Witch’s Butter

THIS YELLOW fungus was growing on a log at the edge of the path through a conifer plantation at Newmillerdam. I’m not sure whether the log was hardwood or softwood.

It’s the first species that I’ve tried to identify from the Collins Fungi Guide, by Stefan Buczacki and going by his description and the illustration by Denys Ovenden I think this must be Yellow Cobweb, Plebiella sulphurea, formerly known as Trechispora vaga, although I’ll admit that my photograph, taken on the 17th, makes it look more like yellow vermicelli.

Thank you to Monique in the Netherlands who tells me this isn’t in fact a fungus (see comment), I did wonder about that:

It’s called dog vomit slime mold, in Dutch “witch’s butter”. It’s very slimy and it can “walk”.

You can see its slime trail over the moss in my photograph.

The Old Windmill

THE OLD WINDMILL just up our road, here in Middlestown, was already disused and converted to a dwelling when this photograph was taken about one hundred years ago. It had evidently been a good year for cabbages.

On most of the photographs that I’ve been drawing from, I don’t get an opportunity to put a name to the face but in this case it shouldn’t be difficult to look up the old mill in the 1911 census records to find out the names of, I’m guessing, mum and dad and their two daughters.

I’d love to know the names of these two boys (and their dog) who appear in the corner of the postcard of the haymakers that I drew yesterday. If I was the photographer, I’d have been annoyed that my timeless scene of rural life had been infiltrated by these Artful Dodgers but looking back after a hundred years they’re probably the best bit of the photograph. They’re so spontaneous and full of character. Looks as if they might be planning some minor mischief.

Unless they lied about their age and enlisted towards the end of the conflict, they should have escaped the horrors of World War I. It’s possible that in the past I’ve walked past them on the street but they’d have to be about 107 years old to still be with us today.

Making an altogether more elegant pair, these two girls are part of a group dressed in their Sunday bests strolling by Coxley Dam.

Straw hats were the thing to wear in those long gone Edwardian summers. I’ve found a young women in the 1911 census returns for Coxley Valley listing herself as a milliner.


IT HASN’T BEEN haymaking weather today, with a month’s rain falling in 24 hours in some places; these men were photographed making hay while the sun shone in Coxley Valley during one of the long remembered glorious summers of the Edwardian that preceded World War I.

It wasn’t just nostalgia for the days before the horrors of the war that made a generation remember golden summer days, apparently there really was a series of better summers at that time.

This is another of my sketches for the article that I’m writing for the village newsletter/magazine, taken from an old postcard in the collection of Horbury historian Christine Cudworth.

I found the simpler forms of the farm hands easier to draw than the laces and faces of the mums and children watching the procession at the Netherton Carnival in another postcard in Christine’s collection, dated 1910.

The girls are holding cards and wearing decorated straw hats – had they entered an Easter bonnet competition? It’s more likely that the parade would mark Whit Sunday, the time when people habitually packed away their dowdy winter clothes and treated themselves to new outfits.

The Pocket Book

IT’S BEEN a while since I looked back through the pages of the pocket-sized sketchbook that goes in the passport wallet that I attach to my belt when we’re walking.

Next to this sketch of the lake at Newmillerdam, drawn almost a month ago, I’ve written:

‘Waterside Kitchen
looking south. Temp. 17
but with cool  breeze & grey
skies it feels like September
10.45am 27/8/12

When September proper came along Barbara drove as we headed for Langsett, giving me the opportunity to draw the trees and hills. We were following small winding roads so they look as if they’ve been drawn by a seismograph. The chair and the sausage-loving labrador were in the Bank View cafe after our walk.

We came back via the Flouch Inn, a famous old pub which now has a new identity as an Indian restaurant. Returning via Crow Edge, Lane Head, Shepley, Shelley and Emley, we crossed the watershed between the Don and Calder valleys, a plateau of land above 400 metres (over 1300 feet) of pastures and hay meadows divided by drystone walls with small hamlets and isolated farms.

The Dam Inn

A couple of weeks later, on the 17th, I drew the chimneys of the Dam Inn at Newmillerdam from the cafe. It really does look like September now.

We were at Newmillerdam again yesterday and the first person we met was a woman from the village who had just lost a Peregrine falcon. The jesses had just slipped through her hand as it flew off.

‘It could be a hundred miles away now!’ she said in resignation. As the name suggests this falcon is renowned for its peregrinations. We took her phone number just in case we spotted it.

Richard Long at the Hepworth

Today we had a book order from the Hepworth gallery and were able to combine that with lunch in the cafe there, overlooking the Calder and the old canal offices.

After our  walk on the moors the other day it was interesting to see Richard Long’s evocation of a walk across Dartmoor. Rather than cram a sketchbook with little drawings as I would, he’d simply arranged twigs in a long rectangle in a modulated pattern that echoes a natural arrangement – not so much pattern that you see it as weaving but enough set up a natural rhythm.

‘Did the artist actually come here and arrange this himself?’ I asked the attendants, ‘or did you have to follow his instructions?’

‘No, he came and arranged them himself.’

Tilly the bookshop border collie is looking a little subdued today (or you might say, well behaved) because his (correction her, sorry Tilly!) master is away for the weekend.

You’d hardly think that a gallery in town would be a sympathetic setting for simple natural forms but a surprising feature of the Hepworth is the view of wild(ish) water that punctuates your circuit of the galleries. There are several floor to ceiling views of the weir on the bend of the Calder which, in normal flow as it is today, makes a continuous cadence of curtains of white water cascading to a jacuzzi of foaming lace below.

The thing that unsettles me about Richard Long’s work is the element of a cultural colonialism in it. He’s not content to just visit a desert or a meadow without trampling a line or a spiral in it, then taking the sort of photograph that a Victorian explorer might take of his handiwork.

I know that they say ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ but Long takes this to the extreme. With my size thirteen hiking boots I probably do an equal amount of damage to habitats, but it’s not deliberate.


Leaning on a Lamppost

I’M WRITING an article for a local magazine/newsletter and decided to take a closer look at the people that you see in the photographs and postcards of a century ago. Sometimes they’re going about their everyday business but more often they’re aware of the photographer, like this man leaning on the lamppost at Middlestown crossroads.

The Dickensian huddle of buildings behind him was later replaced by the buildings of the local Co-operative Society, including a cinema. The village’s fish and chip shop, The Grumpy Friar, and the pharmacy now stand there. I don’t remember it myself, but I believe that Middlestown Church stood on the corner to the right.

The sign points to Wakefield and Huddersfield to the northeast and southwest, Thornhill Edge and Overton to the left and the right.

Tinker the Mystery Cat

I’ve been puzzling over this undated sketch in my everyday sketchbook, the 8 inch square format, that I usually use for pen and ink, that I often have with me on urban errands.

But I couldn’t remember visiting a cafe or a shop that had cats, nor had we been in anyone’s home who kept cats. But we’d obviously been introduced to Tinker, since cats don’t readily tell you their names (see T. S. Eliot).

Then I remembered that we hadn’t met Tinker indoors; he (or she?) is one of Paul the gardener’s cats, or perhaps I should say Paul the gardener is the cats’ Human, that seems to be the way it works, and Tinker, a rather sociable cat, was enjoying the morning sun in his garden in Horbury.

He’s a pretty laid-back cat.

Line and Tone

I was reading an introduction to a How to Draw the Human Figure by Victor Ambrus about figure drawing recently.

For me springy line is the trademark of his work but surprisingly he warned his readers off focusing on line when drawing people.

I’m used to Ruskin’s advice that you should draw outlines (such as the branches of a tree) with as much care as you would make a map (of a river delta, for instance) for a group of pedantic and litigious landowners.

Ambrus’s drawings have that kind of precision and you’d think that he’d have a similar method in his mind as he drew but he points out that you shouldn’t be looking for outlines as such. If you’re drawing a nearby figure (as opposed to a distant tree) you’re seeing three-dimensional forms, which, if you’ve got vision in both eyes, don’t have a precise edge. So, I guess he’s saying, draw the forms not the edges.

He also points out that tones don’t stop abruptly at the edges of the form. I’ve always thought of this as a problem (for instance when my grizzled, not to say white, hair blends seamlessly into a white background on a passport photograph!) but it’s something to look out for as you draw. We don’t live in a world that resembles a paint-by-numbers colouring book, with precise edges and abrupt transitions of tone and colour.

I tried to keep all this in mind as I drew my left hand!

Queues Ahead

WHEN WE saw the flashing warnings for a queues ahead we thought that it was just the normal morning rush but unfortunately there had been an accident involving seven cars on the approach to junction 35 (the Rotherham junction of the M1, heading south). As we waited, drivers were strolling about chatting to each other while police cars, fire engines and ambulances hurtled along the hard shoulder to reach the scene.

My way of dealing with an unspecified period of waiting would normally be to draw anything from the natural world, a way of escaping from the situation, but although there is a belt of woodland along this stretch of the motorway I felt the need to keep looking ahead, just in case the traffic started moving again, which it did after an hour and half, giving me plenty of time to draw what I find a difficult subject, the cars ahead.

Waterton’s Watchtower

I’D ALWAYS assumed that the stone watchtowers that Charles Waterton(1793-1865) built around Walton Park were primarily birdwatching hides where Waterton, accustomed to life in the tropics, could take shelter on walks around his nature reserve but when I read an account of a visitor to the Park in 1835, I realised that these were intended as sentry boxes. It was all very well for Waterton to enclose his sanctuary with a long high wall but in order to ensure that his pheasants and wildfowl wouldn’t be disturbed by gangs of poachers from the local towns, he had to organise night patrols.

I believe there were four towers originally of which I’ve seen three. Two of them were in ruins and have now disappeared without a trace but the third has been restored. They are positioned in strategic points such as where the stream flows out of the Park under the wall and at the diagonally opposite corner with a view down the slope to the Lake.

On an evening visit to a neighbouring wood Waterton once surprised a poacher. In the ensuing fight Waterton, who was on his own, without the support of his trusty gamekeeper, John Ogden, was wrestled to the ground. Fortunately he fought off his assailant by grabbing him by the cravat and choking him until he ceased his attack and fled.

Again for this illustration I’ve worked from reference, this time from two photographs kindly supplied by John Whitaker, curator at Wakefield Museum. I hadn’t realised that the towers originally had a conical turret roof. When the watchtower was restored a few years ago the roof was omitted, I guess for structural reasons, but what a difference it made when I reconstructed the tower with the roof in place. It changed from looking like a military installation to looking like something out of a fairy tale, the sort of enchanted little tower that a traveller would find on a walk through the woods.

No doubt one or two gangs of poachers were in for a big surprise on the night that they they went down to the woods and first came across the tower and the band of guardians that presumably hid inside it.

Waterton’s Wall

CHARLES WATERTON completed his wall around Walton Park in 1821. It had taken five years to build and cost £9,000. Refusing to go into debt to complete it, Waterton, who as a teetotal Yorkshire squire was something of a rarity, quipped that he’d paid for it with the money he hadn’t spent on claret.

It seems a simple concept today but it had never occurred to anyone before to enclose an area with the sole purpose of providing a sanctuary for wildlife. Enclose an area to hunt wildlife, yes, but not to preserve it for the purposes of enjoying it for its own sake and studying its habits.

He also pioneered the concept of a country park by providing an area for picnics and outdoor concerts in a clearing in a small wood near the farm buildings known as the Grotto. Keeping some areas strictly for the birds and allowing open access to the public in others ensured that visitors didn’t unduly disturb the birds and animals in the perfect patch of unspoilt countryside (a rare commodity in the industrial districts of mid-Victorian West Yorkshire) that they’d come to enjoy.

Waterton been inspired by his experience of the wilderness of what is now Guyanna to recreate a pristine version of as many English natural habitats as he could fit into his park; lake, swamp, hedgerow and woodland. He regretted that he didn’t have an arm of the sea available to complete his selection.

He picked up ideas on his travels in Europe, notably the use of ivy to cover ruins which he’d seen in Italy in a park where pheasants could coexist with the throng of townsfolk taking a stroll because the birds had instant access to dense cover.

I’ve enjoyed working on this illustration even though I decided not to go on location to draw it, which is usually my preference. I’d taken a photograph of one of the few complete and uneroded sections of the wall in the summer, so I worked from that. As you can imagine drawing the sandstone blocks of the wall had a therapeutic effect on me. Unlike when I’m writing, I find that I can listen to the radio as I do this kind of step by step drawing, alternating from classical music on Radio 3 and news and documentaries on Radio 4. Bliss.

I don’t as yet know whether the final use for this illustration will be in black and white or colour so I took a high resolution scan before I started adding the watercolour. The illustration has to sit easily with nineteenth century engravings of the Park.

The line drawing was in Noodlers black ink, using an ArtPen with an extra fine nib.


1.10 p.m., Horbury; A BARRED brown Sparrowhawk is being mobbed by a flock – a ‘charm’ but I’m sure that the Sparrowhawk doesn’t see it that way – of about 20 Goldfinches over the trees by the Memorial Park. It swoops over the town hall then soars up towards the convent, pausing occasionally at the top of its arc of flight, as if it’s considering stopping to hover like a Kestrel.


The new Field Guide to the Micro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons, illustrated by Richard Lewington, has inspired me to have a go at setting up a moth trap at the end of the garden in my recently mown and hacked back ‘meadow area’.

Having asked a couple of friends who’ve done a bit of moth trapping – in fact one of them has done moth surveys for a living since since he left college – I’ve decided to go for the cheaper but more fiddly option of making my own moth trap.

The basis of this is a low energy flourescent blacklight; a 20 watt ultra violet light as used in discos.


As I walk down the garden to close the greenhouse, 14 House Martins are circling and chattering a hundred feet above the meadow. A reminder that autumn hasn’t totally set in although it won’t be long before they set off back to Africa.

I pick a couple of Supersweet tomatoes in the greenhouse and a couple of raspberries from the canes as I walk past, none of which makes it back to the kitchen.

Sketchy Impressions

First page in a new A4 Pink Pig cartridge paper sketchbook.

By the way, apologies for the scrappy drawings but there’s a reason for these. I’m out of the habit of regular sketching, particularly of wildlife subjects so I decided that to get myself back in drawing mode for the autumn I’d go back to the main method that I used for my Wild West Yorkshire nature diary in the early years, drawing the day’s wildlife observations from memory in as simple a way as possible, in this case fountain pen and watercolour crayons.

To get over the time that I spend sitting at the computer writing and revising text, I decided that I’d also write my notes in the sketchbook.

Writing by hand makes me slow down and think about what I’m writing and it usually turns out to be coherent enough not to need the revisions and tweaks that I always find myself doing when I’m typing my thoughts directly to the computer.

To Mow a Meadow

The meadow area this afternoon, before cutting.

THE END of summer; I think that the time’s right for cutting back the small meadow area at the end of the garden. There are a few scarlet poppies but most of the flowers are over now and should have set seed.

As I empty the trimmings on the compost heap, a Robin comes so close to me that I could reach out and touch it. There are two of them, equally tame, one hopping around where I’ve mown, the other near the shed. For the moment they seem to be sharing the garden in peace.

But inevitably cutting back this grassroot jungle has left one or two creatures homeless.

I try to mow the grass in sequence of swathes that will allow frogs and toads to gradually retreat towards the hedge as I progress. I get a brief glimpse of something hopping away near the log pile but I’m afraid that a couple of large slugs aren’t so lucky. I know they’re a traditional gardener’s ‘enemy’ but I’d have rescued them if I’d spotted them first.

I can see what appear to be vole runs in the turf and I notice two tiny newts, wriggling through the debris looking for cover in crevices in the damp earth. I manage to carefully rescue one and release it under the cover of the hedge, near next door’s pond.

Hope the Robin doesn’t spot it as it hops around under the hedge.