The dark dank days of December are sometimes difficult to bear but this can also be a magical time, which is partly why we have Christmas at this time of year. For me the other thing to look forward to in December is the first hard frost. It might come at the end of November but the important thing is that it is the first frost that turns the land white over with a hoar frost. With it being the first although dead or asleep the vegetation still contains moisture which is forced out by the frost into white crystals. Further into winter more such frosts will have desiccated the plants so although there can still be hoar frosts they are not so sparkling white as the first.
The next thing to do to enjoy this spectacle is to find a sheltered location where cold air can settle. In other words a frost hollow. A narrow deep valley with belts of trees or a wood to hold in the air is best. There are many of these in the Wolds but I find Snipe Dales Country Park is a good spot because it has good parking and access.
The third thing about December is that with the sun rising so late it is not difficult to be in place at the right time to get the best photos and with so little daylight available it makes sense to maximise the opportunity of the few sunny days we get at this time of year to top up with vitamin D. The official sunrise, which is easy to find on the internet, is sometime after 8 am. If you are in a deep valley at this time though the sun will only be hitting the tops of the hills, which in the right circumstances can drive cold air down into the valley. With the hill tops beginning to be warmed by the sun this can create a temperature inversion that might fill the valley with mist while the hills remain clear.
When I arrived at Snipe Dales I had already struggled to clear the frost off my car and driven through small pockets of fog on my journey – both good signs. It was still before sunrise when I parked in the country park’s spacious car park and found that there were already two cars parked ahead of me. I had allowed myself plenty of time to enter the dales to find the best places to take photos. The wide track descended gently downhill and the frosted grass crunched beneath my feet. With the sun not yet risen the scene was still one of muted colours tending to grey. Finally though the sun hit the prominent landmark of Peasam Hill. This and the way it emerged out of the mist made it look bigger than it actually was.
At the bottom of the first dale both the mist and frost were at their thickest. It was like entering a secret hidden world. Ethereal in the way the mist moved but also in that the scene was only fleeting and would soon be gone now that the sun was rising. The colour was overwhelmingly that of white or a light grey so that anything black like trunks, branches or wooden posts stood out in bold relief. The only other colour seemed to be the bronze of the bracken and other dead plants but this was mostly flattened in a contorted mat of vegetation but frosted all over making the vibrant bronze of just a week before look dull against the white frost.
Slowly the sun was penetrating the valley but its arc is so low at this time of year that it fails to warm any steep north facing slopes where the frost holds its grip all day. By now I had crossed to the sunny side of the dale where I was able to climb high enough to be above the mist that lay along the valley bottom hiding it from view. There it remained cold and dull but on the ridge top it was stimulating to be in the bright sun. It’s now strong rays felt warm although the temperature was still barely above freezing. Here some oak trees were still hanging on to the last of their leaves, which framed the mist filled dale nicely. I took a few photos and started my return to the carpark back down through the dale where the mist was now beginning to recede as the sun rays slowly penetrated deeper making the thick frost sparkle.
The mist had been magical but when it receded it allowed the sun to light up a frosted dale. I found myself alone in the middle of this spectacular glistening landscape and felt privileged to have witnessed its sublime beauty. With the park being managed for wildlife the ground cover was diverse with wispy sprays of fine grass, thick clumps of gorse, heads of hogweed, spiky hawthorns and arching tendrils of brambles all coated a festive white. It was a view to savour in its pristine perfection after so many miserable cold grey wet and windy days that had been endured in recent weeks. It is only sights like these and the twinkling decorations of Christmas that lighten our way through these darkest days of the year and make it more bearable.