Country diary: hammering hail and a rare sight of crystalline beauty


Dull, snow-stained cloud over the hills showed the winter storm approaching, rapidly, from the east. When it hit the village, driven by a gale that tore at the heavy boughs of the beech trees, the air temperature was hovering close to zero. What fell wasn’t the mist of soft, slow flakes from remembered childhood, but a hammering array of dry, hard fragments of ice that bit and stung before the relentless wind.

Rattling on to the path, it scrunched underfoot where it settled, while the breeze swirled crisp dry leaves into tight vortices before scattering them again. With the arrival of the strong wind, the sense of cold was intense, numbing my forehead where hair no longer protects it.

Thin bands of ice fragments started to accumulate across the meadow, marking the clumps of rush and the irregularities of the turf. The ground was solid and unyielding in the deeply crusted frost, yet still bore not-quite-random marks of exploration where the evening flock of starlings had probed the soil for food some days before.

Only later, as I climbed towards the top of the hill, did the hail slacken; the temperature seemed to rise very slightly too. The remaining particles of ice were smaller, lighter and drifted rather than fell. A single speck, no larger than an apple pip, settled on my sleeve – showing against the dark fabric as a tiny, perfect hexagon. Archetypal, embedded in our winter culture, yet something I have rarely seen.

I paused at the stile by the old quarry, resting my hand very briefly on the robust, hammered lead cap that protects the top of the gatepost. Beyond, a group of sheep clung close to the hedgerow as they urgently grazed on the dry, yellowed grass of late winter.

As I climbed further, the cloud thinned to the east, revealing the snowfields across the uplands. The snow beyond Pendam has been on the ground for a solid month now and, as I headed back down the hill in the fading light, the wind that had been at my back now met me head-on – with a thick sleet embedded in it. To describe the scene as bleak wouldn’t do it justice.

o Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


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