Groundwork: from Z to A

I’M TAKING my time preparing the patch at the end of the garden that I’m hoping to transform into a wild flower meadow. It’s in such an unkempt state because this is the corner that gets used for sorting, shredding and on a couple of occasions burning the debris from trimming hedges, replacing fences and clearing the pond.

Rich disturbed soil like this makes an ideal habitat for a wild flower that I introduced year ago and have often wished that I hadn’t; Chicory. The flowers and the bitter-tasting foliage of this tall, blue-flowered relative of daisies and sunflowers have been eaten in salads and an extract of the roots (and some suggest the seeds too) has been used as a substitute for coffee.

But I’d like our mini-meadow to be diverse rather than being dominated by one plant, however useful it may be, so I’m gradually forking over the area, removing every fragment of root I can spot. This has amounted to four bagfuls of the vermicelli-like ‘roots’. Perhaps I should be turning them into coffee.

After a couple of hours weeding I realise that I need to improve my posture. This is how I picture myself when I’m digging; I feel as if I’m putting a lot of unnecessary strain on my lower back.

A sketch from a photograph that a friend took of me using an edging tool to cut turves on Monday (right) shows that I need to bend even more when I’m using a garden tool with a short handle. Most handles are too short for me, so I’m going to start looking out for a fork with an extra long handle.

On Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don characteristically stands with his legs apart and now I can see why; the ground is a long way down and with legs apart you can get that bit nearer.

My habitual action when I’ve been digging and want to pick out a weed or rootlet is to bend over, folding myself up in a Z-shape. I guess that it would probably be better for my legs and arms if I adopted an A-shape, legs apart, trying to keep my legs straight, bending at the waist. This stretches my back, and my legs, rather than putting strain on the joints.

I’ve been trying this and I’m convinced that it’s better for my back but I still find myself automatically adopting the ‘Z’ crouch when I need to pick out a piece of root that I’ve just spotted.

“They always say that you should crouch instead of bend,” says Paul, who has helped us out so much in the garden since the autumn.

I guess that you should work in whatever way you find comfortable and that varying your working position is probably a good idea.

The Edge of the Pond

THIS AFTERNOON I wanted to do the simplest of drawings so I’ve gone back to ArtPen ink, a water soluble fountain pen ink, using my Pentel water-brush to turn the line to wash.

We’ve arranged these fragments of flaggy sandstone to disguise the edges of the liner of the restored pond. They should be half submerged but as we’ve had no rain the water level has sunk by about 4 inches.

The Smooth Newts have re-established themselves; I’ve just seen three of them on the shallow margin of the pond, one male waving his banner-like tail at a female. We’ve now seen most of our regular garden birds coming down to drink or bathe at the pond’s edge. Insects drink here too; I’ve just rescued a honey-bee that was struggling in the water. A single pond skater is striding across the surface.

Stag’s horn Sumac

THE SUMAC in next door’s front garden keeps its own seasons. While weeping willows are bursting into bright green leaf and birches are showering us with so much pollen that it gives some of us hay fever, the Sumac seems to be stuck in bare-branched mid-winter. In contrast, in a garden at the end of the road, a smaller Sumac has red-velvet fruiting heads.

Male and female flowers grow on different trees, so I’m wondering if this bare tree is a male and the smaller tree a female.

The Stag’s horn Sumac, Rhus typhina, a native of North America, was introduced to Britain in 1629 by John Parkinson.

30 March: after another sunny day the tips of the branches of this Sumac were bursting into leaf by late afternoon. It’s catching up with the season.


BISCUIT is grazing his way around the meadow. We’re now into spring and the evenings are getting longer, a couple of minutes each day but when the clocks go forward and British Summertime starts this weekend, it will suddenly seem as if we’ve gained a whole extra hour.

Buds are swelling on the crab apple and the hawthorn hedge is bursting into bright green leaf. We’re intending this weekend to make a definitive start in the garden. Barbara has weeded the three beds so we should be ready to get the onion sets and garlic bulbs planted. The seed potatoes can probably still be left for a while. I’d also like to get a seedbed going with whatever varieties of vegetables it is appropriate to sow now.


Lakeland Rock

Fragment of a Lakeland rock (I'm not sure exactly where I picked this up now!)

I REMEMBER this rock near the lakeside at Bowness from a childhood holiday in the Lake District. It’s been smoothed and polished not only by passing glaciers but also by the effect of several decades of children sliding down it. I remember joining a queue at the top and enjoying the slide down onto the turf below so much that I went back up and queued for a second go. I have a  vague memory that there were two routes down; a nursery slope and an extreme sports alternative. It seemed a wild ride after the children’s slides that I’d been used to in council recreation grounds.

Close up of the fragment, approx. 10x, showing a mineral vein, probably quartz.

Unfortunately since the 1960s, the rock has been cut through to widen the road. It’s a shame not only for the children but also because this was such a prominent example of a roche moutonnée. I always thought this meant a sheep-shaped rock, smoothed by glaciers but, according to Wikipedia, when Alpinist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure came up with the term in 1786, he was thinking of the wigs, slicked down with mutton fat, which were worn by the nobility of the day.

In my memory, this ice-smoothed rock was further up the slope from the lakeside, far enough inside the park for a soft landing on the turf below. The road and the lakeside have been re-engineered here, so that might partly account for it but apparently the lake shore itself has changed. In Eric Hardy’s The Naturalist in Lakeland, written in 1973, I was surprised to find a brief reference to an increase in the water level of Windermere, brought about by controlling the outlet at Newby Bridge, the aim being to provide a more reliable water supply for Manchester. This would have been in the 1960s.

And he refers to the time ‘when Morecambe Bay is converted to a barrage or to storage reservoirs’, as if the matter had already been decided.

The ‘Greywackes’ of Windermere

Slaty cleavage in a fragment of rock from the edge of the car park at the Belsfield Hotel.

Jonathan Otley (1766-1856), ‘the Father of Lakeland Geology’ observed that,

” . . . the greater part of the central region of the Lake Mountains is occupied by three distinct groups of stratified rocks of a slatey texture – the Clayslate, Greenstone and Greywacke.”

Otley’s ‘Clayslates’ are what we used to call the Skiddaw Slates, which underlie the smooth bulk of the fells of the north Lake District; the ‘Greenstones’ are the Borrowdale Volcanics of the knobblier central fells and ‘Greywackes’ are the Silurian rocks of South Lakeland, now known as the Windermere Supergroup.

In Lakeland Rocks, An Introductory Guide, Alan Smith describes the Windermere formations as ‘Geologically interesting but not charismatic for the non-specialist in any way.”

Link; Rigg Side Publications also publish Alan Smith’s The Story of the Bowder Stone, The Ice Age in the Lake District and, one that appeals to me as ideal to take on a future break in the Lake District, Landscapes around Keswick; it would be great way to get to know more about the landscapes Keswick, Bassenthwaite, Derwentwater and Borrowdale.


The Bowness Ferry

IF YOU represented Lake Windermere as an elongated clock face, today we walked from Ferry House at 9 o’clock to Wray Castle at 11, finishing up at Waterhead, Ambleside, at just past the top of the hour, so about a quarter of the way around England’s largest lake.

This didn’t leave any time for drawing, so I sketched our route from the ferry on the return journey to Bowness.

We had hoped there might be a cafe at Wray Castle, a Victorian country retreat built in the style of a toy fort, but it’s closed at the moment after plans to turn it into an upmarket hotel fell through. The National Trust plans to reopen it to the public . . . and open a cafe there.

Beatrix Potter celebrated her 16th birthday at Wray Castle when the Potter family spent a summer holiday here.

Grasmere and Langdale

View from our room at the Belsfield, Bowness

WE STROLL around Grasmere village for a couple of hours then hurry back along the riverside path as we’ve underestimated how long we might need to see all that we’d like to see.

I can’t believe that in all the years that I’ve been coming to the Lake District, this is the first time that I’ve visited the village or the famous Heaton Cooper Gallery. Of the founders of this fell-painting dynasty, I think that I prefer the work of the son William (1903-1995) to that of his father Alfred. William’s watercolours can be a little reminiscent of railway travel posters of the 1930s in the way he simplifies the landscape into interlocking arming shapes in harmonious colours while his father introduces more texture but the suggestion of powerful natural forces in the arching shapes, like billowing sails, of William’s work make the fells and the clouds interacting with them look suitably monumental.

We make the pilgrimage at last to the graves of the Wordsworths; William, Dorothy and Mary, at St Oswald’s church.

As we stop for coffee the most conspicuous subject for me to draw is the passing throng of  visitors to the village. In these situations a universal law applies; whoever I choose to draw someone will always come and stand in front of them or park a car in front.

Loughrigg Tarn

We take the narrow road along the hillside to the west of Grasmere Lake because I’d like to see – also for the first time – Loughrigg Tarn (left). The name is so familiar yet in all the years that we’ve been coming here we’ve never visited it.

With Loughrigg ticked off, we soon pass through Skelwith Bridge, a familiar junction on our Lakeland tours, but instead of heading for Coniston or Tarn Hows as we’d normally do, we turn up towards Langdale, passing Elterwater, another lake that I’m not familiar with.


Langdale isn’t on an Alpine scale but it reminded me of the similarly shaped Lauterbrunnen Valley that we walked along in Switzerland last year – a U-shaped valley with a flat bottom contrasting with soaring cliffs on either ride. It didn’t boast the vertically plunging cascades of its Alpine counterpart but Stickle Ghyll and Dungeon Ghyll have their own rugged appeal.

We normally return again and again to favourite walks in the Lakes, usually amongst the ancient Skiddaw Slates to the north of the National Park or the Silurian Slates around Windermere to the south. We’ve tended to miss out on the craggier fells of the Borrowdale Volcanics between.

Stickle Barn, Langdale


One thing that prompted this Langdale tour was a little booklet that we picked up in Grasmere this morning, I-Spy The Lake District.

It’s aimed at children who’re keen on spotting and ticking off the sights of the National Park but it’s also useful as an itinerary for like ourselves who have our favourite corners but feel that we’d like to see more of what is out there.

Returning by the Little Langdale road to Skelwith Bridge, we get another tick for our I-Spy book; Blea Tarn. Another ten points!

Ash Landing

SOMEONE had found this mammal skull and left it on one of the display boards at Ash Landing National Trust reserve, providing an impromptu quiz. What was it?

Even though the long canines at the front are missing, it’s obvious that this isn’t a rabbit or hare, it’s too large and long anyway, and to me it isn’t as broad and powerful as I’d expect for a badger so I’m going to guess at Red Fox.

And the answer is . . .

Yes, according to Mammals of Britain, Their Tracks, Trails and Signs (Lawrence and Brown, 1967), that’s what it is.

I’ve added their labels to my photograph. Alveoli are small cavities or pits, and here in an anatomical sense, that means the bony sockets for the root of a tooth. These three holes supported one tooth, as you can see from the opposite side of the jaw.

Oh, in case it’s not clear, the two lines are intended to indicate the cranium between the two eye sockets.

The Duck that held up the Traffic

This Mallard duck, followed by a companion drake, wandered over to the bench as we waited for the return ferry. As we had no bread to share we thought that she’d lose interest but she looked around then settled on the ground at Barbara’s feet, the drake standing close by. When the ferry arrived and the ramp rattled into place she stood up again and decided that now was the time to move – holding up the disembarking traffic as she waddled back unhurriedly to the waterside with her partner.

The Road to the Lakes

3.30 p.m.; View of Windermere from Costa Coffee at Pringles, Bowness.
The small, sometimes winding, roads made sketching from the car difficult.

THE LAKE DISTRICT is so often moody, wrapped in clouds and mist, so today, with ranks of cumulus marching across a clear blue sky and sparkling panoramas unfolding before us, our regular journey was a different experience. After so many years of heading along the Leeds ring road to get on the road to the Lakes, the A65 via Skipton, we’ve found a short cut on smaller quieter roads following the ridges between some of the old woollen towns of the West Riding – Huddersfield, Mirfield, Halifax and Bradford – not far away in the valleys below.

It was so clear that already, as we approached Howarth over the moors, we got glimpses of the sphinx-like peaks of Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent crouching on the limestone plateau of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Coming this way, along the smaller but slower roads, the Dalesman Cafe at Gargrave, 1 hour 20 minutes but only 40 miles into our journey, makes a timely coffee stop. They specialise in ephemera of the 1950s and 1960s so as I tried a local speciality, buttered Chorley cake, the tins and packages of the period brought back memories for us.

I sketched this shrimping net from an earlier period, still with its canvas bag stencilled ‘W EGLON, NEPTUNE FISH STORES, WHITBY, TEL. 60’. I wonder whereabout in Whitby that was . . .

The Eglons of Whitby

A Google search turns up this reference to the Eglon family from the 1891 census (, when they were living in four rooms in Elephant & Castle Yard, between Haggersgate and Cliff Street, so very near what is still the fish quay at Whitby. I guess that Neptune Fish Stores would have been there or very near.

4 Elephant & Castle Yard (4 rooms)
     Eglon, Christopher - Head - M M 41 - Fish Merchant - YKS, Whitby
     Eglon, Eliza - Wife - M F 41 - - YKS, Whitby
     Eglon, Mary E - Daughter - S F 21 - Dressmaker - YKS, Whitby
     Eglon, William - Son - S M 19 - Fisherman - YKS, Whitby
     Eglon, Christopher - Son - M 14 - Errand Boy - YKS, Whitby
     Eglon, Esther - Daughter - F 12 - Scholar - YKS, Whitby
     Eglon, James H - Son - M 10 - Scholar - YKS, Whitby
     Eglon, Margaret E - Daughter - F 7 - Scholar - YKS, Whitby

William, born in 1872, must be the ‘W. Eglon’ named on the bag but sadly his business, Neptune Fish Stores (Whitby) Ltd, was wound up in 1969, at a time when the traditional English seaside resorts had lost out to competition from package holidays to the Mediterranean.

Sunset across the Lake

Barn owl from Walney Owl Sanctuary, which along with a Little and an Eagle Owl was proving a hit with visitors to the Tourist Information Centre at Bowness.

I’m certainly getting in holiday mood today, I’m beginning to feel like a different person, as if a burden has been lifted from my shoulders, as we approach the Lakes and leave the distractions of home and work behind. As the rugged peaks of the Borrowdale volcanics come into view a Buzzard circles above the road.

Bowness can be as busy as a traditional seaside town – the Blackpool of the Lake District – but, as we’ve booked in for a few days at the Belsfield Hotel overlooking the Lake Windermere, we can stay after the weekend trippers return home.

There’s a perfect sunset, a clear sky across the lake. In this old hotel, originally the home of a wealthy Victorian industrialist, you have the feeling that you’ve got away from everything; as if you’re aboard one of the old, opulent ocean liners. When we walk down for our meal in the sumptuous dining room, past the reception desk, we glimpse sparkling water through the lounge window. You feel that the whole hotel might be gliding over calm waters. Hopefully with no icebergs on the horizon. The bustling piers where the ferries come and go are hidden away behind the grassy banks of the hotel gardens.

Links; Walney Owl Sanctuary, Belsfield Hotel


TILLY the bookshop border collie was looking a little sheepish today, curled up in her den beneath the desk. A busy Saturday morning for the bookshop, partly because tomorrow is Mother’s Day.