HUNDREDS OF small Cowslips are in flower on the grassy plateau in the centre of Walton Colliery Nature Park, just 2 miles south-east of the centre of Wakefield. I’m impressed by the transformation that has taken place during the past 20 years or so from grey spoil heap to copse, heathy meadow and pond. Now a Local Nature Reserve, it’s probably the best place to see Grass Snake and Adder, although I’ve yet to see either, and for insects, such as the rare Short-winged Conehead bush-cricket which astonished conservation volunteers when they came across it last summer; this species had previously not been recorded in Yorkshire for 80 years. It shows how creating the right habitat (with perhaps a bit of help from global warming!) can benefit wildlife.
This particular Cowslip, Primula veris, growing at the foot of the slope, was bigger those in on the plateau. The lusher growth might be the result deeper soils, resulting from rainwash on the slope and it may be that, down here in the dappled shade of a copse of sapling broadleaf trees, there’s more shelter from wind and sun.
Cowslips are typically found on limy soils. I always imagine that former colliery spoil heaps would give rise to acid soils but there’s more to the coal measures than sulphur-rich coal; sometimes shale can be lime-rich. Mussel bands from the coal measures, as the name suggests, can be stuffed with lime-rich fossil shells. However, growing amongst the Cowslips was Sorrel, typical of acid soils and with leaves that have an acid taste.
As I was drawing the Cowslip, a Brimstone Butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni, flew past and rested in the sun on a nearby Dandelion. Speckled Woods were amongst the other butterflies to be found in the patchwork of grassland and copses at Walton Colliery Nature Park.
These three fungi are – I guess – earthballs that have burst open to distribute their ochre-coloured spores. They’re growing on the plateau in a sunny, grassy corner sheltered by a copse amongst the leaves of Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, and fine glossy leaves of grass (Wavy-hair?).
I’VE GOT a mental image of the Wigeon but I realise, when I start drawing the real life bird from the Main Hide here at Anglers Lake, that it doesn’t quite fit. For one thing, when I see this drake from in front I can see that its head is more rounded than I imagined. And I’ve over estimated its size; when this drake swims close to on the shore I’m surprised to see that the he is the same size as a Tufted Duck that is loafing by the water’s edge. The size ranges of the two species overlap but in general the Tufted is the smaller species.
It’s only after I’ve been drawing for a while that I realise that this drake has a companion; the female. As I’ve written in my note she ‘easily blends into the background of grey, rippled water and stony banks’. But she does make her presence known when a rival female swims by. It’s the duck rather than the drake who challenges the rival.
The Latin name for the Wigeon is Anas penelope. In Greek mythology penelops was a sacred bird, a purple-striped duck. Penelope is better known as the wife of Odysseus who stayed faithful to him during his 20 years away, fighting in the Trojan War and on his protracted voyage home. Her determination in dealing with rapacious suitors in her husband’s absence seems to fit with this female Wigeon’s behaviour. One legend has it that Penelope, daughter of Icarius of Sparta, was exposed at birth – the traditional Spartan way of weeding out any weaker offspring – but she was rescued and nurtured by penelops the duck.
But I wonder if the connection between the Wigeon and Penelope actually refers to the web-like pattern of the female. Penelope promised that she would choose one of the suitors as her husband when she had finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Secretly, she unravelled her weaving every night so ‘Penelope’s web’ has become a phrase for any project that is indefinitely delayed. A possible derivation of the name Penelope comes from the Greek for ‘web-face’ or ‘weft-face’.
IT PROBABLY doesn’t show in these low res scans of my sketches but I’ve decided to try pencil as a change from pen. The lighter tone of pencil should make my watercolour sketches less like a coloured drawing as the line should blend in more but, I’ve made the lines darker than they should be here. This branch of Field Maple, Acer campestre, (above) currently in flower (those little greenish yellow bobbles) seemed like the ideal subject until, after I’d drawn the first leaf, the branch kept bouncing in the breeze.
At the foot of the hedgerow, Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, (left) was in flower. The flower appears to have ten petals but it’s actually made up of five deeply knotched petals.
The catkins on the female Sallows, Salix caprea, are now sprouting fluffy seeds.
Problems with Pencil
Pencil is going to take some getting used to. My B pencil soon lost its sharpness as I drew the mape and I continued using a Staedtler 0.3 mm lead Mars Micro clutch pencil. I kept breaking the lead in that as I pressed too hard as I drew, then, when I replaced it with a fresh lead that disappeared without a trace into the innards of pencil. I fell back on my ArtPen for drawing after lunch.
SPARROWS are chirping monotonously in the Hawthorn hedge. A Smooth Newt swims up for a breath of air at the edge of the pond. A couple of wolf spiders scamper around in the pop-up shelter that I’m using as a sunshade. It’s warm in here; climbing to a sticky 34°C in the sun, according to the keyfob thermometer on my artbag.
After several months mainly taken up with business, I’m finding it difficult to get back to drawing from nature. I can’t yet slow down enough to see things in anything but a blur. Drawing these Kingcups – also known as Marsh Marigolds – by the pond is an easy step towards focusing on the everyday and getting into the drawing habit again.
Talking of seeing things as a blur, yesterday afternoon I did this drawing (left) of limes and a holly from a shady bench by the war memorial in Horbury Memorial Park, locally known as ‘Sparra’ Park’. It’s the first drawing I’ve done with my new varifocal glasses – I’ve only ever used reading glasses until my latest eye-test. With a band of long-distance vision across the top of the lense and a smaller patch for close-focus across the bottom, they work well for drawing.
Putting them on as I walked back from the opticians was a revelation. The light was perfect anyway; a sunny spring morning with fresh green leaves and blossom in the gardens, all of which now appeared to me in crisp high definition. I felt that I could see each stamen as I passed a branch of blossom.
It reminded me of Frederick Franck’s memories, recalled in his book The Awakened Eye, of looking at Victorian 3D photographs – of cows in a meadow, for example – in his grandfather’s elaborate stereopticon. As a child wandering in the meadows around his home town, Franck came to realise that he could recapture that sense of heightened reality by ‘turning on’ his own stereopticon. He credits his grandfather’s steropticon with setting him out on his lifetime journey exploring seeing and drawing.
From Monet to Millais
When I compare a view of trees with and without my new glasses I realise how much my long-sight has deteriorated, something which I hasn’t really troubled me as my brain has been compensating for it, filling in the gaps as it were. Wearing these new glasses is rather like suddenly switching from the broad brushstrokes of a late Monet to the luminous glazes of colour and sharp detail of the early Pre-Raphaelites. Artistically, you might not consider this to be progress but for me as a naturalist the wealth of extra detail and information about the natural world that is now available to me is very welcome.
IT’S SO GOOD to be drawing in my sketchbook again even if, for the time being, that has to be in the dentist’s, the doctor’s, the pharmacy and the optician’s, drawing goldfish, a pile of magazines, a semi-detached house and the beacon by the zebra crossing respectively.
I can at last see the round of appointments and the seasonal activities of accounts and stocktaking, satisfying as they are to do, gradually ebbing away giving me time for even more satisfying activity of going out and drawing from nature.
The spring weather makes that seem a tempting possibility after the long winter. There’s so much to see and draw at this time of year. The countryside looks so fresh. Spring migrants are arriving, butterflies are emerging. This morning a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a female, flew into the Rowan, which is now coming into blossom, in our front garden, then it flew up to the top of the telegraph pole, as if it was considering excavating a nest hole there.
I saw three Grey Herons – or more likely one Grey Heron going around in circles – gliding above the gardens, perhaps looking for ponds full of frogs, newts . . . or goldfish.
These particular goldfish don’t need to worry about passing Herons; they’re the ones that I drew in the dentist’s last week.
We’re making progress in the garden too with our basic crops of onions, broad beans and potatoes already in the ground. As the soil continues to warm up, we’ll sow courgettes and start our tomatoes off in the greenhouse.
IT’S SO WINDY here at North Landing, Flamborough, East Yorkshire, that even the gulls are having difficulty making any progress inland; a gull version of Marcel Marceau’s ‘walking against the wind’ mime. A flock of pigeons is no more successful; they wheel around over the bay and veer off on a less wind-buffeted course.
Flamborough Head marks the border between sea areas Tyne and Humber, pointing out towards Dogger in the centre of the North Sea and German Bight on the far side.
Strong winds tend to bring seabirds in towards this six mile promotory of chalk cliffs, making it a favourite location for ‘seawatching’ but unfortunately today it’s blowing in the wrong direction. If it’s blowing from any direction between north-west and east it can bring gulls and auks, skuas and shearwaters closer to the shore but today it’s blowing from the south-west, tending to keep them out at sea.
You might expect to a lot of white-topped waves in such a strong wind but it seems to have the opposite effect, flattening the crests before they become top heavy. At the foot of the cliffs there’s an effect like beaten brass where gusts bring turbulence down to create temporary patches of smoother sea.
As a change in my watercolour of the cliffs, I started directly with my brush, with no preliminary drawing, painting the shapes of sky, cliff-top and sea separately, as if they were individual pieces of a jigsaw. A contrast to my habitual pen plus wash, which I used in my quick sketch of Howden Minster on our coffee break on the way here this morning.
I’VE DRAWN these Desirée red maincrop potatoes with a size no. 111 Tower Pen nib that I used when I drew my new art-bag the other day in non-waterproof ink; a sepia calligraphy writing ink from the Manuscript Pen company of Highley, Shrophshire. This flows more smoothly than Indian ink but the disadvantage is that I don’t now have the option of adding a watercolour wash to my drawing – not unless I’m prepared to see my line-work run unpredictably into the watercolour, which in this case is not the effect that I’m after.
I’m in a mood where I yearn for a bit of inky precision in my life after what has often seemed like a long nebulous period.
I’m chitting these Desirées; this involves leaving the tubers in a light, airy but not too warm place to encourage the growth of sturdy new sprouts from the eyes of the potato. While this isn’t essential for a maincrop variety it is a way of celebrating the stirring of new life and the welcome return of spring.