A morning walk on the western shore of Lake Windermere, from Ferry House to Wray castle.
IT’S ABOUT a month since we last walked through the woods at Newmillerdam and it now feels as if autumn has arrived. Bracket fungi are starting to sprout from the fallen silver birches with shapes that remind me of the cream-filled meringues of my childhood.
A Finger on the Button
Like most digital cameras my new FujiFilm S6800 focuses on whatever is in the centre of the screen when you half press the shutter button. But what if you’d prefer to have your subject off centre?
As I should have worked out long ago when using previous cameras, if you keep button half-pressed you can then move the camera to get the composition you’re after but the focus of the lens will stay as it is, set to your subject.
I think that having the main subject at the junction of thirds, rather than slap in the middle of gives a better composition. Central can sometimes be too obvious, like a passport photograph.
Throwing the background out of focus also gives emphasis to the subject.
As a record shot to help with identification it wouldn’t matter if the subject was central or the background in focus but I feel that by moving the subject to one side you introduce a little bit of narrative, a bit of expectation perhaps, and keeping the background out of focus goes a little way to building up that feeling of mystery that you get when you see fungi emerging in autumn woods.
Inspired by the new camera, I’ve been reading Doug Sahlin’s Digital Landscape & Nature Photography for Dummies. I’m making an effort to get thoroughly familiar with its controls, so that they become second nature to me. With previous digital cameras I’ve had such good results with the auto or programmed settings that I’ve never got around to trying manual settings such as aperture priority and shutter priority.
It’s the photographic equivalent of making the move from marker pens to watercolour in sketchbook work. There’s nothing wrong with in-your-face boldness in photography or in illustration but when it comes to trying to express a more enigmatic mood I think you need to develop a more subtle technique.
THERE’S BEEN snow on the ground for twelve days but it’s only at sunset, after a day of chores, that I’ve made any attempt to sketch it. As the light fades and the snow takes on a hint of a pinkish tone, as Blackbird gives its alarm call.
Today we’ve had Nuthatch and Treecreeper in the garden. Will they turn up tomorrow when we record our garden birds for the RSPB birdwatch?
4°C, no breeze, 90% stratus, 1 pm
IS THIS the perfect lunchbreak? – twenty minutes brisk walk, yomping through the mud in places, twenty minutes with my sandwich and flask and even time for a lightning sketch of oaks, holly and bramble, then twenty minutes yomping back.
Nothing but the distant white noise of machinery (or is it the rush of the flooded stream?), the drone of aircraft and the occasional clatter of Wood Pigeon’s wings.
The upper branches of the oaks meet to form a canopy, a tree-top highway for a Grey Squirrel which carefully examines the mossy upper-side of the boughs before stopping to nibble some item – an acorn perhaps – that it has found.
I’ve got a long session of research on the computer today, so I can justify the break as essential rest for my eyes but I better be getting back as my twenty minutes has already extended to thirty.
Coxley Dam is well up – at its maximum, giving an impression, as the opaque eau de Nile water laps around the Crack Willows of its former extent. Plenty of headwater to power the looms of the silk and blanket mills, both now long gone. Power that didn’t have to be translated into electrical current before its final use (that isn’t strictly true as energy can neither be created or destroyed although my post-lunch dip doesn’t seem to recognise that law of thermodynamics).
A Blackbird alarms – perhaps because of the Squirrel.
I smiled and thought wouldn’t it be great if birds turned up on cue but the first bird that I saw as I left the car park and entered the Picnic Area was a Bullfinch flying off towards the hedge opposite. I came across a group of three later on the trail.
The trail sketches in a historical background to the park. Once it’s been explained to you, you can see the evidence of one wood having been cut for firewood at the end of the Second World War and another wood having been planted after the closure of Gomersal Colliery.
The trail also helped me identify the plant that I’d drawn by the little stream in what had been a railway cutting. There are no flowers at the moment but the trail illustrates Brooklime, a plant that I’m not very familiar with.
By coincidence they also illustrate Comma Butterfly which I was surprised to see, very briefly, flitting through a patch of sunlight at the woodland edge where an iron aqueduct carries a stream across the railway cutting.
There’s still fungus about, for instance in the wood on the site of the old colliery I found a group of this fungus with a pale grey cap, a cap which becomes concave as the fungus grows. I haven’t attempted to identify it.
Finally, stepping out of the woodland for a change, here’s cranesbill that was growing on open, drier ground along the edge of the old railway. It grew to about 2 feet, 60 centimetres, with flowers up to an inch and a half, 4cm across.
Link: Oakwell Hall nature trail PDF version; printed version available in the Visitor Centre.
WE TAKE the Mallard car ferry to Waterhead then walk along the lakeside path through the woods, following a trail of snack packets as there’s a school party ahead of us, some of whom have brought their own music with them. The way through the woods must be so boring for them without the music and snacks!
For us though, it’s a break for coffee and a scone at the newly reopened National Trust property Wray Castle. The steam launch Columbine is down at the landing stage as we wait for the ferry to Brockholes.
While a second school party disembarks and heads for the treetop walk (now that does look fun) we decide it’s time for tea and a toasted teacake on the terrace by the house, where I draw this Monkey Puzzle. Monkey Puzzles, Araucaria, evolved at a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and you can appreciate that only the tallest sauropod, standing on its hind legs, would be able to browse the scaly foliage on its top branches.
Deep in the Wood
The last time that we were at Brockholes was in 1987 when I launched my children’s book Deep in the Wood. Barbara and I organised the event with the Lake District National Park, informed the local press and booked ourselves into a bed and breakfast at Hawkshead. All the publishers had to do was supply the books and we’d seen them a few days before and their top rep had promised to do that.
‘Have the books arrived yet?’ I asked in eager anticipation when we called in at Brockholes the day before the event.
‘No, no sign of them, have you got copies with you?’
I had yet to even see a copy so we phoned the publishers who told us that, yes, they were going to send them but when they went to the stock room they found that the book had sold out in the first few days of publication, so they couldn’t!
As it happened, it rained heavily all weekend so we had sufficient books for the few visitors who braved the weather. As a consolation, the Lakeland National Park Authority invited us to take a stall at their annual national show at Chatsworth. Princess Diana opened the show and on her tour of the marquees took a brief look at our stall. But she didn’t buy a copy of the book for William and Harry. She seemed rather shy but we’d been instructed not to talk to her unless she spoke to us first. I was equally nervous; I’d been determined to be drawing when she came to the stall but I just froze as she stopped to take a look. This awkward moment ended when a child, peeking in through a gap in the canvas behind our stall, waved at her. Diana smiled and moved on.
In fact the only person who she talked to in the whole marquee was a watercolourist, who was the only exhibitor who had her back turned to the public, as she was working on a painting. Diana leaned over to take a closer look and confided to her; ‘I’m hopeless at that!’ (unlike Prince Charles who has painted watercolours for years).
Birds at the feeding station included Nuthatch and a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Langdale from Brockholes landing stage
The return ferry, taking an anticlockwise route around the northern end of Windermere via Ambleside back to Bowness gave me an opportunity to draw the landscape, and add some watercolour.
Hills to the north east of Ambleside
Western shore of Windermere, Ambleside to Bowness.
There’s a meeting tomorrow about two 130 metre tall wind turbines which are going to be erected (so it seems) in the centre of Coxley Valley, overlooking Stoneycliffe Wood nature reserve. I have mixed feelings. Yes, renewables should be used wherever possible but no, not at any cost.
Sitlington Parish Council appears to be promoting to scheme and I guess that the potential income that might be generated for the community must be a great temptation to them but to me Sitlington’s greatest asset isn’t its village hall or children’s playground or even the library (currently closed and in need of repair) – the kind of things that the revenue could be used for – it’s definitely the bluebells woods, stream and fields of Coxley Valley; I couldn’t begin to put a value on it: a patch of countryside which is right on our doorsteps but where you can get a real sense of freedom and turning your back on the everyday world. You can immerse yourself briefly in the natural world.
I don’t think we’d entertain any other light industry dominating the valley, however ‘green’ it was and however many jobs it created.
It’s something of a miracle that the valley has survived unscathed when it lies circled by the four communities that make up the parish. And that’s why the concrete towers have to go there in the middle; they’ve got to be sited a certain distance away from houses so that is the only place available for ‘wind farm’ development.
The consultant/developer’s leaflet inviting us to the meeting has all the buzzwords – environment, communities, renewables etc – but only one mention of the word ‘wind’, and that is in brackets, sandwiched between the words ‘hydro, solar . . . and biomass’.
I’d have had more respect for them if they had illustrated the likely outcome of the twin turbines. The leaflet depicts the sun shining though beech leaves, a feel-good diagram shows the benefits for all, there’s a tree made of hands and a delicate skeleton leaf. All suggestive, evoking the touchy-feely helping hand to the community spirit that multi-nationals and banks like to project – but with no specifics such as a diagram to give an impression of the scale of the enterprise. Or a pie chart of the proportions in which the profits are shared. I guess that’s all available but this is a coyly one-sided publication.
Even at this ‘interim findings’ stage of ‘a parish-wide study’, I think they should have been less disingenuous about the way things are going.
We’re not likely to go for a hydro plant by flooding the valley. If it was decided that we should grow biomass instead of food crops on local farms, would we really need a partner to step in to ‘share the profits’ with the community? Would the money being spent on this consultation be better invested in fitting solar panels on the village hall? Would geothermal schemes have less impact on the landscape?
It seems likely that the wind farm would be the preferred option.
After my experiences during the Coxley Meadow public enquiries I know better than to get involved in local politics these days!
Ridge or Valley
I’ve been discussing this with Stephen, who lives outside the area but remembers the valley from his schooldays:
“Shame about the wind turbines. I know we can’t just hark back to the halcyon days of our youth but I have vivid memories of Coxley carpeted from top to bottom in bluebells, grass on which you could play and picnic, and water burbling down the stream.”
It’s still pretty much like that but I think what really unsettles me about this proposal is that the only place in the parish where you can find yourself a quarter of a mile from all habitation, surrounded by farmland with a panorama of woodland, is the place they’ve chosen.
I sometimes draw the pylon that dominates the ridge beyond the wood at our end of the valley - I’m not against large man-made structures - but our end is surrounded by roads and houses. The spot they’re putting these is the furthest that you can get away from a road. If the concrete towers could be grouped next to an existing structure such as the water tower and communications mast on the ridge at the top end of the valley or here at this urbanised lower end I might feel different (leaving aside problems of bird-strike and discussions of their efficiency which I’m not qualified to comment on), but that’s not an option because of the proximity of houses.
In My Backyard?
A friend who as a boy used to tickle the trout in Coxley Beck writes:
As a fan of wind turbines I believe you should think your comments through again. Outside your window do you not have power pylons?
Would you rather have a couple of wind turbines in your local area or a nuclear power station, or how about Ferrybridge power station?
Yes, we’ve got to look for alternative sources of energy and I was trying to make the point, obviously not very clearly, that I’d much prefer that the wind turbines were sited outside my window at this utilitarian end of the valley amongst the power lines, derelict railway viaduct and housing estates than in the quiet rural centre of the valley overlooking Stoneycliffe Wood nature reserve.
We used to have Dewsbury power station a few miles up the valley and I drew there on occasion. It might not have been very green but it was rather magnificent. But it fitted in amongst the canals, railways and grim Victorian mills. They didn’t build it overlooking a bluebell wood in a valley that has been considered a ‘beauty spot’ since mid-Victorian times.
In my opinion, and it’s only an opinion, Coxley Valley has a rather intimate quality and I think that wind farms are better sited in a larger scale landscape – but I know a lot of people would disagree.
I HAD INTENDED to make a start on the garden this afternoon but it was so cold – well not just cold it was so damp too with ‘freezing rain’ part of the forecast – so I got on with some office work instead. However by quarter to five, I thought that I was entitled to spend half an hour drawing. The bleary view out of the rain-spattered studio window meant that sharp focus drawing was out of the question so I dipped straight into the watercolour for these two sketches drawn during the last half-hour of daylight.
I drew this picturesquely crumbling wall this morning as I waited for my mum at the opticians, adding the drab colour later.
If I remember rightly, about 40 years ago this wall formed one end of a rather rudimentary public toilets. It was demolished and a cherry tree was planted on the spot. Such basic facilities wouldn’t meet today’s standards and the scrap value of copper has now risen so that within a few weeks the plumbing would probably get ripped out anyway, the result being that Horbury doesn’t have any public toilets these days.
BY THE TIME we finish the backdrop, eventually with even David, our resident joiner helping to fill in the blanks, it looks a ridiculously simple cartoon-style scene . . . something that a child could have drawn in about an hour perhaps – but it’s taken us (four of us, off and on) most of the weekend.
Just time for this snow scene before the light fades. It snowed last night but during the day most of it has melted.
4.20 p.m. THE LIGHT is fading and a towering wall of grey cloud is lumbering in from the south. The colour drains from the landscape so that it is guesswork when I add the final washes to my sketch. A waning Moon and Jupiter appear to get brighter and brighter high above the wood.
With a final bit of decorating completed this morning, we’ve had a free day but unfortunately it was too wild for us to get out walking. Hail rattled the roof of Armitage’s garden centre as we sat looking out from their appropriately named Season’s café towards the tops of the Pennines.
Finally, here’s a third sketch of my room as it appeared in my 1978 sketchbook. I brought back a plant box that I’d made at college and devised a plant window for my room in the flat by getting a piece of plate glass cut to size as a shelf. The species are limited to streptocarpus, also known as the Cape Primrose, which I grew from leaf cuttings, and Spider Plant, Chlorophytum, which is even easier to grow from the plantlets that grow at the tips of branches. The spiky plant bottom right is a Euphorbia, a native of Madagascar, which I had grown from a stem cutting a year or two earlier from the college greenhouse.