A Temporary Loss of Vision

View from Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Monday.

To lose sight of the direction your work is going in can be part of the creative process but to literally lose your sight in one eye, even for a short period, is alarming.

I feel as if I’ve been going through a prolonged period of writer’s (and illustrator’s) block but that’s been partly because every time I sit at my desk I find myself faced with one of the necessary but time-consuming tasks that are involved in the day-to-day running of my booklet-publishing business: accounts, printing problems, fulfilling orders and keeping up with deadlines.

There’s a certain guilty pleasure in taking a break from your core work to indulge in ‘mindless’ activities but I’m now wondering if spending the whole of last Tuesday staring at my computer, trying to design an automated invoice for my book sales, might not have been such a good idea.

In the Blink of an Eye

Start of my loss of vision.

It might have been only for a minute or two but the loss of vision in my left eye was emphatic and at the time – thankfully for a brief period – I didn’t know whether the sight in that eye would be restored or not.

A week later, I’ve had a blood test and an eye-test including an OCT scan of the back of my eye. Later today I’m heading for the new Eye Centre at Pinderfields Hospital for a closer investigation.

So far, so good, and I’m hoping the results will be reassuring for me. I’m so impressed at how quickly our hard-pressed National Health Service were able to deal with my problem.

The Swallow and the Feather

Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Whitley, 10.50 a.m.:swallow lands on the AstroTurf by the picnic tables. Its mate swoops down and flutters above it briefly but doesn’t land.

After fluttering about a bit amongst the tables, the grounded bird takes off successfully but a minute later it flies down again and hovers close to the ground. It appears to be trying to pick up a feather but, as it gets close to it, the draught from its wings blows the feather away.

The picnic area is next to the lovebird and pheasant aviaries, so there are several feathers of assorted sizes lying around.



wallaby, possibly a species of rock wallaby, comes out of its hut to rest in the sun, in the shelter of a lush clump of grass.

In my Royal College of Art days, I enjoyed the weekly all-day drawing sessions at the London Zoo, lead by my tutor John Norris Wood. Drawing this wallaby at Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour reminds me how much I enjoy settling down to draw an animal. Focussing on one species for half an hour, an hour or more, is a different experience from trying to capture a moment of behaviour, as with my sketch of the swallow.

Although I’d love to spend a day drawing at Chester Zoo, where they have 500 species of animals, I need only a handful of species to keep me absorbed in drawing for a day, so I could get a lot out of a day drawing a smaller collection of animals, such as here at Charlotte’s.

Return of the Swifts

We saw our first swifts circling over Nostell Lakes a week ago and, by coincidence, since then their namesakes, my mum’s family, the Swifts, have taken centre stage in my family tree research.

I’ve taken a break from genealogy since the death of my mum in February 2015; she was my last link with my Victorian forbears and I enjoyed updating her with some nugget of family history that I’d unearthed, especially any family scandal, such as an attempted murder.

I subscribe to the Find My Past and a hint in one of their regular e-mails set me on the trail again.

Missing Uncles

Maurice T Swift, Hayburn Wyke, c. 1928.

I’ve gone right back to first principles and and I’m building my family tree again from scratch, starting with my mum, Gladys Joan Swift. The orange circles highlight hints, which usually lead to census records or births, deaths and marriages.

More material has been added to the online resources since I started delving into family history eight or nine years ago, for instance the 1939 Register, which is the nearest thing that we’re ever going to get to a census for the wartime years.

Adding portraits brings the list of names to life and we’re lucky to have photographs going back over the last 150 years and even a few oil on canvas portraits.

I just found a picture of my uncle, Maurice Truelove Swift (above, right), sitting on the beach at Hayburn Wyke, North Yorkshire. Sadly I never met him as he died around the time that I was born.

Maurice Swift

In the family tree (above, far right), there’s an uncle of my mum’s who she never knew about until I started my research. Frederick James Swift was the eldest son of my great grandad George’s first wife and I’ve discovered that he emigrated to New Zealand. Quite why my grandad never mentioned him to my mum is still a bit of a mystery. A family feud? Or did my grandad, Maurice Swift, not renowned as a people person, never see the point of mentioning him.

Filey Beach

Robert Douglas Bell

Finally, here’s a photograph that I found of my dad, Robert Douglas Bell; he was a sergeant major in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War and I think that you can see from this photograph taken on the beach at Filey that, although most of the time he was charming, he could revert to his sergeant major assertiveness when necessary!

It’s good to have a portrait where, for once, the subject isn’t just smiling at the camera; this is very much as I remember him as he implored me to get to grips with my maths and English instead of spending so much time drawing!


Find My Past

The Dog and Conifer

My friend Matthew tells me that this conifer was just three or four feet high when he moved in to his house forty years ago. It has gained its sculptural bonsai character without any help or training from human hands; it was his dog Toby who for many years used to cock his leg up against it. The conifer died back on that side but Matthew let it keep on growing and although the leaves never sprouted back on that side, the new growth above developed normally.

I would have liked to have had more time to draw this Persian cat but, as always, the cat is the one who decides when the sitting is over.

Richard Brook

Richard giving the Conservation Officer’s report at a Wakefield Naturalists’ Society meeting in the Unity Hall, in my sketch from February, 1981.

We’ve been remembering my old friend, conservationist, plant breeder and 60s music fanatic, Richard Brook, who died on 20 April, aged 74. These extracts from his diary were compiled by Richard’s second cousin, Ann  Brook and read at his funeral on Monday by her sister Philippa.

The ‘Tripartite’ mentioned in the May entry refers to his award-winning ‘Tripartite’ narcissus, which he developed in the 1980s when he ran a commercial nursery specialising in daffodils. The Tripartite has three flowers on each stem and is still available globally. Last month it was exhibited at The North of England Horticultural Society’s Spring Flower Show at Harrogate.

A friend of Richard’s from the Daffodil Society laid some on his coffin at the end of the service.

Richard’s observations taken from diaries of 2010

Heard nuthatch in Wakefield Park.
Cloudy, cool, drizzle after dark.

Song thrush…
Sitting in a laurel bush.

Saw orange tip butterfly.
Killed one large fly.

19th of May. Blossom out!
Tripartite faded in the heat and drought.

Young Goldfinch came to the seed feeder.
…saw the first gatekeeper

Robin singing an autumn song.
First picking of Victoria plums.

Cloudy, cool, slight North breeze.
Sparrow hawk, hiding in the pear tree.

Evening dull, with light rain.
Buzzard over the garden again.

Warm sun and cloud in the morning,
sweet blackberries ripening,

Green woodpecker laughing.

Pair of jays came to the water bowl.
White frost, sunny, calm and cold.

Chessmen Chimney Pots

Two chimneys, one built in brick, the other in stone, on the same roof. I haven’t checked around the front of this terrace on Station Road, Ossett, but possibly the facade is faced in stone and the back of the house built in brick.

It looks as if the chimney pots are limbering up for a game of chess. The Victorian pots on the left are king, also known as crown, chimney pots and the phalanx of more modern-looking pots on the right remind me of pawns.

I got a chance to drawn the Queen Street roof-scape a couple of weeks ago from the waiting room of Horbury dentists’. I don’t imagine that John Carr, who designed St Peter’s Church (in the background), would approve of chess-piece chimney pots; I suspect that he’d go to some effort to hide such a utilitarian feature on one of his elegant country houses, either that or disguise it as a classical feature, such as a pillar or an obelisk.

Devil’s Toenail

I can never resist picking up a Devil’s Toenail when I spot one on the beach and, although this one is more worn than others I’ve found, I decided to draw it and, in the process, have a change from my usual pen and watercolour approach. For the initial pencil drawing I used a Uniball Shalaku mechanical pencil with a 0.5 mm lead. No pencil sharpener required, just a touch on the side lever to advance the lead.

The Devil’s Toenail is a species of fossil oyster, Gryphea, a bivalve mollusc. Usually, as here, it is only the lower (anatomically the left) valve that is found. The smaller right valve was hinged to it like a lid.

Fossils of the Whitby Coast

I’ve got several field guides to fossils at home but I was still tempted by Fossils of the Whitby Coast, a photographic guide, by Dean R. Lomax because it’s so specific to this particular stretch of Jurassic coastline.

It includes more that two hundred photographs and illustrations, photography by Benjamin Hyde and illustrations by Nobumichi Tamura.

In most cases, colour isn’t necessary for the identification of a fossil, but it’s useful way to get familiar with the physical appearance of the odd fossil that you might spot amongst all those pebbles and shells on the beach.

Tamura’s illustrations intrigue me: the majority appear to be the digital equivalent of a watercolour illustration but a number have been created using a 3D modelling computer program.

Lomax and Tamura went on to produce Dinosaurs of the British Isles, hailed as ‘the single best reference on British dinosaurs that has ever been produced’.


Fossils of the Whitby Coast by Dean R Lomax, published by the Siri Scientific Press

Dean Lomax, palaeontologist

Grey Heron

7.35 a.m.: The Grey Heron is back this morning. Attracting an apex predator is a good sign that there’s plenty of life in the pond but I can’t help worrying about the effects of repeated visits on our frog and newt populations. Perhaps I should cover one end of the pond as a refuge for them. A miniature water-lily would provide some cover.

The heron leaves the pond, preens briefly then flies up to the shed roof. It cranes its neck to choose its next course for breakfast: our neighbours’ carp.

I don’t think that this will go down well, Sean was so proud that his carp had produced a single baby this year, so I open the window and it flies off.

A Dinner with the Naturalists

Strafford Arms, detail of a drawing of the Strafford Arms, the Bull Ring, Wakefield, c. 1890, by Henry Clarke. Copyright, Wakefield Historical Society, 1977.

Strafford Arms, detail of a drawing of the Strafford Arms, the Bull Ring, Wakefield, c. 1890, by Henry Clarke. Copyright, Wakefield Historical Society, 1977.Strafford Arms, detail of a drawing of the Strafford Arms, the Bull Ring, Wakefield, c. 1890, by Henry Clarke. Copyright, Wakefield Historical Society, 1977, from the original drawings, now held by Wakefield District Libraries.Wakefield’s Strafford Arms was an impressive building in its Victorian heyday with a portico and balcony overlooking the Bull Ring. Wakefield Naturalists’ Society held its Annual Dinner there on Tuesday, 16th May, 1876. Described as ‘an intellectual entertainment’, the evening started with a ‘most substantial meal’ supplied by hosts Mr and Mrs Coggin and rounded off with at least nine toasts and responses; luckily the Wakefield Magistrates had already granted an extension of the licensing hours.

Barnsley Chronicle article, copyright British Library.

Although the Society was established in 1851 we have very few records covering its first hundred years, so an account of the evening in The Barnsley Chronicle gives a rare glimpse of the activities and ambitions of our founder members. Continue reading “A Dinner with the Naturalists”

Wakefield Naturalists’, 1883

‘Numquam aliud natura, aliud sapentia dicit’

Beneath a shield with the fleur-de-lys of Wakefield at its centre and a daisy, a beetle, a bird and a microscope in the quarters around  it, the  motto of the Wakefield Naturalists’ and Philosophical Society, a quotation from Juvenal’s Satires, translates as:

‘Never does nature say one thing and wisdom say another’

Wisdom wasn’t always the first consideration for the enthusiastic naturalists of the 1880s; at a summer field meeting in 1881, the president of the Society was bitten by an adder as he attempted to pick it up.

Later that year an ambitious Exhibition of Science and Fine Art, intended to be a fundraiser for the Nats and a benefit to the town, was destined to leave an enormous hole in the balance sheet of the Society, as detailed in the Twelfth Annual Report of 1883.


Adder Bite