Thanks to our relaxed but relentless attention over the past few days to essential tasks, we’re hoping to get back out in the countryside next week, not to the wilder uplands of the Pennines that I’ve fondly imagined here, but at least we should manage to get out into the more homely farmland around Ossett to check out walks for my latest booklet. This is getting increasingly urgent as I’ve promised to have it ready to launch at the Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield at the end of February.

This pagoda reminds me of the ventilation towers on whisky distilleries, which I drew, years ago,  for Steve Cribb’s book Whisky on the Rocks but I drew this from the Bakehouse Cafe in Ossett; this is the largest of three pagodas on the roof of a Victorian building which I believe was once the town’s Conservative Club but which is now a wine bar.

I like to have fresh herbs in the kitchen, which are especially welcome at this time of the year when there’s a very limited supply from the garden. By the time this Marjoram outgrows its the ceramic pot it was supplied in, spring will be here and we can plant it out in the herb bed.

I’ve enjoyed having one or two comments to my postings,  many thanks for those, but I’m having trouble with spam comments at the moment so I’ll probably have to turn off the comments (not sure how I do that at present!), to allow myself more time for the drawing and writing the diary itself. What a nuisance!

Winter Gnat

This little insect, shown here 4 or 5 times life size, must have flown into a carrier bag I was carrying as we walked back from town across the park and got squashed. My microscope reveals that it’s a Winter Gnat, a two-winged fly that is conspicuous at this time of year when there are so few insects about. You seen them dancing in swarms in damp grassy places especially in the late afternoon, which was when I unwittingly trapped this one.

This seems to be a female because it has a curved dagger-end to its thorax which I guess is the ovipositor.

A Kind of Therapy

We had the phone call at 5.15 a.m. to say that Barbara’s mum Betty had died peacefully in her sleep at the Hospice. Rather than sit in a heap, we’ve worked our way through the day by gently getting on with the various tasks we’re obliged to do, such are registering her death.

Betty has been a largely unseen presence in my online diary for the last 12 years. There are dozens of drawings of the Hawthorns and the Ash log at the end of her garden. I’ve been asked to say a few words about her at the funeral. She combined a disarming innocence with a twinkle mischief so I want to get the tone just right between her sense of fun and the sadness and sense of loss we feel. And that inevitable feeling ‘I wish that I’d asked her more about her early life’.

School Museums

As we come out of the back entrance of the Registry Office on Northgate, Wakefield, we pass this unprepossessing 1960s prefab-style building which takes me back to my first inkling that I wanted to publish my natural history sketchbooks as an illustration student in the early 1970s. This is where I came because at that time it was the West Riding School Museum’s Service. Eric Woodward the director must have got fed up of seeing me but he patiently encouraged me as my idea for a Natural History of Wakefield grew from a wall chart to a booklet to facsimile sketchbook with fold-out maps, posters and prehistoric panoramas; a kind of History of the Entire Planet, which just happened to be centred on Wakefield.

The School Museums was just one inspiration for me. They sent out stout wooden boxes on loan which opened up to reveal little displays of historical objects, model dinosaurs, scale models of buildings and so on. I liked that idea of a carefully made Box ofDelights which goes out into the world with an informative display and some inspiring objects that you can examine hands-on.

As a college project I worked on a display about spiders and their webs which could be sent out to a school like a giant-sized pack of cards and slotted together. It never got as far as being added to the School Museums collection but I don’t think the materials – mounting card with transparent perspex for the step-by-steps of how a web is made – would have survived the rough-and-tumble of the classroom.

Chris Woffenden e-mailed me. He sums up how I felt when I saw this former creative hub converted to its present mundane purpose as a council storeroom:

Small world – I was a Graphic Designer/Illustrator there in the 80’s. Eric Woodward was a great encouragement to us all – whether drawing or model making etc. I grew up inspired by the delivery of those wooden boxes as a child at school in the 70’s – never thought I would work there. It was a sad day when it closed down – an even sadder one for the children at school at the moment that don’t know what they are missing.


The Runtlings, Ossett; The winter hedgerows are busy with birds: Greenfinch, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit and – probing the leaf-litter beneath trees – a few Redwings. A Kestrel hovers over the rough, grassy mounds on waste-ground around Dewsbury Sewage Works.

In my childhood, rough grassland dotted with thorns was a familiar habitat around old collieries, factories and railway sidings. Much of this ‘brown land’ has now been reclaimed for housing and office parks, and today, when more thought goes into landscape design, areas that would once have been left as derelict have been transformed into community parks with fishing ponds, copses and little meadow areas but, because of my childhood memories of roaming around post-industrial landscapes, I feel a touch of nostalgia for these pockets of unkempt scrubland, the hunting ground of the Kestrel.


The Hospice makes the most of its leafy surroundings with plenty of windows and several small conservatories, a contrast with the tall, often inaccessible windows in the wards of the old buildings of Pinderfields Hospital just across the road.

We’re here visiting my mother-in-law Betty. They’ve done all they can for her medically in the hospital and the aim of the Hospice is now to make her comfortable rather than to bombard her with all resources of modern medicine in order to come up with a cure for her condition.

I see it as the difference between hard-nosed Health, with a capital ‘H’ – with all it’s targets for waiting lists, meeting budgets and successful outcomes – and well being, a softer concept which is more difficult to measure but is obvious when you come across it.

Leafy views and fresh flowers in vases, hair-dressing and aromatherapy sessions, have no place in the already stretched budgets of our National Health Service but they make such a difference to the way you feel, such a difference to the atmosphere of the place. The Health Service view might be to diagnose the problem and work towards a cure, seeing the patient to some extent as a problem to be solved. With the Hospice, it seems more as if the main aim is to treat you as a human being.

Having said that, we’ve got no complaints about the treatment Betty received in her months on the acute wards but the Hospice feels like the right place for her to be now.

Kat Kong

On our walk along the towpath yesterday afternoon, I tried photographing the Canal House cat – well one of the Canal House cats, there are several – as it sat on a shed roof and it’s ended up looking giant-sized compared with the old barge-horse stables, like Kitten Kong in The Goodies, which rampaged around London and demolished the Post Office Tower. Barbara and I saw Jack Black in Gulliver’s Travels in 3D last week so perhaps that influenced my viewpoint.


I’ve never taken so many photographs as I have since I got my little Olympus Tough a year ago; it’s almost always with me. I’ve drawn this deposit of flowstone in my Wild West Yorkshire diary before but yesterday I took the opportunity to photograph it on the camera’s macro setting. It’s such a small camera that all I need to do is lean over, holding it at arm’s length, to get near the outflow, which comes out of the canal bridge on a steep banking. In close-up it looks like deposits that I’ve seen in limestone caves. I assume that water is dissolving lime in mortar between the stones of the bridge piers.

Hoar Frost

Yesterday afternoon the shadows were white – white with frost. The towpath is something of a sun trap, even when the sun is so low on a winter’s day, but the ridge of trees opposite casts a long shadow so in places the path is muddy but just inches away the ground is frozen solid and the vegetation rimed with hoar frost where it has remained in shadow all day.

Towpath Birds

Each bird has it’s distinctive way of getting across the canal;

The Moorhen has the most amphibious method, combining land, air and water for the short journey. As it sees us approach, it pauses on the towpath, stalks a few tentative steps to the bank, launches itself into the air with limited effect then staggers along the water surface for a few paces – with the out of control momentum of someone jumping onto the platform before the train has stopped – before settling to swim the last yard or so to the seclusion of the bankside vegetation.

The Wren zooms along, wings a-whir, from the undergrowth on the towpath side to the hedge on the far bank.

A small group of Long-tailed Tits take a roller-coaster flightpath from the tops branches at one side to those on the other. Repeated wing-beats interspersed with short rests result in their bouncing flight.

A pair of Mallards swim across with a surreptitious air. The drake might be trying to avoid the attention of rival males. Later we see a duck closely pursued by two drakes flying up river.

Razor Shells

You can see why the razor shells you find on sandy beaches get their name when you see old cut-throat razors like these; they have the same proportions and gentle curve. Abalone shell has been incorporated into the grapevine decorations on the handles of these razors. The abalone is ear-shaped with a row of perforations – which would be the effect one of these cut-throats would have on my ear, if I ever attempted to use it!

In Wild Yorkshire on 7 August I wrote about my great-great grandad, Samuel Bergin Swift who designed a cut-throat razor for Napoleon III.

It seems that his son George, my great-grandad on my mum’s side, might have been equally talented. I like to think my enthusiasm for applied arts – if I can include writing and illustrating books in that category – comes from that side of the family. Yesterday, while having a cup of coffee with my mum, we were talking about Samuel Bergin’s designs and she mentioned that she has two cut-throat razors that belonged to George.

maker's nameThey have the maker’s name on the blades; ‘JOSEPH RODGERS&SONS, CUTLERS TO THEIR MAJESTIES, No.6 NORFOLK STREET’; the firm where at least four generations of my family worked. The final line of the address, ‘SHEFFIELD’ is almost entirely worn away.

A collector who has a special interest in Rodgers’ pen-knives and razors tells me:

It’s very difficult to date Rodgers razors but they look to be late Victorian or Edwardian.  The reference to THEIR MAJESTIES simply means the fact that Rodgers have been cutlers to George 4th, William 4th, Victoria and so on.

I have never seen decoration like that on a Rodgers razor before and so if you look, the pin at one end is different from the other end.  My thinking is that these razors were either bought as standard razor blades and had different handles fitted.  Or, the original handles got damaged and were taken off and replaced with these.  This would not be unusual.

The very good news is that they have been replaced with some stunning inlaid pique work using possibly pieces of mother of pearl but the majority of it is definitely abalone.  It is a much more iridescent and colourful shell than MOP.  Your relative who worked at Rodgers would have likely been able to do this work easily or he would know someone who could.  I think these handles are one of a kind.  It doesn’t make them unique in particular, it just means they are a good example of pique work.  Because pique work like this is all hand done, every item is different in some way.  The grapes were a popular symbol of art nouveau decoration which makes me think these are late Victorian.

The decoration is superb.  I forgot to mention that it looks like there is some inlaid metal in there as well.  That would be perfectly normal.  The metal and abalone compliment one another.  It could be gold or silver, it’s difficult to say without seeing it.

The handles themselves look to be an early bakelite/plastic but it’s hard to say.  They could also be buffalo horn, ebony wood or tortoiseshell.  I didn’t think so at first but them I remembered that unpolished shell does have a very dark colour to it, especially when it’s thick.  I’m sorry I cannot help you more in that handle material.  One thing you could do is hold the handle up to a bright light and if i has a browny colour, it will be shell.  Horn and ebony tend to have a grained appearance which I don’t think these have.  If you cannot see a grain and it doesn’t shine brown through a bright light, I would think they are bakelite.

Because the handles are mounted on metal, I haven’t been able to shine a light through them. Along the edges, I can’t see any signs of them being translucent.

Tankersley Park

Tankersley Park“From Rotherham we turned north west to Wentworth, on purpose to see the old seat of Tankersley and the park, where I saw the largest red deer that, I believe, are in this part of Europe: One of the hinds, I think, was larger than my horse, and he was not a very small pad of fourteen hands and half high. This was anciently the dwelling of the great Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, beheaded in King Charles the First’s time, by a law, ex post facto, voted afterward not to be drawn into a precedent. The body lies interred in Wentworth Church.”

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, 1727

M1 near TankersleyAs you head north on the M1 from Sheffield to Wakefield you pass the Park, now a golf course, visited by Defoe in the 1720s. There had been 280 deer in the park in 1653 but by the late 1800s the Park had long been split up and the remaining deer were removed to Wentworth.

golf courseThe mounds on the golf course are spoil from shallow pits dug to get at a layer of ironstone. Sparse, rabbit-nibbled grasses, yarrow, birdsfoot trefoil and other wildflowers cover each circular mound of shale but in the central depression, where the old shaft has caved in, thorn and elder bushes take root.

Churchill TankThese ironworkings date from the 1790s, after the break-up of Tankersley Park, and by 1850 about 250 ironstone miners worked here.

Over one thousand Churchill Tanks were assembled here during World War II in a factory which stood on a site 500 yards west of the M1.

Tankersley Church‘Many were slain and some taken prisoners’ when the Royalists won a victory over the Roundheads in the Battle of Tankersley Moor, 1643. Sir Francis Wortley, a Royalist who led a troop of some 900 men in the battle, had cannon balls made at his forge a nearby Wortley. TankersleyCannon balls and a bullet found on the battlefield are preserved in Tankersley Church, which stands on the hill overlooking the motorway.


A winter’s afternoon: ‘It was as cold and crisp as an ice cream with . . . um . . a crispy coating. The Moon rose like a pizza splodged with mozzarella . . .’

Okay, I’ll have to face it, after a harrowing day, a short walk over Horbury Bridge to the post office isn’t going to give me the material I need for my ongoing nature diary.

For once there are no birds on either the canal or the river . . . but what’s that bicycle doing down there on the strandline?

There was an early feminist proverb: ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.’ Perhaps this one has been abandoned by a large Sea Trout (see http://wildyorkshire.blog/2011/01/salmon-or-sea-trout/ ) trying to make its way upstream.

A flock of a dozen or more Jackdaws flies over as the Sun sets and the fleecy clouds over the wood are tinted coral red like flamingos.

More lights in the wood this evening; bright blue starbursts threading  through the trees. A police search?

No, it’s a group of lads (or possibly fish, I can’t actually see them in the darkness) are cycling around the quarry area.

The rear lights are equally clear: ‘Blue as they approach, red as they recede,’ – like the spectra of stars moving around our galaxy – as Alan Garner described motorway traffic in his novel Red Shift.

Great writer Garner; he’d never have come up with ‘The Moon rose like a pizza.’

Compost Bin

The main component in this compost bin isn’t the timber or the nails; it’s the sheer intellectual effort involved!

Working with recycled timber means that you’re improvising all the time, planning which piece to use where. The only materials we bought at the local builders’ yard were two packets of galvanised nails and one sheet of outdoor plywood for the lids and one of the ‘doors’.

So is  it really worth all this effort for a compost bin?! Of course! The compost bin is at the heart of the garden, turning plant waste into valuable humus (another bonus is that at last we’ve whittled down the stack of timber that I salvaged ‘because it would be useful’ but which has been leaning against the shed for several years!)

This double bin holds 2.5 cubic yards of compost (almost 2 cubic metres) which would weigh about 1 ton (or somewhere in the region of 1000 kilograms) depending on how wet or dry it was. Imagine bringing that lot home from the garden centre! And, for that matter, think of the cost of transport if we sent our garden waste away with the local authority collection. We told them we didn’t require a bin when the scheme started but we did take them up on an offer for a recycled plastic compost bin which sits in another corner of the garden, by the shed.

I had to manhandle my mum’s compost wheelie bin down her driveway this morning so I’m well aware how heavy bulky organic matter can be.

What I don’t like about this design of compost bin:

  • it’s so large now that it shades one end of the greenhouse
  • with the lid on, the birds can’t get at it – although I’m sure the Toads will find their way to it

Covering the compost and insulating it from the weather helps speed up the composting process. This bin is double-walled with cardboard cartons acting as insulation in the cavity. When the cardboard starts to rot down, that can go into the compost too (if I can find a way of lifting it out of the narrow cavity, that is).

produceIt’s unfortunate that the compost will be out of bounds to birds in future but at least the Robin got a chance to hop around the disturbed ground as we worked today, almost under our feet.

We’re going to have some amazing crops of vegetables from the compost this bin will produce!