3 p.m., 42ºF, 7ºC: This molehill appeared a week or two ago exactly in the middle of our back lawn. We could see it growing, like a mini-volcano erupting, but we were never able to spot the creature making it. A robin eyed the growing pile and flew over to perch and peck on it.
As it was directly under the fat ball feeder which hangs from the washing line we did at first consider that it might be a brown rat digging a bolt hole as close as possible to a source of food but no exit holes ever appeared so this is a subterranean creature; it must be a mole. At the moment there are plenty of molehills just like this on grass verges and alongside the woodland path.
I’ll rake out the soil and spread some grass seed over it. The tunnel will help improve drainage beneath what becomes a mossy lawn over the winter and the excavations will help recycle nutrients in the lower layers of the soil.
Wetherby Town Hall is like the town hall you’d find in an old fashioned children’s story or a Wallace & Gromit adventure but, despite the doll’s house simplicity of its facade, I always find it difficult to get just the right angle when I’m drawing the pediment.
As it’s such a symmetrical building, drawing the facade is like drawing a portrait and small changes in an angle can change the expression on its ‘face’.
It’s a problem that I don’t mind coming back to. I drew the window during our coffee break – which included a wholemeal scone and honey – at Filmore & Union on the way to Knaresborough yesterday and the pediment after a walk by the River Wharfe at brunch today – when I opted for the healthy pancakes with coconut milk, seasonal fruit, maple syrup and Greek yoghurt.
Knaresborough Castle, North Yorkshire: ‘Why would they keep ravens at a castle?’ I ask Isabella, Her Majesty’s Keeper of the Ravens, Duchy of Lancaster, ‘because they did from back in medieval times?’
She explains that there is no documentary evidence to suggest that anyone was paid specifically for the role at the Tower of London in medieval times; it appears to be a story told by the Victorians to visitors to the Tower but perhaps they had some inkling of a genuine tradition.
There are plenty of legends; ravens were sacred to Brân the Blessed of Celtic legend whose head was said to have been buried on Tower Hill, long before William the Conquerer built his bastion there. There’s a nice story that the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, begged Charles II to employ someone to control the ravens at the Tower that were leaving their droppings on his telescope.
Perhaps ravens were valued for the work they did in scavenging around castles.
3 p.m., 38ºF, 4ºC: This old ash tree grows by a gravelly section of Coxley Beck. It would be more usual to find a willow or an alder growing with its roots in the water but the stream may have changed course since this ash sprouted from an ash key, probably getting on for a hundred years ago.
A blackbird forages under hollies on the bank behind me; a wren investigates the undergrowth alongside the path; long-tailed tits and blue tits check out the tree canopy; and wood pigeons coo monotonously in the tree tops.
It’s a good time of year to start trying to learn bird songs and one that I always struggle with is the dunnock. It doesn’t belt out its song like the wren and it’s not as clear and wistful as the robin; it just hurries through a short jingle. I try to remember the song by sketching it as a series of notes.
‘a not unmusical hurried jingle of notes, shorter in duration and less powerful than the Wren’s.’
Alan J Richards, British Birds, A Field Guide
In the Complete Birds of Britain and Europe, Rob Hume describes the song as ‘quick, slightly flat, high-pitched, fast warble with little contrast or variation in pitch.’ That verdict sounds like a lukewarm put-down from one of the judges on a television talent contest.
Stoneycliffe Wood, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve, 3.30 p.m., 39ºF, 4ºC: The only flowers showing on the woodland floor so far are the spikes of male flowers on dog’s mercury. The inconspicuous female flowers are on separate plants. Dog’s mercury is a member of the spurge family.
In south-facing hedge-banks, lesser celandine is already in flower but here in the wood so far there are only a few heart-shaped leaves.
The larger leaves in the bottom right corner of my drawing are ground elder. Ground elder was introduced to this country by the Romans who cooked the leaves like spinach. While the right-hand leaf of the ground elder has been well nibbled there is very little sign of damage to the leaves of the dog’s mercury which, like the spurge, is poisonous.
The stem of the bush in the top right corner of my drawing is elder, another plant with similar looking leaves. Glossy bluebell leaves are springing up but wood anemone and wood sorrel have yet to appear.
A robin is singing, a wood pigeon calling and pheasants are grockling.
‘Did I hear the man on the phone describe this hill as Cardiac Hill’, I ask three passing dog walkers.
‘No I’ve never heard that one!’
‘It would be a good name’, I suggest, ‘the way it gets steeper and steeper as you get towards the top.’
I return to finish my drawing of the old ash stump. It is growing on a south-facing bank that is supported by a drystone wall. The small rabbit is back, same time, same place: on the grassy slope next to the tree.
Yesterday I also made a note of magpie, wood pigeon and of two long-tailed tits investigating the branches of the adjacent hawthorn and sycamore. A robin was flitting about and perching on a parking sign.
2.25 p.m., 43ºF, 8ºC, still and sunny: I spotted this ash stump growing on an old stone embankment wall when we visited the Go Outdoors store, Middlestown, yesterday. I’d gone looking for grippy gloves because the welt on the fingerless mittens that I’ve been using gets uncomfortable if you’re drawing for a while. My knuckles have been getting red and raw, drawing when it’s close to freezing.
I found the various gloves with gripper pads a bit cumbersome but we spotted some in pure silk which aren’t the warmest available as they’re mainly intended as lining gloves but they’re better than having exposed fingers. It’s easy to grip pen, water-brush and paintbox.
I found myself rushing to complete my drawing of Caphouse Beck yesterday so, today, when I sketch the rabbit which suddenly runs up the grassy bank and check my watch to record the time, I decide that I should allow myself more time so I’ll return tomorrow to finish off and add colour.
2 p.m., 40ºF, 5ºC: Caphouse beck is coloured by ochre which I suspect might come from old mine workings.
A grey squirrel climbs into the trees to cross the stream where the branches of the willows meet.
I find that I’m rushing to complete my watercolour in the time that I’ve allowed myself and it doesn’t help that on my three-legged stool I keep feeling rather unstable as I perch on the the steep bank by the beck! I withdraw to a more level vantage point halfway up the slope when it comes to adding the watercolour.
43ºF, 8ºC, 10.15 a.m.: In the back garden a robin is singing; a pair of magpies call raucously; a blackbird splutters in alarm and house sparrows chirp continuously from the hedges.
A fragment of shrivelled crab apple drops on my sketchbook, then another. There’s a male blackbird seven feet above my head in the branches of the golden hornet. Blackbirds and thrushes prefer the fruit after the first frosts of winter, when it has started turning brown.
It’s warm enough for me to spot a bluebottle investigating the snowdrops which are now in flower in foamy strands along by the hedge in the meadow area and here by the raised bed behind the pond.
I’ve been reading up on botany recently: the petals and sepals of the snowdrop appear identical so, as in other monocots, they are called tepals. The leaves don’t appear to grow from a stem but there is a short squat stem which lies hidden in the bulb.
2.30 p.m., 13ºC, 55ºF, blustery winds and continuous showers from the west: Forty or fifty black-headed gulls flock down when children scatter breadcrumbs by the semi-permanent puddle alongside the duck pond at Thornes Park. I spot only one gull with the full chocolate brown mask of its summer plumage; some have just a dark dot behind the eye, others are at a halfway stage.
I draw a gull in flight which has a black band at the end of its tail but when I look up again every gull has a pure white tail. I’m start to think that I must have been mistaken but I must have seen a juvenile which – so my field guide tells me – does have a black band at the end of its tail. The colour of the feet and of the bill also vary between adults and juveniles.
It’s such a dull rainy afternoon and I’m sheltering in the car putting the wipers on a occasionally so I’m not seeing the birds in glowing colour. I have to admit that the green of the drake mallard’s head is really informed guesswork. In this light, to me it just looks dark.
I wind down the window to get a better view of the moorhens which are poddling around the muddy margins of the puddle, picking up scraps.