One Winter

One winter a legendary amount of snow fell and school was closed and the phone lines in the village came down but when we picked up the phone at our house there were sometimes strangers instantly there on the line. During the same epoch in British history adverts were broadcast during the intermissions in films and sport coverage that I stayed up late to watch that told you about phone lines where you could chat to strangers, just about stuff, nothing obviously dirty. In the adverts the strangers always seemed to be happy and having parties with balloons and fizzy drinks, and would let you join in, we were told, for a fixed rate of pence per minute. But the strangers who were on the phone when I picked it up after the snow didn’t charge you a fixed rate of pence per minute to speak to them; you didn’t even have to dial a number to get through to these strangers, and you could talk to them for free. One day after school, before my mum and dad were home from work, I picked up the phone and two girls were on the other end of the line. They said they were a year older than me and from Bulwell, seven miles east of where I lived, which at the time seemed far away without being at all exotic. I talked to the girls for around an hour and they teased me with questions that seemed advanced, even next to some of the stuff I had heard discussed by the girls in my year at school, who were what I have since realised was quite advanced themselves, in the grander context of late 20th Century adolescent sexual knowledge countrywide. The girl whose phone it was asked me if I had any nice friends because the boys in Bulwell were all shit and I said I did and she gave me her number. I told Lee about it the next day at school and he seemed excited too, even though he hadn’t met the girls and had no idea what they looked like and I had passed on minimal information about their hobbies and personalities, so I gave him the girl’s number, and both of us were on a bit of a high about it for the rest of the day, but neither of us ever did call the number. The following week in Biology I noticed that someone had scratched it into the desk with a pen, quite deep.


One winter I discovered that winter is the perfect time to listen to unvarnished British folk songs that get down to the stark bones of what it is to be human and since then in winter I have never stopped discovering the same fact.


One winter I mistimed an afternoon walk and completed the last two miles of it after the sun had vanished beneath the long edge of the land. My route took me past a Bronze Age burial mound which gave me an idea for a novel that I was not yet capable of writing.

One winter on a much longer walk in hillier country I looked across towards a hedge and saw a strip of black binliner caught in the top of it, which is a concept known in Ireland as “witches’ knickers” but in this case did not look like witches’ knickers. It looked like The Devil, reclining amongst the thin twigs, idly watching my progress through one hollowed out eye.


One winter I lived in a unique house by a river which was full of dark magic and bad insulation and which, given the opportunity, I might well have lived in forever. Because of the bad insulation and the river and the height of the living room ceiling and the biting winds indelibly associated with the region I would get up at around six to light the log fire then usually keep it going for the whole day, during which I would feel palpably aware of the house’s checkered history of troubled tenants, without quite knowing it. The fire was blazing at the party I had that year and the room was warmer than I’d ever known it to be because several bodies were in it. Michael said he was going to check out the river, as there was fog rising from the ice forming on its surface, and he thought it would be good for what he called a Mystic Moment. I considered putting the song Smoke On The Water on as it would have been apt but it seemed too cheesy to do so and besides it was far from my favourite Deep Purple song: less a song and more a strong riff pulling a song behind it, in the way an expensive car pulls a cheap caravan with a broken wheel arch. Michael opened the window then stepped out into the cold foggy air, perhaps believing he could walk on water, or more likely believing he would find a supporting balcony below him, and Karl and I grabbed one of his legs each just in time to avert disaster, and not long afterwards Michael’s band went on to make their most dark and imaginative record yet, which might transpire to get its dues from a distant future generation but was far too good in its own particular way to sell a really large amount of copies upon release. 

One winter I got utterly, fantastically lost in the TV series Box Of Delights to the extent that each time an episode of it was on I forgot my name and where I lived, and spent the cosy curtained early evenings on either side of it covered in glitter making Christmas decorations and cards with my mum, never realising it was the last winter in history when I would ever still feel properly like a child.


One winter we moved from a mortgaged house my dad grew to detest on an estate where all the other houses except ours seemed to have been burgled to a rented house in the countryside that my dad loved which did get burgled. A week before we moved in my dad drove to the rented house alone in the snow with some canvas, some paint brushes and acrylic paints and sat in an upstairs room of the house with a blanket on his lap painting the white valley he could see through the window in front of him.
One winter I returned from an encounter with some emotionally cold people and couldn’t seem to get warm and get on with my day, no matter how hard I tried. I gave up and got into bed with an old hot water bottle and spent several hours reading John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire and have rarely felt more content. 
One winter I fell asleep on top of the same hot water bottle, which was by now even older, and it seriously burned my leg. The burn turned into an unsightly, furious blister and left a large scar, still clearly visible today when I am trouserless, which hints at a far more heroic backstory.
One winter I walked with Will and Mary past ice age pond-swamps and hairy cows that watched us dolefully from dark woods and we cracked the natural frosted glass skin on puddles with our heels and at the end of the walk we all admired the way the sun looked against the low white-red sky then realised it was actually the moon, not the sun.
One winter – well, actually it was spring, but it was a cold day, and felt like spring experiencing accelerated nostalgia for winter – I walked back from the pub with Pat and Rachel and Pat told us to look at the moon, which was shining amazingly brightly through the trees, and Rachel and I waited a minute or two before explaining to Pat that it was actually a streetlight, not the moon.

One winter I saw you on the path near town by the river, where I’d last seen you, in summer, when you’d smiled and said hello and, because I was talking on my mobile phone at the time to someone close to me about their hospital appointment, I’d not responded in the way I felt instantly compelled to. And now – we were heading in the opposite directions to the last time, in twice as many clothes, but in almost exactly the same spot – I did say hello, and you did too, and we both smiled and reduced our walks to slow motion for a split second as we passed and for some baffling reason, not even shyness, I didn’t stop to introduce myself and, even though I’ve decided lately that I don’t have regrets, that the experiences they normally centre around are life’s most strengthening and character-forming, ultimately rendering them redundant as a concept, I know that’s not quite true, because four days later I am an unchanged person and still regretting my decision to keep walking.

Paintings of winter in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire by my dad.

This piece was inspired by the Nicholson Baker essay One Summer, from his 2012 book The Way The World Works

I don’t write for any mainstream media publications and chose to put my writing on this site instead: around 200,000 words of it so far. It’s all free, but if you feel like donating a small monthly amount to help me keep going, you can do so either by paypal or GoCardless. You’ll also find a subscription link on the home page if you’d like to sign up to be notified when a new piece is published.

Read my latest book, Help The Witch.

My new fiction book, Ring The Hill, is now funding for autumn 2019 publication.

42 thoughts on “One Winter

  1. I remember the Box of Delights TV series. I was older than you, but it made me feel like a child again, like all good children's stories.

  2. Thank you for yet another wonderful piece of writing. It echoes so much of things I'd love to say but I don't have the necessary talent to express. I always loved the box of delights (although I have to admit, not as much as the children of green knowe) and both seem to fit perfectly into winter. Your dad's paintings are brilliant and, as usual I'm somewhat jealous of the talent that both you and your parents have and look forward to enjoying it for a long time to come… thank you ?

  3. I adore your poetic writing, Tom – so evocative and spiritual. Your Dad is a talented painter too… but you already know that.

    I'd love to know who your favourite writer is. Mine is Hardy.

    Ruth x

  4. A house on a river. Not on a river as in next-to; nor as in a houseboat; but suspended above the river.

    That was a good weekend. Did I swallow the jumping beans?

  5. So evocative, sitting here in the heat of a stifling Australian summer night with the fan on full bore. Even though I live in the coolest part of Australia, Hobart is still sufficiently temperate for winters to be slightly chilly, and snow at sea level an event. I find myself with an almost visceral need for a proper English countryside winter.

  6. Oh, Tom – such a lovely piece. I really really hope your stranger reads it, and knows it was her.
    Don't regret not stopping – it resulted in a beautiful ending to this piece of writing. I have everything crossed that your paths coincide again very soon.
    Your dad is as talented as your mum, and your good self! ?

  7. Thank you Tom. Winter afternoons captured beautifully, I have always loved the poignance of the afterglow of a cold clear day receding into a misty evening…and the end of childhood receding onto the mistier dealings of adulthood? Nicely observed.

  8. Your Dad's paintings are gorgeous, I love the long shadows. I also love that in a previous comment, someone called them QUIET! Yes, they are not the least bit shouty. Your parents really are talented folk too.

    On a recent trip to the UK and Ireland we saw a fair few 'wtiches' knickers'. We stopped wondering why when we followed a tractor carrying black plastic bundled hay down a narrow road which kept snagging in the hedgerow. Though, having re-read that clumsy sentence, 'witches' knickers' is a much better phrase.

  9. A lovely piece of work for a dreary dark January morning. I like winter and you evoke winters past in ways that bring back memories. I'll read it again on a hot summer day and it will take me back to the refreshing cold. Your dad's painting is beautifully chilly and calm.

  10. Perfect timing, Tom. I needed this today. I remember those 'party lines' from my childhood in North America. You never knew who you'd meet and it was so exciting to imagine. Thank you.

  11. Lovely article – so nostalgic. Box of Delights and The Hotel New Hampshire – you summed up my youth just there ! All together now "Don't be a baby Duncan".

  12. Tom, I've mentioned before how your Mum is a wonderful artist. I'd never seen your Father's work and he, too is very talented. It's no wonder you paint with words. Still miss knowing The Bear is no longer in this world.

  13. Oh well this is definitely one of your best pieces Tom. It made my heart ache and sing all at once. I felt as though I could really feel the turning of time. I'm Australian and I have yet to experience an English winter but somehow, reading this, I could almost hear the ice cracking and taste the stillness of a landscape covered in snow. The inclusion of your Dad's watercolours made it even more special somehow. Thank you for your generosity in sharing this piece with us. I cannot wait to read the new book.

    I so hope you see her again. Love as always to Ralph, Shipley and Roscoe xxxx

  14. This made me nostalgic for childhood and the rural flatlands, even though they are not a patch on where I live now. There were many gems here that made me smile or start; – has a song, and especially one like 'Smoke on the Water' ever been compared to a cheap caravan before ?! And yes, there is nobody under the age of 40 called Lee now. The part I liked best was also in that wonderful last paragraph, and it was about regrets, and how 'the experiences they normally centre around are life's most strengthening and character forming.' That really struck a chord for me personally. Thank you.

  15. Is it weird that I had to laugh at the hot water bottle burning your leg one because I too have done that, complete with furious blister. However, being a human of the none walking variety with a distinct lack of sensation in my lower limbs (about 80% packed it's bags and left home) I feel like I have an excuse. But I'm still a Pratt for doing it. I never did use a hot water bottle again….

    Excellent read by the way.

  16. Fabulous, I'm really looking forward to your new book!.

    I remember northern winters of legendary amounts of snow. The boiler would always break down at school and we'd spend three days freezing anyway, mostly tobogganing dangerously on tea trays and bin liners down the big slope by the main road.

    I am trying to work out which album was brought on by the Mystic Moment – is it one of the Circulus ones?

  17. Your winter stories were so fitting on this freezing cold January morning as I was sipping my coffee. I always enjoy your writings. Also, this is the first time I have seen your Dad's paintings – they are beautiful!

  18. A wonderful blog as always! I've made it a rule to watch the Box of Delights every Christmas for years. So magical, so charming. To my mind, it's one of the best children's programmes ever made by the BBC and should be required watching every Christmas for everyone 🙂 xx

  19. Thanks to Yvonne. I bought a landscape print from the local bric a brac market a few months ago and was told the artist's name at the time. When it came back from being re framed all details of who had painted it had been obscured with the new mount and I had forgotten who had painted it. When I read your comment about Tom's dad's paintings reminding you about Rowland Hilder I instantly remembered that my picture was by him. It is of Skiddaw in the Lake District. And yes, I agree that the paintings illustrating 'One Winter' by Tom's dad are very much like the one I have.
    Who would have thought that a random blog comment about something else could have answered that question for me?

  20. Hello Tom!
    I just bought a copy of 'Box of Delights' and am eagerly reading it, as long it is still cold and wintery enough outside?. Wonderful book! It's not so widely known in Germany,I'm glad you mentioned it!
    Best wishes

  21. This sentence makes me so happy 🙂

    "The burn turned into an unsightly, furious blister and left a large scar, still clearly visible today when I am trouserless, which hints at a far more heroic backstory.

  22. Another Box of Delights fan. I love the music that went with it, the harp playing the snow falling at the beginning of The First Noel. What wonderful writing Tom making me think of winters past, especially those when we had to keep the fire stoked all day – living at the time in Aberdeenshire.

  23. Sitting in my new home in Cambridge NY with a view this morning not dissimilar to that first painting of your Dad’s. How wonderfully he captures the light of winter. And how wonderful the piece you have written. Your last book has not caught up with me yet but I look forward to when it does and I look further forward to the one you are about to write. Thank you, Tom for so many pleasant hours of reading and chuckling. You make me nostalgic for the England of my childhood.

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