Cannon Hall Farm Sketches

Gadwall & Grebe

gadwall sketchesgadwall upendingI’M IN LUCK as one of the ducks that I’d like to get more familiar with is there just in front of the hide at Pugneys reserve lake; I sketch a pair of gadwall dabbling and occasionally upending.

gadwall dabbling

The male looks plain grey but when I get the binoculars on him the finely striped breast comes into focus. The female looks rather like a female mallard.

Tufted, Shoveller & Pochard

tufteds ducks


Most of the other ducks are resting. Pochard and tufted duck outnumber the gadwalls by about a hundred to one but all of them are resting, head tucked beneath the wing. Occasionally they’ll all move away from the willowy bank, perhaps because they become aware of a dog passing by on the nearby path.

tufted ducks

tufted duckThey’re not adopting the sort of pose that would be useful in a field guide but I do my best to get the head-tucked-in pose down on paper and to take in their general shape and proportion.

They turn around as they float so that isn’t as straightforward as you might think that it should be.

shovellersThe shoveller are more active and a small group of males and females crosses the lake, helpfully keeping that field guide pose as they move.


Inevitably my eye is drawn to the striking plumage of the drakes.



grebe winter plumageI’m not used to seeing the great-crested grebe at this time of year so I take notes about its appearance and check it against the book later.

Usually we see them out on the middle of a lake where they seem larger. This one, that diving close to the hide, didn’t seem much larger thangrebe diving the black-headed gull which was following it around probably with the intention of stealing any tiddler that it might catch.

grebe preeningThe grebe is a white as a penguin beneath when it turns to preen its breast between dives.

The Search for Truelove

Railway advertisement
The York Herald

I LOVE A GOOD detective story and it’s the detective work involved in researching a family tree that makes it so fascinating. The end result is interesting too, but if you had it handed to you on a plate you’d miss out on the fun and the frustration.

Sheffield IndependentBirths and deaths, marriages and census returns give you the bare bones but I like anything that gives me a sideways look at my ancestors, that pops up some tiny detail of their everyday lives that I never imagined that I’d discover.

Any kind of crime is welcome; not for the distress it gave my ancestors of course, but for the intimate details that come out in the testimonies of victim, accused and witnesses which would otherwise have gone unrecorded.

Nineteenth Century Newspapers

newspaper search

Wakefield libraries offer online access to the British Library collection of nineteenth century newspapers. Twenty years ago, before computers came in, I tried going through a run of Victorian copies of The Wakefield Express to try and find reports of the early days of Wakefield Naturalists’ Society, then the Wakefield Natural History and Philosophical Society, but after an hour or two of page turning I came up with nothing.

This morning I’m having a session tracing one line of my family, the Trueloves of Sheffield, that, over three or four generations always included a Joseph.


In seconds I can scan through thousands of pages of complete runs of Victorian newspapers in the British Library collections and turn up stories that I would otherwise stand no chance of stumbling across.

I’m currently reading the details of a charge of larceny brought against my great, great, great grandfather, referred to in the reports as Joseph Truelove senior and one of his sons of the same name. I’ll tell you the whole story later but don’t panic, they were both acquitted (or I might have been writing this from Australia as in 1847 transportation was still an option).

Historical Themes

There’s a quote from The Go-Between, ‘the past is a different place’ and I must say that I feel a bit guilty that I just dip into it as though it was a different place, kind of theme park, but to enjoy your visits to the past and feel the emotional tug of a personal connection seems to me a good way to learn a lot about it, to connect all those bits and pieces that you picked up at school or from television documentaries.

Game licence list

But, as I browse through the pages brought up in my search results, certain aspects of the past do look as if they’ve been put together by the overenthusiastic designers of a historical theme park

I love the Birmingham and Derby Junction advertisement (top) on the front page of The York Herald, 10 October 1840, inviting interested parties to deliver Tenders to the Company’s Office. The little engraving features two men in a tender urging on their loco enthusiastically.

And the notice of Joseph (senior, I guess) obtaining a game certificate appears right next to an advertisement for the latest bestseller by Charles Dickens, an author so well-known that they don’t even need to mention his name in the advertisement.

If I’d been concocting a historical newspaper I would never have put that in, it would seem too contrived, like having an Elizabethan character in a novel saying ‘I say, have you seen the new play by William Shakespeare?’

But I better stop getting distracted and continue my search for Truelove . . .

My Dr Who Diary

Lett's Schoolboy's Diary

I’M ONE of the generation who can remember where they were when they heard the news of the assassination of  President Kennedy (just returned from the Friday evening church youth group) fifty years ago but I’d forgotten that the following day saw a happier event when the first episode of Dr Who was broadcast.

Dr WhoI’m travelling back along my own timeline by digging out my 1963 Lett’s Schoolboy’s Diary from the attic. Unfortunately the only event that I recorded for November that year was bonfire night. Not very helpful in building up a picture of the era.

My shiny new 1964 diary.
My shiny new 1964 diary.

I didn’t get into my stride with a diary until the following year but when, aged twelve, I started so enthusiastically (I dropped the colour after 3 weeks) we were still mid-way through the first series of Dr Who so a Dalek appears in my entry for Saturday 4 January;

‘Doctor Who was good today’.

I hadn’t quite got the hang of critical reviewing. In the previous year on the ‘Films seen during the year’ page of my diary I’d summed up Ben-Hur as ‘a good film’ but Tarzan goes to India got a more in-depth review; ‘some excellent elephant shots’. No wonder big screen spectaculars made such an impression on me as television was still 405 lines and black and white. But, as you can see from my postage stamp-sized sketch, the new science fiction series was a hit with me and I could imagine it bursting into colour.

At the barber's, 4 January.
At the barber’s, 2 January.

Unfortunately I no longer have two pieces of Dr Who memorabilia from the 1970s and 80s. One was a sketch that I made of one of the later Doctors, Sylvester McCoy, at a book awards event , the other a copy of Dr Who script editor Terrance Dicks’ paperback guide to the first ten years of the series. But where those two items ended up suggests the effect of the show on the creative imagination of children.

I’d asked Sylvester McCoy to sign the sketch for my nephew Damian, who was Dr Who mad and who would often wear a dressing gown and an extra long scarf, like his hero. And occasionally a piece of celery in his button-hole like Peter Davison’s Dr Who.

3 January, using my chemistry set, a Christmas gift from my parents.
3 January, using my chemistry set, a Christmas gift from my parents.

Damian has apologised to me for losing the sketch years ago! But he is now an architect so if you think you can detect a Cyberman or Dalekian influence in a building, it could be one of his.

The paperback went to Wilfrid, the son of one of my art college tutors, who sometimes quizzed me about the early episodes as he could remember only as far back as Jon Pertwee. Wilfrid went on to create puppets for Spitting Image including an irradiated sea monster for the French version of the show which wouldn’t have been out of place in Dr Who.

The fondly remembered American science fiction series The Outer Limits also features in my diary. Much as I appreciated the Doctor, I liked the slicker (for the time) production values of The Outer Limits and I liked the way that, as a series rather than a serial, you would find yourself in a completely different imaginative world with each one hour episode.

The Beverley Hillbillies

The Beverley Hillbillies Television shows feature a lot in the diary including including The Beverley Hillbillies (Friday 4 January). The six o’clock comedy slot on ITV, which included such series as My Favourite Martian, Mr Ed and Petticoat Junction, was a feature of week-day evenings; a break between school, tea and an evening session homework. pen

Some things never change. January 4: ‘I did my homework with my new pen (3/6).’

Half a century later my search for the perfect pen, the one that’s going to improve my handwriting and my drawing, continues.

My fascination with any technology which would help me to see the world around me in a different way had already started too;

Looking out over the railway and Storrs Hill road.

2 January; ‘I went on a walk over Storrs [hill] down to Horbury Bridge. Tested telescope.’


This was a pocket-sized telescope/microscope but the sky was the limit as far as my ambitions were concerned and later in the year I saved up to buy a reflecting telescope kit (£7 from Charles Frank’s of Glasgow).

I remember the thrill of seeing the tiny points of light of the stars come into focus scattered against the inky blackness; that feeling of looking into the depths of space. And of course back in time too . . . perhaps the light from some of those stars had been travelling for fifty years . . .

15 September 1964; ‘Got 50 lines ughh! for not backing book. Did homework. At 8.15 pointed (with Mum’s help) the telescope at the moon. My mother pushed up the mirror too far and out of focus. Eventually we got it focussed. You could see the craters. With Dad out we looked at starfields invisible to eye.’

Mallards and Beech Mast

Top end of Newmillerdam woods this afternoon.
Top end of Newmillerdam woods this afternoon.

WE WERE surprised to see so many Mallards, about 50 of them, in the wood at Newmillerdam this afternoon, feeding under beech trees on the slope above the eastern shore of the lake. It has evidently been a good year for beechmast.


moorhen in MidgleyAnd talking of water-birds in uncharacteristic places, we passed a moorhen, pecking at the turf of the grass verge on the double-bend by the Black Bull at Midgley. I imagine that there must be a pond hidden away somewhere nearby.


goosandersThat was on Saturday and on Saturday morning, before breakfast, I had the best bird tick that I’ve ever had while sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea; four goosanders flew across our street, heading towards the Calder.

Although they were a hundred yards or more away, the low morning sun picked out the blocky ‘black and white’ pattern on their underwings. My first thought, even though I knew it was wrong, was Shelduck but a quick look through the book proved that the goosander is the only duck with the white wing-square that I’d seen. Other ducks tend to have streaks or bands of white running along the wing. Even its close relative the Red-breasted Merganser differs slightly by having the white wing-square divided by black line.

goosandersApart from the Mallard, the Goosander is the duck that I see most often on the Calder.

November Woods

Newmillerdam woodsNewmillerdam country park, 9.30 a.m., LIGHTING CHANGES so quickly. In the minute or two that it took to take out my camera, a bank of clouds had risen, dulling the dappled autumnal sidelighting of the path.

By that time the couple with the dog who I thought would add scale to the picture had disappeared so far into the perspective that they look more like Borrowers than hobbits in my picture.

The peacocks at Charlotte’s ice cream parlour, Whitley, have moulted their long tail feathers and are now starting to regrow them. As you can see these are tail-coverts; the stiff tail feathers themselves come down below the rail.

This effect is exaggerated because the only way that I had to steady my camera was to rest it on my knee. The low angle flattens the path which, if I’d been able to take the photograph from eye level, would have led the eye into the composition.


Walton Hall Watercolour Workshop

Walton Hall lake

A GEORGIAN country house on an island in a lake surrounded by parkland, Walton Hall, near Wakefield, is a great location for a watercolour workshop and we’re glad of the comfortable shelter the cafe offers as it rains heavily all morning.

Walton Hall

I was asked to lead the workshop last month as part of the Walton Arts Festival.



A beginner has brought along a brand new box of watercolours but doesn’t know where to start.

sable brushWith any new set of watercolours I like to paint a page of swatches. This helps me familiarise myself with the layout of the box and gives me practice in mixing the range of colours included. It’s useful practice for painting  smooth, graduated washes, the basis of watercolour technique.

Cotman watercolours

Some colours behave better than others when it comes to giving a smooth transition. I have several ‘wash backs’ where a colour runs back into the previous wash. Earthy colours such as yellow ochre have a tendency to go a bit spotty. But if you want perfection you might as well add the colour in Photoshop. These limitations are part of the medium, so you need to use watercolours enough to feel comfortable with them.

As usual when I’m working with beginners, I find myself encouraging students to add a bit more water to their washes. I can see the attraction of plastering on the pigment with such bijou watercolour boxgorgeous colours on offer but the luminosity of watercolour comes from letting the white of the paper show through a transparent or semi-transparent wash, giving a sense of light and atmosphere which wouldn’t be quite the same in oils or acrylics.

Thumbnail Layouts

pencil 3b

The rain eased off a little after lunch and we found shelter from a cool wind under the back porch. I often feel that I learn as much from the students as they do from me and today it was a request for a session on pencil and watercolour that prompted me to have a change from my habitual pen and watercolour.

thumbnail sketchThe panorama of lake, woods and hillside, not to mention a foreground of flowerbeds, urns, chairs and tables gives us a little bit too much in the way of subject matter. I explain that one way to tackle an overcomplicated scene like this is to draw a two-minute matchbox-sized thumbnail of your composition, rather than simply start in one corner (as I admit I often do) and commit to a full-size two hour sketch from the start.

Working with a soft 4B pencil on the cartridge paper of my sketchbook gives a tonal effect. Adding a simple watercolour wash gives an instant impression of how the finished drawing might turn out.

lime green sketchbook

I like this quick method so much that I try a second thumbnail, this time in letterbox format (top of page). It’s just as well that I am working quickly because even in this sheltered spot after an hour we’re getting chilled through and it’s time to adjourn to the cafe, take a look at the day’s sketches and discuss what we’ve learnt and how we might take that further.

Taster Session


A good place to finish and it was a good place to start too. The first task that I set when we started this morning was to draw a scone . . . then eat it. A chance to briefly introduce the basics of drawing and adding watercolour without the challenge of changing light, shimmering water and masses of foliage that we’d be face when we turned to the view from the Hall.

Link; Walton Hall & the Waterton Park Hotel.

Pan Rustica

pan rusticaIF YOU want to make a pan rustica you need to start 24 hours ahead. This rustic Spanish loaf uses a yeast starter to give extra flavour; dried yeast, a little sugar, warm water and, when it starts frothing, flour. Left in a bowl covered with cling film overnight it smells slightly of fermenting beer in the morning.

It’s half way to being a sourdough, so when I’ve tried this recipe a few times I might feel ready for the week-long process of developing a sourdough starter.

You add the starter to a straightforward bread mix, plus a little more yeast to give it some extra rise.

This results in a  sticky dough. I’m following the recipe from The Hairy Bikers’ European Bakeation television series and they advise you to resist the temptation to add extra flour, which I would have done by the fistful. As they emphasise throughout the series, the softer the dough, the lighter the loaf and the slower the process, the more the flavour develops.

The advantage of having watched the series, rather than just reading the method, is that I remember that even the hefty Simon King struggled with this dough. It sticks to the worktop but I remember his action of pushing the gloopy mass forward with the ball of his hand and pulling it back in with his fingers.

This pulling back helps trap air in the dough. After the first rising you gently stretch and fold the dough back on itself three times to trap more air in it.

pan rusticaI was surprised how much it rose during its 20 minutes in a hot oven, 240°C.

I’ve always wanted to get this variety of texture in a loaf, with a variety of bubble sizes. The loaf that I usually bake has a regular texture.

It’s softer and not as nutty as our regular farmhouse loaf which has more wholemeal flour in it and mixed grains. But it has a pleasantly rustic flavour . The fermented character doesn’t dominate but it’s there in the background.

Link Hairy Bikers’ pan rustica recipe.