THIS Sunday marks the halfway stage of winter. Due to the lighter evenings and mornings, often with a splash of welcome sunshine during the daytime hours and the sight of new growths in plants and trees, we can be deceived into believing spring is almost here.

However, the country folk of former times were not easily fooled by these outward and sometimes misleading appearances.

They were perfectly aware that Candlemas Day (February 2) was only midway through winter and they handed down advice to their children and families about conserving their stocks of food and fuel, as well as their animal fodder and bedding, in preparation for the second half of this coldest of our seasons.

That has often proved to be very sound advice, supported by spectacular snowfalls and strong frosts, not to mention floods and gales, arriving after Candlemas.

It is not without reason that February was often known as "February Fill-Dyke" due to the amount of water on the land and in our rivers.

But, from a farmer's point of view, both rain and snow, in moderate quantities, were welcomed around this time because it helped to safeguard the land against spring droughts.

Thus, February was often termed either black or white - a black February was one which produced a lot of water and a white one indicated falls of snow.

If it did snow around Candlemas, however, it was said "the snow lies on a hot stone", indicating a rapid thaw.

There is a lovely old saying that "if it snows on February 2, only so much as can be seen on a black ox, then summer will come soon".

A storm on February 2, however, means that spring is very near, but if the day is bright and clear, then a late spring may be expected.

There are lots of weather sayings which are linked to Candlemas Day, but most, if not all, are variations of this most popular piece of lore:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,

Winter will have another flight;

If Candlemas Day brings clouds and rain,

Winter will not come again.

The formal name for Candlemas Day is the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, although the feast is now known as the Presentation of Christ.

In former times, the candles which would be required by the Church throughout the coming year were blessed at Mass, symbolising Christ as "the light of the world".

In domestic terms, and with savings of commodities in mind, unused candles were often stored away around this time by canny folk, the ever-lengthening lighter nights rendering many of them unnecessary.

If we are seeking evidence of the approach of spring, however, we can ignore the warnings of Candlemas and instead have a look in our gardens and woodlands.

There, we might be convinced that spring is really just around the proverbial corner because there is every possibility that snowdrops will be making their appearance.

They were sometimes called the Purification Flower or Fair Maid of February and were gathered by young girls to be worn as garlands on Candlemas Day as a symbol of the girls' purity.

For all the pleasure and anticipation generated by the sight of those fresh, clean flowers at this time of year, we should not forget another name for the snowdrop - snow-piercer.

Perhaps that very apt name suggests we should not ignore the warnings of Candlemas?

Whatever happened to Bedale Castle? So far as castles are concerned, this must be one of the most mysterious in Yorkshire because there is considerable doubt as to when it was built and by whom. There are also similar uncertainties about its end. Did it fall down or was it pushed?

What is known is that it occupied a site slightly to the south-west of the church in what became the grounds of Bedale Hall.

Some early accounts suggest it was built by Brian Fitz-Alan, but this is countered by the fact that Brian already had a castle and was not likely to have built another.

Brian Fitz-Alan was the great grandson of Alan, the third Earl of Richmond, and he became Lord of Bedale about 1200-1201.

The male line of this family expired with the death of another Brian in 1306.

The castle appears to have been built before the time of the first Brian, however. It is suggested by some experts that it was of Norman origin, probably the work of Ribald or Scollandus, who built it shortly after the Conquest, but so very little is known about it.

For example, no-one knows for how long it stood on its site, which reputedly "had no advantage of situation".

Whatever its history and purpose, every trace of Bedale Castle has vanished. One account in my possession says "We do not know by whom it was built or by what means it fell into decay. Few of the medieval fortresses of Yorkshire have so entirely vanished 'leaving not a wrack behind'."

By contrast, the church tower seems to have provided protection against invaders of Bedale. It is thought to have been built specifically as a place of refuge against Border raiders and at one time boasted a portcullis.

This was at the foot of the staircase and it seems that, as risks from raiders subsided, the portcullis was raised and after a time its presence was forgotten.

According to a lovely story, there was a ferocious thunderstorm on an unknown date and the church tower was struck by lightning. The impact of the strike caused the portcullis to rattle down from its hiding place and block the entrance to the tower.

This meant that no-one could ring the church bells or maintain the clock, which indicates the lightning strike occurred sometime after the clock had been installed. The portcullis had to be dismantled by cutting it into small pieces.

Finally, one of the most famous people in the fourteenth century was Miles Stapylton of Bedale and Wighill, a prominent figure at the court of Edward III.

It is said the Black Prince was so impressed by Sir Miles' chivalry that he presented him with a splendid war horse, but one curious claim is that Miles founded the Knights of the Round Table - so that all were equal before God.

Others have been credited with the creation of the famous round table, including a certain King Arthur, but I wonder if Miles' round table ever graced the dining hall of Bedale Castle?

My correspondence this week has been about birds. One was an interesting telephone call from a woman in Richmond who told me about a female blackbird in her garden.

She spotted the bird gathering nesting materials during the first week of January, blackbirds having nested in a nearby tree for more than 21 years.

So far as this female was concerned, however, a pair of male blackbirds were showing a healthy interest in her before Christmas, some time before she began worrying about building her nest.

The female is the nest-builder of the pair and, although blackbirds are among the earlier of our breeders, they usually lay their eggs in March.

If they lay them too early, as can happen from time to time, then wintry weather conditions prevent the eggs from hatching.

This year, many of our wild creatures and plants thought an early spring was on the way, only to be reminded of reality by some sharp frosts and a seasonal fall of snow. I hope the blackbirds learned that lesson!

A gentleman from Darlington has commented on the reduction of cuckoo numbers by saying he spotted eight on the Isles of Scilly during May last year, but thought these were merely resting during migration.

Like most of us, he has observed birds in his garden - including lots of starlings. In my case, starlings have not been plentiful, so we await results of the RSPB's garden bird watch with interest