Drawing maps for my booklets makes me want to go out and walk the route again. After nine years it’s time to revise my Walks around Newmillerdam, not just because there will have been a few changes to the footpaths but also because the Friends of Newmillerdam and Wakefield Tree Wardens have been making all kinds of improvements to the country park. Continue reading
I write my Wild Yorkshire nature diary for the Dalesman magazine five or six weeks ahead of publication so in the past week I’ve turned my attention to the October article, which really makes me feel as if summer is coming to a close!
Usually I have plenty of material to sift through but last October we’d only just got over selling my late mother’s house and we had so much on that Barbara and I managed only a book delivery excursion to the Peak District and a couple of days in Scarborough.
With such a short time on the coast, I tried to draw whenever I got the opportunity but that meant that I didn’t get around to writing many notes, certainly not enough for my 800 word Dalesman article.
Luckily while I was perching on the sea wall at North Bay sketching rocks and birds, Barbara was sitting on a bench nearby writing in a pocket notebook, so I’ve filled in the blanks in my article from her observations.
It reminds me of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy: she wrote meticulous descriptions of the scenery and natural history that they’d encountered on their walks and he’d put them into verse, implying that he’d been wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ (except for Dorothy following him and scribbling in her notebook).
I’ve got the chance to be more productive than Wordsworth: I don’t have to lie on my couch ‘in vacant or in pensive mood’ because I can get my ideas together using my favourite writing program Scrivener, which is set up so writers can drop rough drafts in, rearrange them on a virtual corkboard and then go into a full screen, distraction-free writing mode (that’ll be the day, when I don’t get distracted!).
Even so it took me a couple of sessions to polish up the article so that it flows but, even using Barbara’s notes, I’d only got to 500 words. Having set the scene on the coast I didn’t want to change the location to the Peak District or to our home patch to finish off the article.
As I drew last October I’d been amazed to see a kingfisher fishing in the sea, diving in from a concrete post, so I decided to write a little more about that. I looked up the kingfisher in Birds of the Western Palearctic but even in the twelve pages of closely written notes of this nine volume handbook I couldn’t spot a suitably fascinating fact that would draw my article to a close.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology weren’t all that helpful either but then I remembered my favourite study of the roots of classical mythology, The White Goddess by Robert Graves. I’ve still got the copy that I bought as a student. His explanation of the myth of the kingfisher mentions the account written by Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, which I was able to track down via Google. Pliny describes the floating nest that kingfishers were believed to make at sea during the calm halcyon days of December:
“Their nests are truly wonderful; they are of the shape of a ball slightly elongated, have a very narrow mouth, and bear a strong resemblance to a large sponge. It has never yet been discovered of what material they are made; some persons think that they are formed of sharp fish-bones, as it is on fish that these birds live.”
That struck me as the perfect way to round off my article.
Scrivener writing software.
Dalesman Yorkshire magazine and visitor guides.
The Ashfields, between Heath village and the River Calder (OS ref. SE 353 206), were settlement lagoons for the pulverised fuel ash from Wakefield power station which was decommissioned in 1991. In the past thirty or forty years the process of natural succession has transformed them from silty open ground to orchid meadow and then from scrub to woodland.
The Half Moon (SE 358 208) between Heath and Kirkthorpe is a cut-off meander of the Calder. A hundred or more whirligig beetles gyrate in a group on the surface close to the bank. Branched bur-reed grows amongst sweet-flag.
Amber snails graze on the sweet-flag. These snails are unable to fully retract into their shells. Their lower tentacles are much reduced.
Usually, as soon as I start drawing a commuter, he or she will change position or get on to a train but I thought that I had a chance with this man, sitting nursing his luggage and thoroughly absorbed with his phone. After five minutes our train started moving away but I’d made a mental note of the colours and I quickly added them. I like plain inky drawings but usually I feel that sketches like this come to life when I add a bit of colour; there’s so much more information in a drawing which includes colour.
‘You are now entering a great crested newt site’ a notice on the trackside near Hornbeam Park informs us.
Drab, Dry and Dusty
The countryside has a late summer look to it. Oaks near Horsforth now look drab, dry and dusty. The flowers of creeping thistle have largely turned to downy seed heads. There’s a decadent feeling that the party is almost over, frothy creamy white flowers of Russian vine and trumpets of greater bindweed are festooned over fences. The waste ground flowers that I associate with the end of the summer holidays have appeared: Himalayan balsam, rosebay willowherb, common ragwort, goldenrod and, looking rather dull and mildewed even at its freshest, mugwort.
It’s the first time that we’ve visited Harrogate for years but we’ll certainly return. We walk up through the Valley Gardens then through the pinewood on Harlow Hill. We don’t get chance to walk around the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Harlow Carr because we spend so long queuing for a leisurely lunch at the deservedly popular Betty’s Tearooms.
10 a.m., Nostell Park: As we reach the southeast corner of Priory Wood a brown hare runs right in front of us, only ten yards away, crosses the (filled in) cattle grid and hares off across the bottom corner of the wood.
“Did you see that?” I ask the man who’s just been putting a lead on his black labrador “I think your dog must have disturbed it.”
“It’s the farmer cutting this field,” he suggests, “I often see them around. There are a few setts around here.”
He’s wrong actually; a sett would be badgers, it’s just a form for a hare: a shallow depression in the ground. But I don’t like to be pedantic!
It’s great to see a hare so close up, close enough to see the prominent black and white markings at the tips of its long ears and its black and white tail.
Accounts suggest that hares aren’t doing well in the English countryside. Traditionally managed parkland, as here at Nostell, gives them a refuge and hopefully there isn’t too much lamping: hunting at night using powerful spotlights, which is thought to have led to a decline in their numbers in some areas.
Mam Tor from the Castle Inn, 1.30 p.m., 20°C, 69°F: You can see how Mam Tor got it’s name; it sits there like a mother hen looking down over the Hope Valley. The line running along the righthand side of the summit plateau is the line of the ramparts and the silted up ditch of an Iron Age hill fort.
The exposure of alternating layers of shale and sandstone cuts across the southeast corner of the hill fort. The scar is the result of a series of landslips. The piles of debris at the foot of the hill are still unstable and this resulted in the closure in 1979 of the road that ran across them: the A625 from Sheffield to Chapel-en-le-Frith.
11 a.m.: There are a lot of young coal, great and especially blue tits visiting the feeders at the Riverside Café, Hathersage, this morning. They look washed out, as if the colour saturation had been reduced in Photoshop. They’re not such sharp dressers as the adults, lacking some of the more emphatic markings like the breast stripe of the male great tit.
We’ve got an appointment at the doctors’ this morning. As a change from drawing my hand, I start drawing the clasps and fastenings on my art bag and the back of my watch, which is the type that recharges its battery kinetically.
We’re back again in the afternoon. This time I revert to drawing my hand. I prefer drawing something organic to something mechanical.
Twelve ring-necked parakeets join a wood pigeon pecking on the turf by Rotten Row in Hyde Park. A great-crested grebe dives on the Serpentine, a lake created for Queen Caroline in the 1730s. At the lake’s edge, a coot pecks at a bedraggled scrap of fabric that it has retrieved from deeper water, seeing off a rival that soon appears.
A moorhen stands breast deep, scrutinising the film of algae on the stonework at its feet, pecking down at some morsel. A flotilla of grey geese sail by in single file, heading up the lake.
We get caught in a downpour after walking through Regent’s Park so head for a bus shelter at Great Portland Street and take the number 30 bus to Kings Cross. After lunch at Leon and a browse around Hatchard’s, I draw this carnation at a cafe table in front of the bookstore.
There are almost as many people queuing up to be photographed pushing a shopping trolley into Platform 9¾ as there were waiting for trains.
On this overcast afternoon the greens of the trees have a late summer heaviness.
After Hadley Wood station we plunge into a tunnel and then, before the next tunnel, there’s a short section, a shallow ‘hidden’ valley, with nothing but trees, hedges and slopes of ochre grasses. It’s a welcome relief after three days in the city, much as I like it.
Buddleia has colonised the ballast alongside the track on the approach to Peterborough. There are yellow daisy-like flowers on fleabane and pinkish trumpet flowers on the lesser bindweed.
London Zoo: The bearded pigs, Sus barbatus, are native to Borneo, Sumatra, Malaysia and the Philippines. This morning they’re pushing around chunky plastic feeders, a little larger than a football, which are dispensing food amongst the wood chip of the enclosure. This gives the pigs a lot more entertainment than gathering around a trough. Occasionally one of the feeders will pass from one pig to another with, presumably, the pig which is higher in the pecking order winning the prize.
In the evocatively designed Land of Lions, a langur monkey relaxes in the top of dead tree in a convincing replica of the dry scrubby Gir Forest Reserve in India.
The vegetable samosas from the street food vendor in the zoo’s colourful version of Sasan Gir village are equally convincing.
White pelicans are sitting together resting but they spring to life when a keeper appears with a bucket of fish. They each save several fish for later consumption in their pouches. Two herons have been hanging around and they’re also successful in grabbing a fish each. I think of herons as being one of our largest birds but compared to the pelicans they’re lightweights.
Link: Land of the Lions, Zoological Society of London. For my Royal College of Art degree show in June 1975 I produced a hand-coloured print of the Victorian Lion House at the London Zoo which was then scheduled for demolition. At the suggestion of my tutor John Norris Wood, I sold the print in aid of the conservation of Asiatic lions at the Gir Forest Reserve. I remember thinking that some day I might get to the Gir Forest with my sketchbook. Visiting Land of the Lions has been the next best thing!
We’ve gone for seats in the grand tier, in the last box to the right of the orchestra, giving us the closest view but arguably not perfectly balanced sound, however I can hear every instrument and follow the action from solo violin, to cor anglais to glockenspiel. The Prommers, the members of the audience who stand, sit or lie down in the arena, might be closer to the conductor but they don’t have the unrestricted view of the entire orchestra that we’re getting.
Some of the players don’t have the option of tuning their instruments off stage so during the interval I get a chance to draw the harpist tuning up. The kettle drum player has a method of tuning his drum during the performance, turning the keys and keeping his ear close to the edge of the drum. I think of a drum as a background beat that doesn’t really need any tuning but when it comes to finishing off some of the pieces the kettle drum really does have to hit the right note.
Ravel’s Mother Goose and Debussy’s La Mer are the old favourites that brought us here but the British premiere of a Symphony for Violin, Chorus and Orchestra by Lera Auerbach, The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie, is an event in itself.
Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra but I decide to miss out on the chance to sketch him in action because I don’t want to miss a note of the music. His conducting style combines the necessary precision and expression with a touch of wry humour and just a hint of mime. His peculiar menagerie of performers includes several glockenspiels, a musical saw, two harps and five vocal soloists including countertenor Andrew Watts. I’d have liked to have drawn them too.