In the Bleak Midwinter

Apologies for my posts being a bit thin lately. It turned out to be quite a strange week, as I’ll explain in due course, but I thought I’d take the opportunity now to catch up a little bit. I apologize in advance for the rambling nature of this contribution, but if you read this blog regularly you’ll be used to that.

We’re all now back at work after the Christmas break, but this was always going to be an unusual week because it’s the last one before the mid-year examinations start. During this time there are revision lectures, but the timetable isn’t as full as in term-time proper, so  it’s more like a half-way house than a genuine return to full-time work. Although I’m always glad not to be thrown into full-time teaching or examination marking straight away after the break, I always find this hiatus slightly disorienting.

This year things are even stranger than usual because, after largely escaping the bad weather that has affected the rest of the country since before Christmas, snow and ice finally arrived with a vengeance in Cardiff on Tuesday night. It wasn’t too bad where I live, quite near the city centre, but a lot of snow fell up in rural areas, especially up in the valleys, with the result that quite a few members of staff couldn’t make it into work.

Talking of the weather gives me the excuse to include this absolutely beautiful picture of snow-bound Britain taken by NASA’s Earth Observatory satellite:

The problem wasn’t so much the snow itself, but the fact that the temperature dropped steeply soon after it fell leaving roads and pavements coated with sheets of ice. My regular refuse collection, scheduled for Wednesday, didn’t happen because the trucks couldn’t make it through the treacherous conditions, and buses and trains were severely disrupted. I think there’s been a similar picture across most of the United Kingdom.

Incidentally, the well-known Christmas carol from which I took the title of this post began life as a poem by Christina Rossetti, the first verse of which goes

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

I don’t know why but, as the snow was falling heavily in the early hours of Wednesday morning, I woke up with terrible stomach pains, so bad that they kept me awake all night. I assume that this was some sort of belated reaction to yuletide over- indulgence rather than anything more serious because the discomfort eventually died away and I was left with mere exhaustion after losing a whole night’s sleep. Rather than risk walking in through the snow, I retreated to bed and slept most of Wednesday although I didn’t eat or drink anything the whole day.

Columbo kept me good company during this unpleasant episode. Usually if we’re in the house at the same time he sometimes stays by my side, but he’s at other times quite happy to potter around, or sleep on his own in  a place of his choosing.  I think he knew something wasn’t right, because he never left me alone all day which is quite unusual. Alternatively, he may just have found it warmer being next to me than elsewhere. Who knows?

My guts apparently having recovered, I went into the department on Thursday for a busy day of project interviews. These are held half-way through the third year in order to assess the students progress on their projects. In between the interviews I was trying to keep up with progress on the last day of the test match between South Africa and England taking place in Cape Town, where the weather was somewhat different to Cardiff. The match had been coming to the boil, eventually ending in a draw as England’s last pair once again staved off what looked likely to be a defeat. Shades of Monty last summer! Although it was clearly a gripping finale, I’m glad in a way that I didn’t get to follow it more closely. I always get an uneasy churning feeling in my stomach during tense passages of play, and after what had happened the day before I think that was best avoided.

Yesterday (Friday) was the date of the January meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, and I decided to show my faith in the public transport system by making the round trip to London.  No-one can accuse me of having lost my spirit of adventure! Some trains had been cancelled, but those still running seemed to be on time and I thought the odds weren’t too bad.

The specialist Discussion Meeting featured a programme dedicated to the legacy of XMM, a highly successful X-ray satellite that has just had its funding axed by STFC. Later on, during the Ordinary Meeting there was an interesting talk by Alan Fitzsimmons about the impact of a small asteroid with the Earth that took place in October 2008,  and Matt Griffin presented some of the stunning new results from Herschel. RAS Discussion meetings are always held on the 2nd Friday of the month. Astronomical historian Alan Chapman reminded the Society that the corresponding meeting 80 years ago, on 10th January 1930,  was an important event in the development of the theory of the expanding universe.

Fully recovered from my tummy problems, I rounded the week off with a trip to the RAS Club for a nice dinner at the Athenaeum. Turnout was a bit lower than usual, presumably because of the inclement weather. This was the so-called Parish Meeting, at which various items of Club business are carried out, including the election of new members and Club officers. Professor Donald Lynden-Bell recently announced his retirement from the position of President and this was his last occasion in the Chair; the resulting Presidential Election was a close-run affair won by Professor Dame Carole Jordan. The election of new members is an archaic and slightly dotty process which always leaves me wondering how I managed to get elected myself. At one point during these proceedings the Club finds itself to be “without Officers”,  whereupon the most junior member (by length of membership rather than age) suddenly becomes important. On this occasion, this turned out to be me but since I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, I fluffed it. If I’d known I might have seized the opportunity to stage a coup d’etat. Other than this, it seemed to go off without any major hitches and eventually we dispersed into the freezing night to make our ways home.

As usual on Club nights I took the 10.45pm train from Paddington to Cardiff. In the prevailing meteorological circumstances I was a bit nervous about getting home, but my fears were groundless. The train was warm and, with Ipod, Guardian and Private Eye crosswords, and the last 100 pages of a novel to occupy me, the journey was remarkably pleasant. We got to Cardiff 4 minutes ahead of schedule.

20 Responses to “In the Bleak Midwinter”

  1. Absolutely Spectacular picture.

  2. -Although confirms my fears about how dirty the Severn is….

  3. telescoper Says:

    I’m sorry about that. I’d just flushed the toilet.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Can anyone explain why so little snow seems to have fallen on Ireland?

  5. It looks like there is snow in part of Ireland, up in the north (maybe because that part belongs to the UK? :-)), but it is difficult to see because much of Ireland is obscured by clouds. The front came from the west. Perhaps the sea kept it warm enough so that rain, not snow, fell on most of Ireland (Ireland does get a lot of rain), but by the time it reached Britain, the much cooler land below cooled the air down enough so that snow fell instead of rain.

    Just a guess.

  6. Reminds me of a satellite picture of Spain, which was completely cloudless, except for one small cloud directly over the Calar Alto observatory.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    It’s beyond me why “In the bleak midwinter” is so popular as a carol. The tune is a dirge, it displays the worst kind of Victorian sentimentality, it rhymes “snow” with itself, and the scansion matches the music atrociously. Give me “Hark! the herald angels sing” with music by Mendelssohn and words by Charles Wesley anyday.


  8. Dave Carter Says:

    There are two arrangements of “In the Bleak Midwinter”, Holst’s, which I think is the dirge you criticise, and Harold Darke’s, which is harder to sing unless you are a proper choir. But nicer in my view, and fits the words better.

    “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was apparently originally sung to the tune of the Easter hymn “Jesus Christ is risen today”, also by Charles Wesley. That tune is old, possibly 17th century. Mendelssohn was writing a century after Wesley’s death.

    If you are interested that is….

    As for Rossetti’s words, certainly I have heard it said that the words are a very deep meditation on the humble birth of Christ. On the other hand Anton’s suggestion of Victorian sentimentality is probably more likely, it was a family trait.

  9. […] Sunset to Star Rise It was just a last-minute thought to borrow the title for a recent post from a poem by Christina Rossetti, but since doing that I’ve been thinking I should perhaps […]

  10. Anton Garrett Says:


    Yes, I’m commenting on “In the bleak midwinter” as a carol set to music by Holst (presumably on a bad day – The Planets is great). I hadn’t really considered it as a poem, but I certainly find it overly sentimental. And my posts on Peter’s December 21st blog entry suggest that the nativity was not in midwinter. As for the scansion: even as a committed believer I find it impossible not to think of Tom Lehrer doing one of his wicked parodies when I sing the last line of verse 2,

    Jee-ee-ee-sus Christ.

    In fairness it’s no worse than some of the metrical settings of the psalms which often remind me of a roller-coaster, one word being held for ages then a dozen words being gabbled out in a couple of seconds. You would never guess from this way of singing them that the Psalms convey many different moods including joy.


  11. telescoper Says:


    I always thought it was a peculiarly Anglican thing to have such dreary hymns (including carols). Going back a bit, Thomas Tallis wrote gorgeous choral music for Catholic services, but when circumstances forced him to write in a Protestant style even he produced some extremely dull stuff.


  12. Anton Garrett Says:


    A friend who is a Roman Catholic priest says that the Anglican hymnal is the one thing he is jealous of. (I should add that I subdivide ‘protestant’ into Anglican and Free and I am in the latter category, because I do not believe in an Established church – politics means coercion whereas Christianity must be voluntary to be authentic.) My postings above have criticised “In the bleak midwinter” and the metrical way of singing the psalms, but there are abundant glories in the English hymn tradition. Isaac Watts criticised the metrical psalms as long as 300 years ago and wrote many glorious hymns. What you found dreary was probably an overdose of Victorian minor-key stuff, but there is far more to the English hymnal than that. I could quote titles of favourites from four centuries of English hymn singing, but your blog is probably not the place.


  13. Dave Carter Says:

    I really don’t agree with you Peter, and I do agree with Anton, the Anglican hymnal (and many other protestant hymnals which derive from it in part), contain a wonderful selection of tunes derived from the traditions of folk and sacred music of medieval northern Europe. Vaughan Williams arranged a number of folk songs and set hymns to them. Some of our greatest Christmas carols are even earlier, such as the Sussex carol, or a number whose tunes come from the medieval “Pie Cantones”.

    However, there was some dire stuff written between about 1850 and 1910. Including some settings of hymns by Watts, who as far as I know, like Wesley, wrote no music.

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Indeed; Charles Wesley generally wrote his hymns to the tunes of the folk songs popular in his day. I wish the church would do that again nowadays – its own modern worship idiom is essentially pop songs but with tunes far inferior to 1960s pop music. (I am in a congregation that worships like this; it does the other aspects of the faith in the way I think is right.) I wrote some Christian verses to Ben E King’s great “Stand By Me” but have yet to persuade my Elders to try it out on a Sunday.

  15. telescoper Says:

    Clearly others think differently but while there are a few hymns I remember with affection – Abide with me, Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer, and The Lord is my Shepherd (to the tune of Crimond) – I found most of them very dull. I think our National Anthem is very tedious too.

    Come to think of it, there was a hymn we sang to the tune of Finlandia but I can’t remember the words.

  16. Anton Garrett Says:


    “Be still my soul” to Finlandia is beautiful and high on my favourites list. “Abide with me” is great too, and once you know it was written by a dying man you no longer worry about the melodramatic aspects. (I once heard a Radio 4 documentary about it, and – extraordinarily – it also worked when sung upbeat by African Christians.) You have to like “Guide me O thou great redeemer/Jehovah” living so near Cardiff Arms Park, but I agree with you about that one too.

    My taste in hymns was formed when I was an atheist, at school assembly, and it has scarcely changed since I started to believe what I sing. Nothing beats “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” in my view.

    I agree that we have a dull National Anthem. The Hungarian one (Himnusz) is incredibly beautiful, and the old Soviet Union one is magnificent.


  17. Dave Carter Says:

    We need a new National Anthem, whether for England or the UK I do not know. Wales has long had an excellent one, Scotland seems to have chosen on by popular acclaim amongst its rugby fans. Australia got a new one, I think Canada also. Ours is dire in tune and words, apart from the one verse than nobody is supposed to sing nowadays.

  18. Dave Carter Says:

    Anton, I was thinking about modern hymns. There seem to be a number of different approaches. The best-known contemporary hymn writer in Anglican circles I think is Graham Kendrick, who is a composer as well and usually writes both words and music. There is a strong hymn writing tradition in the URC, represented by the late Fred Kaan and Fred Pratt Green, who write words and tend to use old hymn tunes. Sydney Carter, who was a but longer ago, did use some folk tunes. I think its very difficult to set hymns to modern music. I find it awkward to wander into an unfamiliar church (you find this in Baptist churches) and at the front is a four or five piece band enjoining everyone to join in with what they are singing. The words are on an overhead projector, usually one slide behind, the tune is unfamiliar or non-existant, and the meter seems to be being made up as they go along, with lots of long holds. The regulars seem to know what is going on, but as a visitor you have no chance.

  19. Anton Garrett Says:


    Graham Kendrick was fashionable when I started going to church in 1990, but he hasn’t lasted and I can’t say I am surprised.

    The problem I have with most modern worship tunes is that the words are all about emotions rather than truths of the faith. But people come to church in all moods, and it is ghastly to expect people to sing ecstatic worship songs when, for example, they have just lost a son in a car crash – whereas all believers can agree with the truths of the faith regardless of mood. I agree with what you say and am suggesting a reason why you find this style of worship difficult.


  20. Alan Strand Says:

    Nihil disputandum gustibus. I personally think “In the Bleak Midwinter” one of the most haunting and beautiful carols in the Christmas repertoire. What I have been unable to ascertain is how the Darke version is considered to be anything other than an arrangement of Holst’s tune. They sound pretty much the same to me.

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