morsel of food.
But no gannets yet, those harbingers of the maritime spring, in from the far reaches to chase the capelin and the herring closer in to shore. I love gannets – huge birds, majestic and deadly, blindingly white against the dull gunmetal sky but with the identifying black tips to their wings visible long before the yellow rapier like beak. They soar above the crests, looping up and down, then fold those massive wings and plunge vertically on to the fish they have spotted. The fish is speared, the bird pops to the surface, shakes its head and swallows, then rises from the waves to resume the search.
We have watched the gannets from the shores of three provinces, my daughters and I, lines of them curling along offshore. They spend the winter far out to sea, beyond the pack ice, and in spring nest in great colonies on steep cliffs bordering islands known only to mariners and naturalists. But in the spring they grace we mortals with their presence.
It is not spring on the ocean, but closer to my mother’s house I see the gorse, bright yellow flowers startling against the dark green leaves. The gorse lines the hedgerows here, interspersed with gnarly hawthorn and dense thickets of brambles, dead now but later in the year heavy with blackberries. These plants are supported by rows of squared fence wire, topped with barbed wire displaying tufts of wool. The wool is never the fresh white of Mary’s fleece, but stained grey with dirt or blue by ram paint.
In the fields beyond the wire and the gorse and the brambles are the sheep, dozens of them, accompanied by their lambs. Every so often a certain type of spring madness overtakes the lambs, and they pack together in a race to the end of the field and back, leaping stiff-legged over clumps of sedge and other obstacles. Gambolling. Not walking purposefully, no Mr Sermon this, but dancing with exuberance. Then back to their mothers, sometimes alone but often a pair of twins, being sniffed by the ewe before she lets them access her milk.
On this side of the road which is lined with gorse bushes lies my mother’s garden. The daffodils are out in all their glory. “Did you see your daffodils?” was her greeting on our arrival, a reference to the massed rows by the gate. I planted those the fall my father died, fifteen years ago, and every year new flowers appear as the bulbs multiply and naturalize themselves.
In the front garden there are primroses, pale yellow against the spring green grass, and mounds of pink heather. There are new leaves showing on the buddleia, and the first shoots of tulips are starting to push through the mulch. Around the side of the house there are buds on the holly, and the camellia petals fall to the ground in all their pink glory.
Spring is coming here in North Wales, and soon it will make its way westward to the gardens of the Gentle Island. When we get home I shall continue to pace the sands of Brackley and Rustico, gazing seaward through the sea mists, searching for the flash of brilliant white against the grey of sky and sea, waiting for the gannets to come, and for my daffodils to bloom.