Watch for signs of harsh winter

St Martin's little summer.
St Martin's little summer.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Autumn has been a rather muted affair near the coast. Leaves have slipped furtively from their twigs with merely the faintest hint of yellow, and it’s all because of the weather.

The ideal conditions for bright leaf colour are sunny days followed by chilly nights. While we’ve enjoyed some bright days, the nights have been too mild to produce the 
intense reds that we like so much.

Although it’s not too cold yet we can’t help but wonder about winter, especially with energy prices rising. Will it be as cold as last winter? As the Met Office no longer trusts us with its long-term forecasts, we’ll have to revert to pinecone-and-seaweed prediction.

“When ice in November will bear a duck, the rest of the winter is slush and muck.” In other words, a frost hard enough to freeze a pond indicates a mild winter. We’ll have to wait and see – no frost before October’s full moon means frost is unlikely before the full moon on November 17.

“If leaves fall not by Martinmas Day, a cruel winter is on the way.” St Martin’s Day is on November 11, when we should take note of the wind direction. If it’s from the northwest, folklore predicts a severe three months to follow. Compare this with St Clement’s Day on the 23rd, which is said to “give the winter”.

October was rather windy, which folklore says foretells a dry January. A mild October, with leaves hanging on and flowers in bloom, is a sign that the coldest month will be February. St Catherine on November 25 will offer a further clue to February’s weather.

Blood month

November days are mostly wild and soggy, except for the ones that are gloomy and misty. That’s the reputation of the Black Month. Yet after the 11th there’s often a fine spell, known as St Martin’s little summer.

According to legend those fine days were divine recognition for the saint, who once cut his warm cloak in two so he could give half to a beggar.

Martin was a converted soldier who founded the first monastery in Gaul, and became Bishop of Tours in 371. His feast day was previously the Roman Vinalia, which was devoted to the wine god, Bacchus.

This was a tough act to follow. Naturally, Martin became the patron saint of innkeepers, and legend tells how he was able to cure drunkards. “Martin drunk” was used to describe the state of intoxication where one more drink has a strangely sobering effect. St Martin was a popular saint with 173 British churches dedicated to him by 1800.

In autumn, all the cattle, sheep, and pigs that couldn’t be fed through the winter were killed, and the meat was salted down. Anything that couldn’t be preserved was eaten at the Martinmas feast.

In country parishes St Martin’s Day was celebrated until the Great War. But after those terrible years the day took on another meaning. The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, and in the years following the day became devoted to reflections on sacrifice. That’s how it has remained ever since.