November – the black month

The shy wren is usually heard rather than seen.
The shy wren is usually heard rather than seen.

Encouraged by blustery winds, more trees are shedding their leaves. They’re whirled into corners, down drains and through every open doorway.

When leaves fall we see the beauty of tree bark – the cool grey of beech, the silver of birch and the shiny, reddish-brown of cherries. Bursts of sunshine light up the berries of holly, firethorn, and viburnum, all fruiting heavily this year.

Sloes are plentiful too, and some blackthorns are crowded with them. A bloom on the sloes makes them look quite blue, yet when it wears off they show their true purplish-black.

As shrubs become bare it’s easier to spot the handsome wren. You may notice this little bird on an exposed twig, bobbing nervously and cocking its tail. It won’t be there for long, because wrens prefer the concealment of thick hedges and branches. Normally the only clue to their presence is a quick burst of song.

Tomorrow we’ll remember Guy Fawkes, who was caught trying to blow up Parliament. Fawkes was discovered in a coal store on the morning of November 5, 1605 in the company of 36 barrels of gunpowder; if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded hundreds would have died, including King James I.

Since then, before every State Opening of Parliament, Yeomen of the Guard carrying lanterns have made a ceremonial search of the vaults beneath the Palace of Westminster. They must report all is well before Lords and Commons can assemble to hear the Queen’s speech.

In remembrance of his escape, King James instructed the population to make merry by lighting bonfires, ringing church bells, and attending services of thanksgiving. Four hundred years later, crowds still attend public events on the Fifth – or, as is more usual today, the nearest Saturday.

However, there has been a revival of the back-garden bonfire party with its comforting food. Jacket potatoes, mashed swede, roast chestnuts, and plot toffee are traditional bonfire night fare. And let’s not forget Yorkshire parkin, a moist, sticky cake made with oats and black treacle. Its ancestor was Thor cake, a formidable farm cake made with lard and extra oats to sustain toilers in the fields.


November used to be called the Black Month because it was said to have two faces, neither of them pleasant. One was windless, with gloomy skies and heavy mist. The other was ferocious, with rain driven by wild, moaning winds.

At least that’s how it used to be. Recent years have revealed a kinder November, with wintry spells delayed until January and February.

The Met Office says this winter could follow that pattern. It predicts Atlantic conditions for early winter – wet, windy and mild, with the occasional colder spell. However, we can expect temperatures to cool a bit this week. November 6 to 13 is one of the “cold periods” identified by Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan.

Folklore gives November some forecasting dates, beginning on the 11th, St Martin’s Day. As Martinmas was said to give a taste of winter’s weather, folk used to dread a northwesterly wind or worse, an easterly. But whatever happens, frost will probably wait until the full moon on November 25.