It’s July in the Mackenzie Country, at the foot of the Southern Alps, in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Winter has drained the colour from the land and left it in shades of grey and white.
The distant mountains are lost in the mist. It’s a strange, surreal and eerie landscape, like a scene from a Nordic Noir film.
It’s late morning and the road, closed because of heavy ice, has just opened. We have it all to ourselves, until our headlights pick out a hazy shape looming, like a ghost, in the mist ahead. It’s a motorbike rider in billowing overalls. We keep a safe distance. The roads are still slippery. The rider raises a hand to wave us past. We dare not. Beyond him is obscurity. He half turns his head. We drop back, leaving him to his lonely ride and wondering what pressing business, what unavoidable mission brought him out on a morning like this.
There’s no doubt about it. London winters are dismal. The temperatures drop to numbers that can be counted on a few fingers. The days are few brief hours of gloomy grey light and night falls halfway through the afternoon. Yet, (at least for those who haven’t suffered through too many of them) winter is one of the city’s brightest and most cheerful seasons.
In late November or early December, borough by borough and with great celebration, the Christmas lights are turned on. So, for winter’s most dismal weeks, when the daylight disappears at 3.30pm, the dark streets are bright with flashing neon.
Shop windows are full of cheery fireside scenes, rich and colourful Christmas fare or warm, bright winter clothes.
Christmas villages spring up; huddles of brightly lit miniature chalets selling hot chocolate, mulled wine, mince pies and sweets, woolly hats and gloves and a thousand and one sparkling, glittering little knick-knacks.
The ice rinks open. Alongside tents are set up with bars selling mulled wine and hot chocolate. The skaters come out – the experts and the amateurs, the school kids and the after-workers – doing or just watching it’s fun and it’s hilarious.