Garden Birdwatch

birdwatch 2013siskingoldfinchAFTER LASHINGS of rain overnight and this morning it’s refreshing to look out on a green lawn rather than on the snow that has lingered for the past twelve days. When the rain stops at 9 a.m. there’s a sudden influx of Goldfinches and Siskins so we decide to start our one hour RSPB Garden Birdwatch straight away.

magpieI do a few distracted sketches but feel the need to be continually scanning the whole of the garden. A Magpie briefly touches down on the fence near the greenhouse and pecks at something – a spider perhaps.

nuthatchA Nuthatch, usually the most conspicuous of visitors when it flies in, bullying other birds from their perch on the sunflower feeder, flies in sneakily, hiding itself briefly on the other side of the small feeder.

wood pigeoncollared doveAs I add the colour to my sketches who should turn up too late to be included but a Collared Dove, which touches down briefly on top of the shepherd’s crook feeder pole, and a Wood Pigeon that waddles alongside the watering hole provided by the still half-frozen pond, oblivious that if it had flown in just 10 minutes earlier it could have contributed to our record of the biodiversity of our garden!

chaffinchFull list and maximum number recorded at any one time: Blackbird 2, Blue tit 2, Chaffinch 9 (as large a number as I ever remember having seen in our garden), Dunnock 2, Goldfinch 8, Great tit 3, Greenfinch 2, Magpie 1, Nuthatch 1, Pheasant 1 male, 3 female, Robin 2.

RobinsThe two Robins that we saw today, one on the ground by the hedge and one visiting the feeder, were tolerant of each other so presumably they are a pair. Two of theblue tit Blue Tits flew over to the nest box, so perhaps they will be nesting before too long.


Snow Wood

snowTHERE’S BEEN snow on the ground for twelve days but it’s only at sunset, after a day of chores, that I’ve made any attempt to sketch it. As the light fades and the snow takes on a hint of a pinkish tone, as Blackbird gives its alarm call.

Today we’ve had Nuthatch and Treecreeper in the garden. Will they turn up tomorrow when we record our garden birds for the RSPB birdwatch?

In Search of Uncle Fred

A Google search soon turned up images of the steamship Tuinai.
A Google search soon turned up images of the steamship Tuinai (see links below). I’m guessing that Fred and Heather didn’t enjoy the opulent surroundings of the First Saloon.

WHATEVER HAPPENED to great uncle Fred?

Last summer, I found a 1901 census record for my great grandad, George Swift, his second wife Sarah Ann and their youngest son, my grandad, Maurice, then aged 24, living at 198, Hanover Street, Sheffield. Just as I’d expected; but I’d never heard any mention of their son Frederick James Swift, aged 36, also recorded on the form, who was then working as a ‘Stock Brokers Clerk CC’.

Time to phone someone who’d be sure to know;

‘Mum, you remember your Uncle Frederick? . . .’

What Uncle Frederick? I never had an Uncle Frederick. There was a George and a John . . .’

We’ve been puzzling over this mysterious missing uncle ever since. Taking census records as our starting point, we requested copies of the his certificate (19 October 1864), his marriage certificate (to Heather May Harrison, 30 April 1903) but after that he disappears. Reports of his death in 1914 proved to be exaggerated; it just happened that a Frederick Swift of the same age died in the same town in December of that year.

Swifts on Migration

Maurice Swift's note on the back of a photographLuckily, flipping over a photograph in an album, I discovered in a caption written by my grandad Maurice recording that ‘Fred Swift’ died on 8 July 1948, aged 84.

Having drawn a blank searching for death certificates in the British records, it dawned on us that we should try checking passenger lists. Within minutes on we discovered that Fred, then aged 61, and Heather, 52, had boarded the steam passenger ship Tainui at Southampton on 8 October 1926 and set sail for a new life in Wellington, New Zealand.

As a young girl, my mum remembers talk of an uncle who emigrated to New Zealand but she always assumed that this was her uncle John. Why were her uncle Fred and auntie Heather in New Zealand never mentioned?

I hope that I can find out a little more about their retirement in New Zealand. Perhaps Fred or Heather worked there for a while in Wellington when they arrived. Perhaps Heather had family out there already. Was my mum right after all and did great uncle John join them out there?

So why have we heard so little of great uncle John? Or John Bellman Thomson Swift, to give him his full name. I’ve requested his birth certificate and marriage certificate (to Lydia Coupland) which will hopefully provide some clues.


The steamship Tuinai was rescued from the breakers’ yard during the second world war and had a second incarnation as the Empire Trader. Falling behind in a trans-Atlantic convoy she was torpedoed by the U-boat Adof Oelrich.

In Sheffield Fred’s stepmother’s (my grandma’s) house received a direct hit in the Sheffield Blitz and she moved in with my grandad and grandma and my mum. I’m afraid that I’d have been with uncle Fred, setting sail for New Zealand as Europe started heading towards the next world war. But that’s with the benefit of hindsight. It was a big decision to make and I’d like to know more about how things turned out for Heather and Fred.

Tainui passenger list 1921Links; My thanks to the people who took the trouble to make postcards, poster and passenger lists for the Tuinai available online. It brings a previously unknown episode in my family history vividly to life.

Sources: Early Days in Kerikeri, Shaw Savill Line – Ocean Liners, Tainui passenger list 1921 (left), Shaw, Savill & Albion poster 1926-27 and the sinking of the Empire Trader., both of which have links to, which, as the name suggests you can use without a subscription.

Colours of Britain


GIVE OR TAKE a few colours that have been swapped around since, this is the box of Winsor & Newton’s artists’ watercolours that I took with me on a tour of England, Wales and Scotland, when I compiled my Britain sketchbook for Collins (1981). One review commented on ‘the brownish greenish charm’ of my sketches. That was partly due to my choice of colours, including so many greens and earth colours in my selection, but also because, in the mainly off season periods when I drew on location, Britain really does have a certain brownish greenish charm.

Rannoch Moor, July 1980, Britain sketchbook.One of my favourite pages was a double page spread of Rannoch Moor, where I let heather, bog and misty hills fill the entire field of view. You can’t get much more greenish brown than that! The book was printed on slightly tinted paper which muted the colour still further.

I scratched away at brown watercolour washes to suggest some of the lighter stems of rushes and the wake of a Water Vole, swimming across a peaty pool. I’d forgotten that Water Vole until I took the book off the shelf just now.

swatchesI can see why these colours appealed to me at the time. If I was making up a similar box today, I’d definitely include a cooler red – alizarin crimson for example. I’ve just added four colours that I happened to have spare, to fill in a few gaps. I could take a guess at the names of most of the remaining original colours – sap green, sepia, burnt sienna and so on – but at least painting these swatches familiarises me with the general layout.

Why have I dug out this battered old paintbox from the back of the watercolours drawer? I’ve got 4 art bags and one art passport wallet on the go at the moment, with sketchbooks ranging from postcard to place-mat in size but it’s frustrating when, like Goldilocks, I grab a bag that is ‘just right’ for the location I’m heading for, then later realise that I’ve forgotten to transfer the watercolours. Hopefully I’ll end up with 5 bags with a reasonable box of watercolours in each.

Loaf and Landscape

farmhouse loafAS I’M TRYING to get familiar with hills & dales of Yorkshire at the moment, it’s not surprising that this drawing of a farmhouse loaf has ended up looking like a landscape; I’m reminded of geologist P.F.Kendall’s description of the Cleveland Dome, gouged into by the deep dales of the North Yorks Moors, as resembling a ‘slashed doublet’ (doublet; a close-fitting medieval/Tudor jacket).


I’m currently enjoying making our own bread, partly inspired by our new oven (the old one was getting through an element every six months) but also our large Ikea beechwood worktop that is such a pleasure to work on.

At the moment I carefully weigh out the five ingredients of a farmhouse loaf into a mixing bowl;


  • four different kinds of flour, strong white, strong wholemeal, multi-seed or granary and rye
  • yeast
  • honey
  • warm water
  • a pinch of salt (less than the recipe suggests)

bread makingand, if I remember, a few extra mixed seeds. There’s no oil or margarine in this recipe.

Once I get familiar with the quantities, I’d like to try the method of making a circle of the flour on the worktop and adding the liquid until I get the right consistency.

Kneading the dough is a relaxing process and gives my arms and shoulders a much needed ten minute work-out. Something that I don’t get when I’m drawing or sitting at the computer.

Machine Made

breadmakerWe first started making homemade bread in a bread machine and did it that way for about ten years. It’s lovely to wake up in the morning to the smell of freshly baked bread but it’s a shame that apart from a little window in the machine you’re cut off from the process. You hear it clunking around as it mixes and kneads and it makes it seem a mysterious rather complicated and precise process.

food mixer

Two years ago we bought a food mixer with a dough hook and decided that was a simpler way to make bread. Getting so familiar with how the mixer handles the dough, we realised that the next step was to do the whole process by hand (and save a bit of washing up in the process).
If you miss out on the ‘knocking back’ process, you can produce a loaf in about an hour but the new oven has a rising setting so we knock the dough back after the first rising (in the oven) and let it rise again (out of the oven) as the oven heats up to 190°C.

knocking backKnocking back is part of the fun, as is slashing the dough with a sharp knife before the last rising. I like a cross for a round loaf and three slashes for a longer loaf.

Heading for the Hills

Northern England

DRAWING THIS 3D impression of northern England makes me realise how much hill country there is in my new extended study area, which now includes the whole of Yorkshire; Dales, North Yorks Moors, South Pennines and the Wolds. And I don’t intend to ignore the Lake District beyond the north west borders of the county and that for me still slightly mysterious area, the North Pennines, described by Professor Bellamy as ‘England’s Last Wilderness’.

We live a little below the centre of this map so unless we head due east towards the Humber estuary, we’re going to be heading for the hills after an hour or so’s driving in whatever direction we set out.

My current initial research reading is The Naturalists’ Yorkshire compiled by members of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, published in 1971. This is the second time that I’ve read it, as it was background reading when I worked on my Sketchbook of the Natural History of Wakefield as a student.

It starts with a succinct summary of the geology and structure of Yorkshire which at the time, introducing places and rock formations that I’d never seen, was difficult to grasp. Having spent seven years writing and researching Yorkshire Rock, a journey through time, it now makes sense to me.

The details that I still find a little difficult to visualise are features like the Market Weighton Upwarp, one of the major structural features of east Yorkshire which huge influence on the surrounding geology, and has done since the Jurassic period but which is invisible, except by inference, from the surface.

xplane screenshot
Somewhere near Staithes, screenshot of the VFR Photo Scenery for north east England on Xplane 10.

I’m soon going to get the opportunity to pilot a small Cessna around the county, not in reality you’ll be pleased to hear, but in the virtual environment of the flight simulator Xplane 10. As I write this my computer is halfway through loading VFR Photo Scenery for north east England. This includes detailed aerial photography from Getmapping, who ten or fifteen years ago sent four aircraft off to compile a photographic atlas of Britain.

I’ve got a copy of the atlas which comes in its own attaché case but I’ve never used it as much as I thought I would. Having a three dimensional, interactive version of the same, or rather updated, imagery seems a much better way of getting to know the lie of the land.

Fresh Page

cloudsTHE START OF THE NEW YEAR feels like opening a new sketchbook; a fresh white page to fill with whatever takes my interest.

My Dalesman nature diary for JanuaryDalesman January issueThis year I’m going to be focussing on the Yorkshire Dales because I’ve just started writing the nature diary for the Yorkshire Dalesman magazine. My new feature gets a mention on the Dalesman website;

‘Wild Yorkshire
Richard Bell hits the ground running as he gets ready to watch wildlife in the new year’

That sums up the way I feel today.

This new monthly column is all the excuse that I need to explore a National Park that Barbara and I tend to ignore. If we’ve got only a day we tend to head for the Peak National Park, if we’ve got a few days we zoom through the Dales on our way to the Lake District National Park or we head for our favourite stretch of coast where the North Yorks Moors National Park meets the sea.
male goosanderIt’s one of those New Year’s days which make you feel as if a new chapter is opening. It’s bright, cool and breezy. We don’t seem to have seen much sun over the Christmas period or any that we had, I missed.

The river isn’t in flood but it is lapping around the trunks of the willows that grow on a low silty bank by the bridge. A male Goosander, looking as freshly painted as a decoy duck, dives amongst them.


There’s some soft but insistent tapping on the patio windows. The cock Pheasant is back. I can’t tell whether he’s pecking at his own reflection or picking little fragments of spent sunflower seeds from the glass.

pheasant, great tit and blackbird