THE WARMER WEATHER over the weekend has at last encouraged the frogs to return to the pond. There are at least nine, but probably more, of them lined up around the edges. These will be males waiting for the females to arrive.
HAIRY BITTERCRESS, Cardamine hirsuta, growing in the shady flower bed by the front door, is one of those little green jobs, a garden weed that looks so nondescript that you might think that it would be impossible to identify it.
The four-petalled cross-shaped flowers show that it’s a crucifer, a member the cabbage, cress and mustard family, formerly the Cruciferae but now known botanically as the Brassicaceae family.
The leaf-shapes and the sausage-shaped seed-pods help me narrow it down to hairy bittercress and a hand lens reveals that, as the species name hirsuta suggests, the stems and the backs of the leaves are covered in little hairs.
You also need a hand lens to spot that its flower has four stamens. This distinguishes hairy bittercress from a similar looking species, the wavy bittercress, Cardamine flexuosa, also known as greater bittercress.
AT LAST the frogs are back, well two of them, but when I spot them this afternoon they’re actually making their way out of the pond. It’s warmer today but it’s likely that it’s going to turn cold again so perhaps it is as well that no spawn has appeared as it could still at this late stage run the risk of getting frosted.
Two pied wagtails flitted about on the terra cotta tiles of the house roof opposite in this morning’s sun, which must have been enticing overwintering insects to emerge from the nooks and crannies. The wagtails briefly mate, or attempt to mate.
Today’s loaf is my attempt at at Paul Hollywood’s ale and rye bread. It proves quite a workout as the dough, to which you add a couple of teaspoons of black treacle, proved to be stubbornly sticky. Perhaps the froth on pale ale caused me to underestimate how much liquid I was adding.
But it’s got lots of character and flavour and it looks more or less like the one in the book.
THE CLOCKS went forward at the weekend so we’re now into British summertime, despite the low temperature and the strips of snow lingering on the hills.
It’s 8pm and as the light fades there’s a lot of posturing and puffing up of plumage as the back garden blackbirds emphasise their claims to the lawn. A single male claims the flower border while a resident pair forage around the shed and the herb bed opposite.
The males play cat and mouse, mirroring each other’s postures but keeping a few paces away from each other on a band of disputed territory along the front of the herb bed and down to the pond.
The bluster doesn’t bubble over into outright aggression and the shed pair fade away beyond the hedge as dusk drains away the light. They’ll be bursting into song to establish their claims again at dawn.
A wagtail trots about on a house roof in the morning sun.
In contrast to this waterside bird heading for the houses, a regular garden bird, a male blackbird, is down on the sandy bank by the river near a pair of mallards that are dabbling nearby.
Still no sign of frogs in our pond but that’s hardly surprising as despite the sun it’s still too cold. A neighbour across the road has a tiny pond that always attracts too many frogs and we transfer the spawn to my pond but the clump that had appeared there before the snow has now turned white, killed off by the heavy frosts.
WE SAW two great-crested grebes the last time we walked by the lake at Newmillerdam but I’m sorry not to spot them today. I hope they’re nesting in some hidden backwater. Much in evidence are the black-headed gulls, every one of them now in breeding plumage.
In our back garden this afternoon the grey male sparrowhawk zooms into the bottom of the hedge. Twenty or thirty seconds later he pops up again from our neighbour’s side arcing over so swiftly that for a moment he’s flying upside down.
Emerging unsuccessfully again from our neighbour’s side he leaves the hedge with nothing, sitting for a few minutes on next door’s sumac. If it wasn’t being anthropomorphic, I’d say that there was distinct look of grumpiness in his hunched silhouette.
He flies over the corner of the meadow to the wood, putting up a flock of goldfinches and sending the wood pigeons into clattering panic from the ivy-covered ash trees.
With the snow gone and the pheasants and wood pigeons trampling the border beneath the bird feeder I was beginning to think that all mole activity had ceased. Late this afternoon the mole started re-excavating its tunnel system and we watched as it piled up the earth by the edge of the lawn, obviously coming very near the surface but never once showing itself.
IT’S A LOVELY Easter Day and also the last day of March so it seems the perfect opportunity to trawl back through my sketchbooks for the first quarter of the year to pick out the drawings that I never got around to putting online.
My first sketch was drawn from a photograph that I took on our first and sadly so far only walk around Langsett reservoir back in early January. The two stones are gateposts of an abandoned farm called North America.
We had most of the house decorated in February so I felt that I couldn’t settle down to work at home and as the weather was impossible for getting out drawing I took the opportunity to escape to the cinema a couple of times. This was drawn as I waited for the matinee showing of Lincoln. I wrote;
A few black-headed gulls and a carrion crow patrol the car park. A few tiny patches of snow linger on the fringes of the rough grassland. Dull bare trees shroud the busiest section of the M62 – currently being widened. The valley is more or less snow free, the higher ground snow-covered It’s easy to spot the cars that have come down from higher ground because of the 3 or 4 inches of snow that they carry on their roofs.
Since I started writing the nature diary for the Dalesman I’ve been reading up on the history and the natural history of the Yorkshire Dales and, despite sleety, snowy weather, we managed a shore break, staying at Carperby in Wensleydale at the Wheatsheaf, the hotel where James Herriot and his wife spent their honeymoon. I’ve got out of the habit of packing for drawing trips so I printed out a check list that I’d made when we were touring eastern England a few years ago. One of the items on the list was a clutch pencil, not something that I normally think to take with me so when we stopped for lunch in Grassington I gave it a try. It’s probably marginally quicker than pen and the lighter tone brings the sketch nearer to watercolour than my normal pen and wash approach.
There’s a walk across the fields from Carperby to Aysgarth falls, where I sketched again in the Mill Race tea rooms. In the craft shop in the old mill there are photographs of Kevin Costner filming Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves at Aysgarth. The production spent four days here filming the encounter between Robin and Little John and, according to the caption next to the photographs, Costner’s wife had admitted that he was terrified when it came to the fourth day and he had to launch himself backwards several times into the foaming waters of the falls (flowing at 100 m.p.h. according the caption!).
This gave me the chance to return to another medium that I haven’t used much recently; my Pentel Brush Pen. This forces you to work quickly and once dry its waterproof so you can add a watercolour wash.
This Bronze Age cup found at Crayke Farm near Hawes wouldn’t have been of any use to drink from as it is perforated by small holes, as if someone had pricked the clay with a cocktail stick around the base.
9 March; This morning at Wakefield One, the metropolitan council’s new headquarters, you’re greeted by dancing caymans and wandering minstrels. The smell of freshly cooked medieval food wafts from the booths outside while inside there are the squeaks and occasional pops as balloon are made to order.
I’ve been invited to the opening of the new museum galleries as a thank you for helping out with some of the illustrations for the Charles Waterton exhibit. I squeeze in at the back of the crowd that has gathered on the landing by the library. Some students from Leeds camped out from 5 in the morning to be sure of getting a place but they’ve now had to close the doors to the queues outside.
‘Have you been dancing?’
He’s overawed at the spectacle but his mum explains that no, he wasn’t one of the dancers but when he heard what was happening he insisted on wearing the costume. He reminds me of the boy in Maurice Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Councillor Box, leader of the council introduces ‘a man who needs no introduction’, Sir David Attenborough.
ALTHOUGH WE’VE had a covering of snow for a little more than a week it’s a revelation to suddenly have colour back in the landscape. The snowdrops have gone to seed during the time that they were covered in a little drift by the pond.
In the wood leaves of bluebells are greening the banks between the trees, while other slopes are still swathed with snow. In the fields on south-facing slopes the weeds and the oilseed rape seedlings are already established. This is a reminder to me that I must now start thinking about sowing seeds in our vegetable beds.
When the thaw gradually got underway a couple of days ago, Biscuit, who had been tramping around discontentedly in the solitary comfort of his snowy field (the two ponies that he was bossing around were his temporary guests and he’s back on his own now) found the first corner of grass to appear by the old shed and lay there in a heap as if he was soaking up the sun on a beach.
His method of getting back up again was remarkably inelegant, pausing halfway for a few minutes in a sitting position more typical of a dog than a pony.
The snow brought not one but two nuthatches to the bird feeders. As far as I remember it’s the first time that we’ve seen two in the garden at once.
The lithe young grey cat who I think of as being a Jerry was shadowing the cock pheasant. The pheasant strutted around with his usual imperious haughtiness but wasn’t unduly concerned. The pair appeared to be more companions than predator and prey but when the pheasant started pecking the bare earth below the feeders the tip of his tail started flick, flick, flicking and the cat adopted a kittenish fascination as if he just couldn’t resist the pheasant teasing him to join in a game.
THE PROOF will be in the tasting but this bloomer is the best-looking loaf that I’ve baked so far. It gets its name because it ‘blooms’ in the oven and I admit that I was concerned that it looked a bit flat and floppy when it went in. You start it off at quite a high temperature, 220°C, so the steam must give it an extra rise.
We couldn’t resist the new Paul Hollywood Bread book and we’ve already tried the pitta bread and his twisted wholemeal cob (which isn’t in the book). I think that I’m now ready to move onto the malt loaf and the rye, ale and oat bread.
When we cut into it, it had a good crust and even texture. Nothing wrong with the taste but I prefer the nuttiness of wholemeal and multigrain loaves but it does make nice toast. I cut down the suggested salt by two thirds so I’ve got to accept that I’m going to lose a bit of taste there for the sake of being marginally more healthy.