In 2011 Isabella Kaminski set out in pursuit of spring, tracking the season from the UK’s southernmost tip to its most northerly point, covering 1,300 miles by bike. A decade on, Isabella revisits what she learned during that trip, exploring how the climate crisis is causing season creep and how the changing seasons affect us all.
What travels at two miles per hour across the UK?
It sounds like the set-up to the world’s lamest joke, but a similar question asked on a TV quiz show sparked the most transformative journey of my life.
The answer? Spring.
Ten years ago, inspired by a suggestion that spring arrives on Orkney eight weeks after Cornwall, I began reading about the study of phenology. This is a flourishing field that examines recurring events in nature and how the climate affects them.
I began wondering whether it would be possible to travel at the speed of spring, combining the infamous Land’s End to John o’Groats cycling challenge with an extended nature trail and a chance to talk to people about their experiences of the changing season. I christened the project ‘Chasing Spring’.
Deciding when spring has sprung is like trying to find the end of a circle. Meteorologists split the seasons into quarterly segments depending on average temperatures; March, April and May are springtime months in the UK. Astronomically, the vernal equinox around 21 March is often singled out as the official start of spring.
Spring can also be signalled by phenological indicators such as green-up (the growing proportion of green vegetation on land), budburst (when the colour of new green leaves is just visible between the scales of the swollen bud) or the appearance or activities of particular creatures.
I chose this latter approach for ‘Chasing Spring’ for two reasons. Firstly I wanted to put the season in control and, secondly, because the sighting of a particular species seemed a more human way of intuiting the start of spring. Although I was tempted to spot daffodils, these usually appear very early in the year and most are not truly wild, so I plumped for the migratory sand martin.
Romance and reality
In early 2011 I watched hawthorn leaves unfurl, frogs spawn and – at last – sightings of sand martins being recorded in south-west England. After months of preparation and just minutes of strenuous training, I finally set off from Land’s End on 12 March. I was accompanied at the last minute by Matt, a man I had only just met, after the friend due to join me was forced to pull out.
I had imagined myself riding with ease across verdant fields with flowers springing up at my wheels. That romantic image was shattered pretty quickly. I was floored by the physical demands of the journey, and exhausted by the logistics of finding accommodation and food on the fly and on a shoestring budget.
Luckily we saw little rain in the first six weeks, but we did endure punctures and broken axles, terrifying A-roads, hungry evenings subsisting on custard creams, strange encounters in remote B&Bs, and an acute attack by a goose. The relationship between myself and Matt alternated between banter and irritation.
At times I felt weighed down by the monotony of the stagnant calendar. As we rode north, daffodils gave way to daffodils in a never-ending line on the landscape. It was like reading the first page of a book again and again, day after day.
What’s the story?
Spring isn’t a discrete season punctuated by winter and summer; it’s a series of fortunate events that we’ve chosen to weave into a single narrative.
There are false springs, when plants are deceived into peeking above the winter parapet by temporary mild temperatures. And it doesn’t roll out evenly across the country. We saw primroses and coltsfoot in full bloom in some places and browning in others as the plants responded to a complex intersection of latitude, altitude and microclimate.
And that narrative is getting more complicated. The UK’s spring index measures four biological events: the first flowering of hawthorn and horse chestnut, the first recorded flight of an orange-tip butterfly, and the first sighting of a swallow. The index shows spring arrived on average 8.4 days earlier in 1998–2019 than it did between 1891 and 1947.
This advancement of spring events is sometimes known as ‘season creep’, and the year I chased spring, 2011, was the warmest April central England had seen since records began.
The climate crisis is also reshuffling the UK’s wildlife calendar, putting animals and plants out of sync with others on which they rely. Dr Stephen Thackeray, lake ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, specialises in researching the signs of spring. He tells me the concern is not so much about the activity of any one species, but their relative timings and how that affects habitat, food and breeding.
Spring is a series of fortunate events that we’ve chosen to weave into a single narrative.
“There’s a lot of evidence that if we compare a couple of species that depend on each other, they're changing at different rates,” he explains. “The bit that we know far less about in any broad sense is what the impacts are. That's what people are actively working on now.”
Somewhere around Northumberland, I gave myself up to the uncertainty of the journey, feeling at last the anarchic joy of spring pushing, thrusting and grabbing its way into existence. Away from motorways, I saw for myself how much of Britain is still rural; its towns and cities islands in a sea of fields. And how, even in the bleakest urban areas, wildlife still squats on the verges of roads and punctures lawns of plastic grass.
What rescued me most were the people we met on the way, most memorably Cheshire's daffodil expert Len Tomlinson. He spent hours walking us around his carefully cultivated fields showing us the difference between an egg-yolk Einstein and a white-gowned Desdemona.
Eight weeks and 1,300 miles later, to the surprise and delight of us both, Matt and I reached the northernmost point of the mainland. When we had started back in early March it was snowing in Scotland, but now in John o’Groats there was white blossom falling from a clear blue sky.
Spring in 2021
Ten years later and life has moved on in a colourful burst. Now I’m introducing my two small children to the spring by searching for bright green shoots in the mud and spotting leaf buds swelling on tree branches.
But as the nation’s biodiversity continues to drastically decline, there’s much that my children will never see. One much-loved book on the shelf, ‘What to Look For in Spring’, published by Ladybird in the 1960s, is now woefully out of date; there’s little hope of spotting a turtle dove anywhere but a few special places in Britain and it's no longer true to say a cuckoo's call is one “we all know so well”.
A new edition published in 2020 promises no such familiarity, explaining there are “now fewer cuckoos in England than there once were” because of droughts on its migratory route.
How do we handle these changes? Ecologists warn of shifting-baseline syndrome, a “persistent downgrading of perceived ‘normal’ environmental conditions with every sequential generation, leading to underestimation of the true magnitude of long-term environmental change on a global scale”, according to the authors of a 2020 study of bird observations published in People and Nature.
Dr Thackeray says people often mistakenly think about the climate crisis as something happening elsewhere or in the distant future. And this is where phenology informs us in the present, allowing observations to feed into a vast national dataset going back centuries.
“Long-term monitoring gives you that context for your own period of direct experience,” says Dr Thackeray. “And I think that’s really important because we will frame what we think is normal based on us being here right now. But our normal is not the normal of a few decades ago.”
As the nation’s biodiversity continues to decline, there’s much that my children will never see
It’s sobering to think that if I retraced the miles of ‘Chasing Spring’ now, my experience would be a different one. Although I took a leisurely eight weeks to cycle across the UK, a more recent estimate from the Woodland Trust’s Nature’s Calendar, which gathers wildlife sightings from volunteers across the country, puts the speed of spring at closer to three weeks.
Dr Thackeray hopes that better education about climate and ecology at school and beyond will help address these mismatches between personal experience and phenological evidence. “I think there's an increasing recognition, at least in my bit of the science community, of the power of storytelling and more creative approaches to take the science and bring it to a larger number of people.”
The way I think about spring has certainly changed, and I’m always alert to its signs appearing too early for comfort. But this year, more than most, we’re all desperate for glimmers of hope in the earth after a dark and lonely winter. And I’ll be glad to watch the season unfold sequentially, reading each page of the book in turn, even if some have got a little shuffled.
About the contributors
Steven is a photographer at Wellcome. His photography takes inspiration from the museum’s rich and varied collections. He enjoys collaborating on creative projects and taking them to imaginative places.