The winter solstice, the 24-hour period with the fewest daylight hours, is no longer celebrated by most people: the observance of Christmas has replaced its mystical pagan significance for Christians; and the season of shopping, partying and excess has swept away all other considerations for the rest. This year the precise point of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere was at 22:23 on Friday 21st December, a moment illuminated by an exceptional cold moon. How then to honour this event amid the last minute preparations to meet familial expectations of Christmas? A trip to Snettisham in the hope of watching the sun rise on the alternative New Year and the expectation that skeins of wild geese would welcome a new day.
The cold moon, veiled sometimes by wisps of cloud, illuminating the Fens up to Kings Lynn and became an occasional companion behind the woods and hills of west Norfolk through Sandringham. At the RSPB car park in the pre-dawn gloom the gentle ‘yeebing’ of mallard on broke the silence. East towards Dersingham pale streaking in the sky was a hint of dawn. The Access Trail, sheltered between hedges runs alongside a gravel pit; on the other side the impermanent looking homes along Snettisham Beach were dark and silent. The path rises up on a bridge and causeway between two pits to the embankment along the beach, revealing the wide sweep of the Wash stretching away to winking lights from King’s Lynn to Skegness. It was low tide and the piping of waders and the ‘wink-wink’ contact calls of geese drifted in on a chilly breeze from the great expanse of muddy flats and creeks. Hundreds of thousands of knot, dunlin, oystercatchers and godwits winter there; and during winter months up to 40,000 pink-footed geese from Iceland and Greenland make it their home.
A lone birdwatcher warned that there were unlikely to be big flocks of geese coming in to feed on the fields – during the full moon many are already inland feeding at night. Patience and hope were rewarded though. In the distance the muted chattering of the geese rose to a sonorous clamour and flocks took to the sky and wheeled in noisy ragged chevrons over the embankment and headed into Norfolk. A low flying party came directly overhead, the rustling of wind in their primaries mixing with their ‘ung-unk’ calls.
East, over Dersingham the pale streaks in the sky lightened slowly and turned orange. Pale sunburst rays reached up towards slaty clouds and the horizon turned to vivid white and gold. West across the Wash the sky was subtle pink and grey above a steely landscape of mud and looping ponds. The sun, breaking free of the horizon and clouds, illuminated the shimmering, flickering flight of a flock of lapwings as they performed their aerial disappearing act. Cloud angels of infinite variety filled the sky. Solstice magic.
Photos: Snettisham, Norfolk, December 2018