Four Feathers

I PICKED up these crow feathers in a pasture as we walked from Hope to Castleton on Wednesday. I’ve drawn them in dip pen using Winsor and Newton black Indian ink but the wash is dilute Chung Hwa Chinese Ink (see Dark Materials, 11 March 2006) which I keep ready-mixed in four different strengths from pale to dark. I’ve used the two palest shades here. I used these pre-mixed washes regularly when working on my black and white sketchbook published as High Peak Drifter (Willow Island Editions, 2006).

For this gull feather, which I picked up when I drew at the pond at Dewsbury hospital on Tuesday, I used Winsor and Newton Peat Brown ink with pen and wash.

I find feathers quite a challenge to draw because of the gentle curves of the outline and quill and all the curving parallel lines of the barbs. I admit to putting this feather on my desk with the quill curving up in the middle because I thought I’d find it more difficult to draw it the other way up, against the natural curve that a pen makes as you rotate your hand at the wrist.

It would be good practice for me to keep picking up feathers and drawing them until I get a feel for them.

Absent Feathered Friends

‘. . . its flesh is good and wholesome eating. It is a silly simple bird, as may very well be supposed from its figure, and is very easily taken. Three or four dodos are enough to dine a hundred men.’

‘The Auk, which breeds on the islands of St Kilda, chiefly differs from the penguin in size and colour : it is smaller than a duck ; and the whole of the breast and belly, as far as the middle of the throat, is white’

Oliver Goldsmith, History of the Earth, 1774

In his footnotes for the 1832 edition Captain Thomas Brown describes the dodo as extinct but says of the Great Auk that it ‘inhabits Europe and America ; is three feet in length ; is very timid ; it has not the power of flying ; its food is chiefly fishes.’

The last Great Auk was killed in June 1844 on Eldey Island, Iceland.

Mystery Bird

Engraving by R. Scott, 1832.

Reading the chapter on Penguins in Goldsmith, it’s surprising that they have escaped extinction: ‘Our sailors . . . give these birds the very homely, but expressive, name of arse-feet.

‘ . . . They have stood to be shot at in flocks, without offering to move, in silent wonder, till every one of their number has been destroyed.’

But what’s that bird standing between the Rockhopper and the Patagonian Penguin? Is that another extinct sea-bird? The down-curved bill is curious, more like a curlew’s, and, in the context of penguins and guillemots, the lack of webbing between the toes looks distinctly odd.

I think that what has happened here is that the artist has been given a cabinet skin of a kiwiApteryx, which wouldn’t give a true impression of the shape of the bird and he’s found it appropriate to depict it amongst the southern hemisphere penguins. I’ve yet to find Goldsmith’s description of the bird because neither ‘kiwi’ or ‘Apteryx’ appear in the index of History of the Earth.

Mam Tor

3 p.m.; Mam Tor, drawn in my A6 notebook. I’m travelling light this afternoon.

WE’D FINISHED a morning of errands and stopped for a coffee and bagel and it was then that we realised that we had a free afternoon. Ninety minutes and 33 miles later, we arrived at Hope in the Peak District and took the easy walk alongside the river to Castleton.

A Dipper stood ankle-deep in the water by a gravelly island on a bend in the river, pecking amongst the pebbles. The last time I saw a Dipper was 5 weeks ago today when I spotted one flying along just above a river on our return train journey from Wengen, Switzerland.

Sitting with a pot of tea in the back garden at the Castle Inn with Mam Tor, the Shivering Mountain, as a backdrop isn’t quite as spectacular as sitting outside a mountain restaurant at the foot of the north face of the Eiger but it’s equally charming and far more accessible for us. Here Jackdaws replace the Alpine Choughs that came down to the cafe tables at Kleine Schiedegg.

One of the Jackdaws lacks a black cap; a youngster. It begs for food from both parents without success before one picks up a scrap of food from the turf and feeds it.


11 a.m.: MALLARD DUCKLINGS are dabbling and snapping at flying insects or stretching up to peck resting insects from the tall leaves of reedmace in the pond by the occupational therapy unit of Dewsbury hospital. The feathers on their backs look soft and downy but they’re completely waterproof; droplets are repelled ‘like water off a duck’s back’.

Every waiting room should have an adjacent pond: this makes a change from drawing a chair, as I did yesterday morning as I waited for my mum at the doctor’s. And think what all those little ponds would do for our country’s commitments to increasing biodiversity!

It might make us healthier too. I’ve got only 10 or 15 minutes to sit on a rock at the water’s edge but, during those minutes I soon find myself drawn into a timeless world. I’m sure if the medics here hooked me up to one of their monitors they’d find my blood pressure and my pulse-rate going down, my muscles relaxing.

When you climb over the broken wall and walk past the scatter of drinks cans into this little park you enter another world. The watery jungle of reedmace stems is the nearest you’re going to find to a mangrove swamp in Dewsbury. The chicks swimming to and fro are behaving much as the chicks of Hesperornis might have 70 million years ago.

For that matter, the birds are probably behaving much as their dinosaur ancestors might have done down by the waterhole. A Moorhen chases a Mallard duck across the grass. The duck is larger but the Moorhen is more than a match for it.

Perhaps it’s so aggressive because it has young nearby. A couple of small fluffy black chicks paddle across the khaki-coloured waters of the pond towards the reedmace.

It might be protecting young, but on the other hand it might simply be expressing its crotchety character as a Moorhen. Moorhens don’t seem to need any excuse to act aggressively. Whether they’re protecting young, nest building or involved in courtship, they’ll take any opportunity to pick a fight.

Goldsmith on the Water-hen

Where the stream is selvaged with sedges, or the pond edged with shrubby trees, the water-hen is generally a resident there : she seeks her food along the grassy banks, and often along the surface of the water. With Shakespeare’s Edgar, she drinks the green mantle of the standing pool ; or, at least seems to prefer those places where it is seen.

History of the Earth, 1774


Animated Nature

I WAS given these volumes of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature by my dad’s shooting and fishing friend Mr Chalkley when I was seven years old. I was already hooked on nature, enthusiastically drawing local wildlife and writing up my observations in a red exercise book. Here I am doing the same kind of thing over half a century later.

I was thrilled to be presented with such an impressive set of volumes; they have such an air of antiquity about them. It has 108 plates, signed ‘R.Scott’ and ‘Published by Blackie Fullerton & Co. Glasgow’ of animals, birds, shells and fossils, printed in a fine stippled technique – lithography? Unfortunately the text (and the footnotes which can go on for several pages) are in such small print that you can’t read the book for pleasure. It’s one to be dipped into.

The first edition of Goldsmith’s History of the Earth appeared in 1774 but the title page of this edition, published by A. Fullarton and Co, is dated MDCCCXXXII. That’s a year that crops up again and again in research for my various projects: 1832. At the weekend this was the date that Waldemar Januszczak chose to start his television history of Impressionism as this was when Camille Pisarro was born in St Thomas in the West Indies (some sources day 1830). Manet was born in the same year.

I drew the books in pen and black Winsor and Newton ink but had to stop adding dilute peat brown ink as a colour wash as it was soaking through the paper in my sketchbook and staining the drawing on the other side of page.

I started drawing this chair when I took my mum for an appointment this morning.


Tilly is the new border collie at the bookshop where my wife Barbara works. Sadly Sox, who I drew on numerous occasions died aged 16 a month ago. It was only yesterday that Richard and Carol collected Tilly from the rescue centre but already it’s obvious how well she will fit in on her regular visits to the shop. She’s smaller than Sox and, as she’s a newcomer, there’s a tendency to think of her as a puppy but at 18 months this is as far as she’ll grow. She’s slim (there’s a contrast with Sox) and long-legged. Tilly’s ‘socks’, on her two front feet, are white with brown dots.

She’s shy but friendly and, unlike Sox, she’s pleased to meet other dogs. Perfect for the bookshop. I look forward to drawing her when she becomes more relaxed as she gets used to her new life.

Fatsia (right), drawn in the courtyard of the Beverley Hotel during a break between papers at the Robin Hood conference.




AFTER SO many Robin Hood talks during the past two days we’re here on a Wakefield Naturalists’ Society field meeting at a place which has long been associated with the outlaw. At the start of The Little Gest Robin Hood stands leaning against a tree in Barnsdale Forest. The forest was extensive and stretched northwards from the borders of Sherwood, so which part of Barnsdale did the ballad writers have in mind?

As at the start of the story Robin tells Little John, William Scarlock and Much to ‘go up to Sayles’ to scan the Great North Road for a ‘dinner guest’ (one who will subsequently be asked to pay!) they must be down here in Brockadale. Sayles is an outcrop overlooking the valley, now marked on the map as Sayles Plantation. Going back as far as 1841, iron age earthworks at Sayles were shown on the Ordnance Survey map as ‘Castle Hills’. Castle Hill is surrounded by several tower-like crags so it could have served as a look-out post and a defensible position for a band of archers.

Castle Hill was excavated a few years ago prior to an extension of quarrying operations. If the archaeologists discovered Robin’s hidden booty, they kept quiet about it.

Now managed, in part, as a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve, Brockadale straddles the borders of North and West Yorkshire.


Chapel Lane, Little Smeaton, 10 a.m.

JULY IS the middle of our summer but in the hedgerows there’s a feeling that autumn isn’t too far away. Hawthorn berries are beginning to appear – still green at the moment – but these damsons by the lay-by are well on their way to being ripe.

I’d always assumed that the ‘brock’ in Brockadale referred to the badger but apparently it means ‘broken dale’; the slopes are broken by craggy outcrops of magnesian limestone. The name might refer to quarrying on the valley slopes.

Perforate St John’s Wort (note the little ‘perforations’ when you hold a leaf up to the light, left) was used to treat wounds in Robin Hood’s day by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who had a preceptory at Newland, near Wakefield, and were Robert Hode’s close neighbours in the town on Warrengate, where Robin and the Hospitallers both held property.

The chalky soil that makes the limestone meadows so refreshingly different to the buttercup meadows that I’m so familiar with elsewhere on the coal measures and gritstone country of West Yorkshire.

Burnet Moths

This morning there are hundreds of 6-spot burnet moths about, some of them basking or feeding on the flowers of scabious and clustered bellflower.

Marbled White

There are also a few marbled white butterflies around today, mainly basking on a plant by the outcrop (top picture).

Sheep and cattle graze in the field below. Grazing is an essential part of the management of the grasslands, helping prevent bushes taking over and shading out the limestone meadow flowers.

Britain Revisited

Most of these drawings were made in Brockadale in July 2009. I was revisiting the east of England locations that I first drawn in July 1979 while working on my Richard Bell’s Britain sketchbook for Collins. There were so many places to revisit during July that I had to find some way of dealing with the rain. I took a pop-up shelter that I’d bought at Netto and set it up overlooking Brockadale (top picture).

I got some funny looks from passing dog walkers but at least I was able to work on my drawings most of the time except when the wind blew the rain straight down the valley and into my tent. I then zipped up the opening of the shelter and ate my picnic lunch snug in my shelter perched on the outcrop, as the rain battered against the canvas.

King Edward and his Merry Men

In my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire I follow the career of 14th century Robert Hode of Wakefield so Prince John and Richard the Lionheart are long gone but Edward II and his rival Earls (and rival lords of the manor of Wakefield) John de Warenne and Thomas of Lancaster provide a suitably dramatic and violent context. Their rivalry culminated in the Battle of Boroughbridge after which many men were declared outlaws.

I enjoyed illustrating the knockabout Little Gest of Robin Hood but I felt quite emotional when it came to the humiliation, mock-trial and execution of Thomas of Lancaster at his own castle at Pontefract. Here I was trying to imaginatively recreate real events which happened to a real, not a semi-mythical, person in a local town that I’ve long been familiar with.

Whatever his faults Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. No wonder he was soon hailed as a saint!

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Forest Folk

The outlaws were the least of my worries; in Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire, I had two earls, a king, a pinder, several Knights Hospitaller, assorted peasants and, not least, a Sheriff to design and draw.

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin and Friends

In the comic strip section of my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire, I needed to make Robin instantly recognisable in every one of dozens of two inch square frames. I wanted to get away from the traditional Robin Hood hat, so I went for the medieval equivalent of a trilby!

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood: a walk in Barnsdale Forest

There were 6 picture maps to draw for the 19 miles of my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire along with two short town trails, plus local views and historical details.

I love the maps in Tolkien and The Wind in the Willows and my aim is to try to make the places look delightful enough for my readers to feel they’d like to walk there but accurate enough for them to follow the directions in the text without the need for an Ordnance Survey map (although I do recommend people take one with them in case there are unexpected footpath closures or if they decide to stray off the route).

Robin Hood’s Yorkshire

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood: Roughing it out

144 illustrations to plan – and that’s just the comic strip section! The idea of these lightning sketches for my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire was to make sense of my months of research and get rid of all those scary white pages by populating them with lively historical detail and traditional tales.

Rough visuals for the illustrations  from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.