by Heather Elvidge
Now the snowdrops have faded, it’s the daffodils’ turn. On damp banks, lesser celandines are opening their glossy yellow petals. And in parks and gardens the black branches of cherry plum trees are covered with tiny stars.
Whether shrub or small tree, the exuberance of the cherry plum never fails to lift the spirits. Sparkling white flowers open on its tangle of bare branches, with the bright green leaves following soon after. In a few days the whole tree is a mass of blossom and fresh leaves, a joyous expression of renewed life.
Originally a native of the Balkans, cherry plum hedges used to be planted as windbreaks for orchards in Hertfordshire and Kent. Since then prunus cerasifera has made itself at home everywhere. It’s a relative of our native blackthorn, which bears the black sloes used to flavour gin.
This is a good time to be out in the countryside, stopping off in an old market town to investigate its historic buildings, small shops, cafes and pubs. However visitors to Market Weighton on March 20 will be surprised to see how busy it is. This is Derby day. That’s the Kiplingcotes Derby, England’s oldest surviving horse race on the flat.
This race for amateur riders has been staged outside the East Yorkshire town since 1519, over four-and-a-half miles of farm tracks and lanes. It began as a test of the horses’ condition — and an opportunity to wager a guinea or two.
Informal races like this used to be common.
While some were later incorporated into the official racing calendar, the Kiplingcotes Derby remained a local event. Last year the race drew a record crowd of almost 1,000.
On March 20 at 16:57, the sun crosses the imaginary celestial equator from south to north. At the vernal equinox we’re halfway between midwinter and midsummer, so day and night are of more or less equal length. Already we’re feeling the sun’s warmth and from now on we’ll see more of its light.
According to old weather lore, the spring equinox is a day to take note of the wind. Whichever way it blows on March 20 that will be the prevailing wind for the next three months.
Naturally there’ll be days when it deviates. But it gives an idea of what kind of weather to expect until June 24, the next wind prediction day.
For astronomers, the vernal equinox ushers in spring. But at the Met Office, the season starts on March 1. Some people say spring begins on May1, even though our forebears believed Mayday was the start of summer.
This kind of confusion isn’t new. It can be traced to the old Quarter Days, when dues were paid and hiring was done.
Two systems were in use, one based on the astronomical year and the other on the agricultural year. The former had a Quarter Day on March 25, close to the vernal equinox. The latter reckoned its Quarter Day on February 2 was the start of spring, because that was when lambs were born.
Today, one thing is certain — we don’t notice spring until it’s been underway for some time.