While cool September surprised us with some warm spells, they were too early to be called an Indian summer. However, there is time yet.
The term comes from North America. The first colonists noticed how a period of fine weather in October allowed Native Americans to collect extra food, before winter set in. In England this spell was called St Luke’s little summer, because the good weather arrived around the saint’s feast on October 18.
“If the hare wears a thick coat in October, lay in a good stock of fuel”
The new month begins in autumn’s colours. Birches, willows and hazels are patched with yellow, and the fluttery leaves of japanese maples are a fiery red. Dramatic virginia creepers — really a small tree — range from yellowish-pink to brilliant red and purple. Hidden among their leaves are bunches of tiny flowers bearing minute blobs of nectar.
What a year this is for fruit and berries. In past times none of it would have been wasted; crab apples, rowanberries, quince, elderberries, blackberries and rose hips all had a use. Purple-black sloe berries are sweeter when left until after a frost, but if you can’t wait to make your sloe gin, then fool the sloes by giving them a short spell in the freezer.
Already the harvest fields have been ploughed and re-sown. Overall, grain yields are above average, especially in Yorkshire where some say it’s the best harvest they can remember. BBC Two has been filming a three-part series in all corners of the UK — see the results this month in Harvest 2015.
As the nights continue to draw in we wonder what winter has in store, especially as there’s talk of a big freeze. Our rural forebears, who had even more need to know, believed the next few weeks would provide the answer.
Everyday life brought them into contact with creatures both wild and domestic, a familiarity that led to many sayings based on animal behaviour. Signs of a hard winter included tubby badgers, noisy foxes that barked more than usual, and squirrels making an early start on stashing away nuts.
An obvious sign was an animal sporting a cosy pelt: “If the hare wears a thick coat in October, lay in a good stock of fuel.” This works equally well with our pet dogs and cats, providing they spend time outside each day.
Folklore says that after a cold October the winter will be mild. But when the month is warm with late leaf fall, we can expect a cold winter with the lowest temperatures in February. A wet October foretells a windy December; a windy October tells us January will be dry. Gardeners can rely on this: if there’s no frost by October’s full moon, then you’ll be frost-free until November’s full moon.
For a month associated with mists, October can be surprisingly mist-free. But should they occur, be sure to keep a record because, “For every October fog there will be snow in winter, heavy or light according to the fog.” Only count the ones that linger most of the day, not dawn mists chased away by the sun.
For pinecone-and-seaweed forecasters this is certainly the Golden Month. Just remember, a sign only applies to the parish in which it is seen — forecasting by folklore is totally local.