Out Like a Lion

wheelie binsNo dawn chorus this morning or if there is we’re not going to hear above the whistling, rattling wind but at 4.30 we hear the recycling bin, which we’ve put out on the pavement, blow over. I don’t want any paperwork I might have put in there blowing down the road so I pull on some jeans and grab my jacket and wedge it back under the lamp-post.  But it blows over again 15 minute later so I have to trot out again and bring back to the shelter of the porch until breakfast time.


buzzard I-SpybuzzardA buzzard circles above the wood then heads over the meadow and garden towards the house. Looking up through my sloping roof-light window I can see it almost vertically overhead as it passes over my studio, the pancake patterns beneath its wing picked out by the afternoon sun.

However many times I see it fly over, I don’t think that I’ll ever get over the excitement that I feel when I see a buzzard. Even when it’s flying over our suburban street, that circling silhouette conjures up wild places for me.

I-Spy BirdsI saw my first buzzard in the Lake District, aged nine, on Wednesday 31 August 1960. I know the date because I still have the I-Spy Birds booklet that I started on that holiday.

I-Spy BirdsBirds of prey in general made a big impression on me, so much so that I chose them as the subject for a school project.

Birds of Prey

 Aged of nine or ten I already had big ideas about the kind of books that I’d like to write and illustrate. The gold label and ambitious title suggest that I was aiming for something authoritative.

I was struggling to work out how to produce the stand-out illustrations that I saw in books and on the Brooke Bond tea cards that I collected. Using large hogs-hair brushes and school powder paints wasn’t going to help.

from my Birds of Prey booklet
There’s some evidence in this handwriting of the essential tremor that I remember having since age seven. No wonder I’ve always found drawing and writing something of a challenge.

The method used for teaching joined-up writing or ‘real writing’ at my junior school was to keep the pen in contact with the paper throughout the word then go back to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. By the age of nine I’d already given up this method for my personal projects, preferring more compact block capitals which allowed me to fit my text in amongst my drawings. 
Observer's Book of BirdsI treasured a copy of The Observer’s Book of British Birds which I kept in my gabardine pocket, even though it was unlikely that I’d spot a Montagu’s harrier or a Dartford warbler in the school playground.

buzzardUnfortunately I found myself unable to emulate Archibald Thorburn’s elegant illustrations in the wax crayons available to me in Mr Lindley’s class. But I’ve added my own touch with the background; the Lakeland hills and crag where I’d recently seen that first buzzard.

Sunday morning with Scrivener

using Scrivener
Full screen distraction-free writing in Scrivener.

 I like to keep things as simple as possible, which why I’ve pared down the pens and watercolours in my art bag to the bare minimum. It’s the same with writing. You might assume that pen and paper would be the ultimate in simplicity but if you’re like me and you go over and over your text trying to make it clearer and more succinct you can end up with an almost illegible mess of crossings out and rewrites.

Notes for my 'Walks around Ossett' booklet.
Notes written while researching my ‘Walks around Ossett’ booklet.

Lamy Safari fountain pen

Of course I’m talking about writing for books and magazines here; this online diary has to be more rough and ready!


Corkboard view in Scrivener
Corkboard view in Scrivener

My favourite program for distraction-free writing is Scrivener, from Literature and Latte, the people behind the Scapple mind-mapping program that I was using yesterday. Scrivener enables you to bring together your research and rough drafts. A useful option is the corkboard with post-it notes representing each section. You can easily rearrange them to improve the flow of your story.

This morning I’ve got my Onward Christian Soldiers Scapple mind-map propped up in front of my iMac and I’m writing a rough draft of each of the aspects of the story. I’m in distraction-free mode because I don’t want to get bogged down with my research. I’ll come back to that later when I’ve got the flow of the story established. If I can’t get readers hooked, all those names, dates and places won’t be of much interest anyway.

Over the last month I’ve occasionally updated friends on how I’m getting on with my article – the equivalent of an elevator pitch – and I find myself going back to certain vivid anecdotes. It’s a good test that if I find a story interesting, my Dalesman readers will probably find it interesting too.

pencil 3b


Scrivener is described by Literature and Latte as ‘your complete writing studio’ but it’s worth going for Scapple too you’re doing a lot of research and brainstorming.

Sabine’s Mission Impossible

Scapple NotesmissionI’ve been writing my Wild Yorkshire nature diary for the Dalesman for more than two years but the article that I’m working on now for the 150th anniversary of the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers is rather different and I’m struggling a bit to decide what approach I should use. I’ve used a program called Scapple to pull my ideas together. Scapple is like a looser version of Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping technique where you start with one idea and make all kinds of connections to it.

Baring GouldCertain aspects of the story stand out vividly for me; the encounter between Sabine Baring Gould (who wrote the hymn) and local tough guy ‘Old Nut’. Or the way meetings in the upstairs Mission room were sometimes interrupted by street urchins throwing stones or even dead cats through the window.

old nutI like the way that Baring Gould later used his literary talents to exact a fitting revenge on ‘Old Nut’s’ favourite pub, The Horse and Jockey. In his novel Through Fire and Flood, which is based on his experiences at the ‘Brig’, he has the pub swept away in a flood. He evidently derived so much satisfaction from this literary method of settling old scores that he introduced a thinly disguised version of The Horse and Jockey into a later novel, The Pennycomequicks, and, would you believe it, it too gets swept away again by the raging waters of the River Calder!


Scapple, the mind-mapping program, seems very versatile. I printed out my mind-map and added the cartoons by hand.


Smeath House

Smeath HouseSmeath HouseSmeath House, Horbury, my home for twenty years, right through my school and art college days, went on the market today. Looking at Tim Baker’s photographs in the brochure, I can see that the ambience of the place had an effect on the way my work developed. Aged nine, I filled an exercise book with sketches and nature notes including a map of the birds I saw around the shrubberies and lawns.

I can see why I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorian period, surrounded as I was by so many period features. In the 1960s there were still people around, my grandparents for instance, who grew up in the last days of Victorian England. Our era seemed rather colourless and mundane compared with the world of Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

Grandma and Grandad Bell at Smeath. They met at the celebrations for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.
Grandma and Grandad Bell visiting us at Smeath. They met at the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

The house was built by the Baines family who were worsted spinners with mills in the valley below. There’s a box-shaped bay window on the west-facing corner of Smeath House which my brother imagines Richard Baines standing at early each morning to check that his foreman had stoked up the fire for the steam engine that drove the machinery.

We met Enid Baines, a daughter of the family, in the late 1950s or early 1960s when she revisited Smeath House. Her mum was then aged 100 but didn’t come with her. I would love to have seen any family photographs showing Smeath House in its Victorian heyday.


Smeath House, Hodsons estate agents

Smeath House Flipbook looks so attractive, I wish that I could afford to make an offer!

Tim Baker Photography

Wood Street Roofline

roof windowA coffee break drawing from Marmalade, Cross Square, Wakefield of a Dutch or Flemish style attic window of the building at the end of Wood Street which for many years was a branch of Barclays Bank. There are impressive terra cotta panels on the facade and the dates 1810 and a later date (1870?) which must refer to a rebuild.

The Stables at ‘the Brig’

The long disused Crown Court at the top end of Queen Street is at last getting restored but it looks as if, for a humbler building back at Horbury Bridge, time is running out. A builder’s fence appearing just before a weekend around the old stables or barn next to the Ship Inn at Horbury Bridge might be a sign that they’re going to demolish it, to make way for a proposed convenience store.

It sounds a bit cynical but I always assume the worst because tree-felling and demolition of historic buildings often seems to take place over a weekend, sometimes a bank holiday weekend, when it’s impossible to get in touch with the local authority. I’m still waiting for a planning officer to get back to me, to clarify what might be going on*.

Horbury Bridge
Horbury Bridge

As I’m researching an article for the Dalesman about the first performance of the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers at Horbury Bridge, I’m interested in the history of the ‘Brig’. Local historian Christine Cudworth tells me that these stables have a unique kind of ladder in them. The land that they are built on formerly belonged to Horbury’s centuries old charity, The Common Lands Trust. The building has a slate roof so I’m guessing that it’s not as old as the Ship Inn next door which has a stone flagged roof.

I'm sorry that I missed photographing the old stables a couple of weeks ago. They've gone now unfortunately.
I’m sorry that I missed photographing the old stables a couple of weeks ago. They’ve gone now unfortunately.

Latest news; Wakefield planning department got back to me and explained that although the present scheme requests permission to demolish the stables, the developers had applied in 2014 for permission to demolish and, after due consideration, that was approved, so they didn’t need any further permission to proceed this weekend, even though their latest proposal has yet to be considered.

I vaguely remember seeing a planning notice last year but was so busy because of mum’s illness that I didn’t make any comments on the proposal. I’ll photograph what’s left of the stables – if there is anything by now – next time I pass.

* I’m impressed that Wakefield planning department got back to me on the Sunday afternoon.

The Woman over the Window

caryatidThere are carved heads on keystones above the entrance and the windows of this Venetian palace style branch of the Wakefield and Barnsley Union Bank (now occupied by Barclays) built in Ossett in 1870. The Santa Claus lookalike above the door seems to be a portrait, perhaps of the first manager, but this woman over the window has classical proportions and probably represents a mythological figure.

The man in a winged helmet over another window is probably Mercury but it would be nice to think that he was Osla the Viking, who, according to one interpretation of the town’s name, settled at ‘Osla’s seat’ or ‘Osla’s ridge camp’ a century and a half before the Battle of Hastings.


eothenI remember as a child coming across this 1932 Methuen’s English Classic edition of Eothen by Alexander William Kinglake in the bookcase amongst my parents’ old books. It looked rather impenetrable but it’s actually a colourful traveller’s tale of a tour of the Middle East in 1834.

This copy is peppered with pencilled notes, underlined passages and notes for revision but with, no name inscribed on the endpapers, I was beginning to wonder if it really had belonged to my father. Then I spotted ‘R.D.BELL’ pencilled in block capitals across the bottom of the book.

It was destined for the charity shop but because of the family connection I’ll hang on to it. Perhaps some day I’ll read it.

snooker sketchsnookerIn 1932 my father would have been thirteen or fourteen years old and attending what is now High Storrs School in Sheffield. He didn’t always have his mind on English literature. Two drawings seem to indicate that at times he would rather have been playing snooker. As far as I know these two doodles are the only drawings of his that survive.

Whenever he decided to draw for us it was always the same thing; a cup and saucer with the light shining from the left. I’ve since discovered that there’s a connection between John Ruskin and that perennial favourite cup and saucer drawing of my dad’s. Ruskin was involved in setting up educational institutions in Sheffield. He believed that we would all benefit from drawing every day but far from that being a mad half hour of creativity he believed that we should learn the skills that would help us depict the world around us. The cup and saucer drawn in a sidelight was one of the exercises that he recommended.

In 1932 there would still have been teachers around who were part of that Ruskinian educational initiative.

The Old Bazaar in Cairo

Revision listThis list of revision notes on the front endpapers of Eothen is poignant. Ten years later, as a military policeman, my dad’s beat around Cairo as a special investigations officer included the pyramids (and, less glamorously, the Sweet Water Canal). I still have the pass that allowed him leave to visit Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

The bazaar must have been familiar to him. Prior to his transfer to the military police, when travelling in the desert, his Bofors gun anti-aircraft unit in the Royal Artillery acquired a reputation for fair trading amongst the Arabs so they always had the first offers of provisions – such as fresh eggs – from the locals.

He brought a pebble back from the Dead Sea which I vaguely remember being kept in the top ‘secret drawer’ of the chest of drawers in our bedroom. What happened to it, I’m not sure, although father believed that we children had lost it when playing with it. If we came across it now, I’m not sure how we would recognise it as anything special.

Green Spire

pigeonlimeThe lime trees in the gardens of Victorian villas in Horbury are characteristically tall and columnar in shape. When they need to be replaced the tree officer for the local council requests varieties which have a similar shape; Tilia cordata ‘Rancho’ or Tilia cordata ‘Green Spire’.

heatherOrnamental heathers are now bringing some early spring colour into gardens.


frankieYou wouldn’t want to mess with this guy. As he’s one of two bronzed characters looking out from the kitchen in Frankie & Benny’s, I’m assuming that this must be Frankie.

He’s part of the late 1940s, early 1950s New York Italian decorative scheme. The retro soundtrack at breakfast-time (we shared maple syrup pancakes with bacon) includes Tell Laura I Love Her. The music pulls a thread in my memory. I can picture myself in a coffee bar in Carlisle on a family holiday to Scotland and the Lake District, aged nine, in 1960, listening to the Ricky Valance version, which was number one in the singles chart for three weeks.

carlisle 1960In this 1950s ambience, I feel as if I’m being regressed under hypnosis. I have an impression that we were eating soup (cream of mushroom?) from white pyrex bowls somewhere towards the back of the long and airy coffee bar.