Autumn colours slow to turn

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AUTUMN has been a rather understated affair, at least near the coast.

Blazes of red or gold are rare — a cherry here, a beech there — but many leaves have slipped furtively from their twigs without fanfare.

The ideal conditions for producing intense leaf colours are sunny days followed by chilly nights.

While we’ve had some sunny days, the autumn nights have been too mild. But things change quickly at this time of year. Perhaps the trees will surprise us with a final flourish. According to folklore, a mild autumn spells trouble: “If leaves fall not by Martinmas Day, a cruel winter is on the way.”

St Martin’s Day is on November 11 and it was a time for rent settlements, land payments and hiring fairs. It marked the end of the period when cattle that couldn’t be kept over winter were killed, and the meat salted down.

What couldn’t be preserved had to be eaten, so Martinmas was notable for its food, drink and jollity.

The day also laid down a marker for the next two or three months.

It was said to foretell the winter and everyone dreaded a wind from the northwest, because this meant it would be a harsh one.

But in the short term the outlook was good, for St Martin’s Day brought a short spell of fine weather. This was called St Martin’s summer and of course, there was a legend to explain it.

One cold November day in 357, Martin came across a freezing beggar. He cut his warm cloak in two and gave half to the man.

Later, Christ appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the material he’d given away. As a reward he was granted a few fine days, enough time to repair his cloak.

This story was a favourite subject for artists, but there was a real person behind the legend.

Originally a soldier in the Roman army, Martin became an early conscientious objector.

After a spell in prison he was discharged in 357 and lived as a solitary monk, later founding the first monastery in Gaul and becoming Bishop of Tours in 372.

He became a popular saint and by 1800, 173 British churches were dedicated to him. The Feast of St Martin was still being observed in country parishes until the Great War.

But after the shock of those terrible years, nobody had the heart for the old customs.

When the Armistice was signed on St Martin’s Day, 1918, November 11 became a day for reflecting on sacrifice and that’s how it has remained ever since.

Weather watching

Because the Met Office no longer makes its seasonal forecasts public, there’s been a lot of speculation about the coming winter.

Other forecasters have filled the gap with their predictions, yet their warnings of an early freeze for the UK have proved wide of the mark.

While a ferocious snowstorm descended on New York and New England, our remarkably warm weather continued. October was one of the mildest on record with flowers still in bloom and trees hanging on to their leaves.

So what does the pine-cone-and-seaweed method have to say about this unseasonable weather?

Folklore is firm on the subject of a mild October. Warm days then mean wintry days in February, so no early spring.

When using traditional signs, several have to be considered together if a reasonable forecast is to be made.

We have to start with St Michael’s Day on September 29, which gives the prevailing wind for the next three months.

As the wind on that day was southerly, an Arctic freeze seems unlikely before Christmas.

Other days to watch are: St Clement’s Day on November 23, which is supposed to give the general trend of the winter; and St Catherine’s Day on the 25th, which offers a clue to February’s weather.

This old saw sums things up: “If ice in November will bear a duck, the rest of the winter is slush and muck.”

As we’ve had no proper frost yet, let alone frozen ponds, then it’s looking as though winter will come later rather than sooner.