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St Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day and Christmas Day are ideal selling points for the retail trade, even if for everyone else it is a nightmare. In the dead days after Christmas it must be bliss for florists, for instance, to finally order piles of roses for February 14th because they KNOW that a lot of men are going to be running round at the last moment that day thinking, Oh my God I haven’t got her anything Oh my God, oh thank God, there are some roses in that shop window. Same with chocolate shops. Same with off licences and all those bottles of pink bubbly that mysteriously appear in the first week of February.
            (Birthdays and anniversaries are just as nightmarish, but at least they are spread through the year, and do not all come on the same day. Imagine if we had to do everyone’s birthdays all on one day as well! It would be chaos, wouldn’t it? Now imagine something even more far-fetched. Imagine if we all had to celebrate Jesus’s birthday on the same day and give everyone we knew presents and send them cards! On December 25th, for example. It would be madness, wouldn’t it?)
            My heart does not leap up when I feel my own anniversaries coming ahoy, but I feel even less excited when Jesus and Mother and St Valentine and St Patrick have their days coming round. I feel pressured by something I do not want into buying things I do not need to buy and having meals out at a time when everyone else is having a meal out too. It’s positively Orwellian. Big Brother wants you to have a good time. And that is why the following exchange took place in my house in early February.
Wife: Where are you taking me out to dinner for St Valentine’s Day this year?
Me: Nowhere. I can’t bear the idea of going to another restaurant full of quiet, simpering couples, all holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes.
Wife: In that case, be original for a change!
            Me: Yes, I will, I will!
            But I couldn’t. Oh, I toyed with the idea of whisking her off to Zanzibar for the day or going shopping in Paris, but for various reasons I decided against these. (Too showy, too vulgar.) And then I remember having overheard an old lady two years ago saying to her friend: “I went to see the snowdrops at Painswick this year and they were lovely!” Idly I looked up snowdrops and Painswick on Google, and found that indeed somewhere called the Painswick Rococo Gardens was famous for its snowdrops. I also found there were some nice lunch places nearby, so I booked in at one and made my wife promise to be free for a surprise on the morning of February 14th.
            ( She loves surprises, both giving and getting them. I hate them. She once booked us in for the night at a very romantic venue, the Sign of the Angel at Lacock, and wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I was miserable on the journey. I wanted to have something to look forward to, and found it totally impossible to get excited over a blank cheque. We arrived just before I asked to be driven back. But on Feb 14th, as we drove north over the M4, past Cirencester and into Stroud, her sense of anticipation did not waver. Not even in Stroud.)
            Wife: Well, being in Stroud, I guess by now we are not going to Zanzibar.
            Me: Correct.
            Wife: But we are not coming to Stroud for lunch, are we?
            Me: No.
            Wife: Oh, thank you, thank you!
            There were a lot of people at the Painswick Rococo Gardens, all come to see the snowdrops, and although there were quite a lot of snowdrops, and the grounds were quite nice, it wasn’t somehow the treat I had hoped it would be. Still, at least the place wasn’t full of Valentine Day couples holding hands. Couples, yes, but not holding hands. Too steep and slippy to hold hands. Hold hands, and you fall to your death together. But there were a surprising lot of families there. Running round through the trees. “Jason! Get off those flowers! Kylie! Stop trampling on the snowdrops!” I blame St Valentine, personally. Romance blossoms under his aegis, and couples get together, and have children, and then the family goes out and tramples the snowdrops underfoot on Feb 14th. Serves him right.
            Lunch was a lot better. Except that in the old Cotswold stone country hotel I had chosen there were also lots of couples wandering round the place. But not holding hands. No, what they were all holding was Daily Telegraph vouchers. “Amazing, isn’t it? Lunch for £5!” Total strangers were making friends with each other in the sheer wonderment of having lunch for £5, swapping addresses, swearing eternal friendship, planning to meet again for lunch. As my wife and I sat together in the lounge, having a pre-prandial glass and looking at the old books on the bookshelf (when did anyone last read a Mazo de la Roche novel? When did anyone last christen their child Mazo?), we could hear the excited hum around us of people who were about to have a £5 lunch, in which we did not entirely share, as we were going to be the only people who were about to pay full whack for lunch.
            Lunch was very good, actually. And afterwards I also had that warm glow which comes from knowing that, as an Independent reader, I was entitled to no concessions at all, and had therefore not been regarded snootily or askance by any of the waiters. There was also that warm glow as we map read our way back on small side roads so as to avoid Stroud which came from knowing that it was only mid-afternoon on February 14th and we had already got St Valentine’s Day over and done with.
And I’ll tell you something else: ever since our snowdrop-spotting trip to Painswick we have spotted snowdrops wherever we have gone, growing wild, in woods, in fields, on river banks. It’s March 1st as I write and there are still snowdrops all over the place. In fact, I think it has been the best year for the Galanthus family that I can remember, and every time we find a new vista of snowdrops, it’s St Valentine’s Day for us all over again. Without the crowds.

The Independent March 1st 2006

© Caroline Kington