The angler has just unhooked a small fish and returned it to the canal. I think of perch as being deep and narrow but it takes a while for the adult to develop that impressive hump and belly.
The towpath is regularly mowed so instead of going to seed the plants along the water’s edge are still sprouting fresh flowers: tansy, greater willowherb, leafy hawkweed, red clover, yarrow and autumn dandelion. Elderberries are now ripe and we’re well into the blackberry season.
Half a dozen streaky brown mallards dabble and preen by the old weir on the Calder at Horbury Bridge. Even the normally splendid drakes go into a subdued eclipse plumage at this time of year.
Two moorhens stalk about, swimming briefly from rock to rock. As we pause on the bridge two dragonflies zoom around below us.
When drawing dinosaurs, I get all the reference that I can find together and reconstruct the animal by drawing a rudimentary skeleton and working up a particular pose but wouldn’t it be great if I could set out with my sketchbook and draw the living breathing animal? That would probably be unwise when it comes to the carnosaurs but I had the chance to do the next best thing back in October 1997 when the Carnosaur! exhibition of animatronic dinosaurs was showing at the Yorkshire Museum.
Portobello, ‘Edinburgh’s Seaside’, looks rather dour and solid as you drive through on the Musselburgh Road, but walk along the two mile promenade and there are views across the Firth of Forth and along the East Lothian coast. In my watercolour the conical hill just left of centre is North Berwick Law with Traprain Law inland on the far right.
I drew this while waiting for the breakfast special, toasted banana bread with whipped mascarpone and berries, at The Beach House: the perfect place to write our postcards. This postcard, from a watercolour by one of the customers, captures the relaxed atmosphere of the cafe and the light reflected from the sea.
Drawing maps for my booklets makes me want to go out and walk the route again. After nine years it’s time to revise my Walks around Newmillerdam, not just because there will have been a few changes to the footpaths but also because the Friends of Newmillerdam and Wakefield Tree Wardens have been making all kinds of improvements to the country park. Continue reading “One Step at a Time”
I write my Wild Yorkshire nature diary for the Dalesman magazine five or six weeks ahead of publication so in the past week I’ve turned my attention to the October article, which really makes me feel as if summer is coming to a close!
Usually I have plenty of material to sift through but last October we’d only just got over selling my late mother’s house and we had so much on that Barbara and I managed only a book delivery excursion to the Peak District and a couple of days in Scarborough.
With such a short time on the coast, I tried to draw whenever I got the opportunity but that meant that I didn’t get around to writing many notes, certainly not enough for my 800 word Dalesman article.
Luckily while I was perching on the sea wall at North Bay sketching rocks and birds, Barbara was sitting on a bench nearby writing in a pocket notebook, so I’ve filled in the blanks in my article from her observations.
It reminds me of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy: she wrote meticulous descriptions of the scenery and natural history that they’d encountered on their walks and he’d put them into verse, implying that he’d been wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ (except for Dorothy following him and scribbling in her notebook).
I’ve got the chance to be more productive than Wordsworth: I don’t have to lie on my couch ‘in vacant or in pensive mood’ because I can get my ideas together using my favourite writing program Scrivener, which is set up so writers can drop rough drafts in, rearrange them on a virtual corkboard and then go into a full screen, distraction-free writing mode (that’ll be the day, when I don’t get distracted!).
Even so it took me a couple of sessions to polish up the article so that it flows but, even using Barbara’s notes, I’d only got to 500 words. Having set the scene on the coast I didn’t want to change the location to the Peak District or to our home patch to finish off the article.
As I drew last October I’d been amazed to see a kingfisher fishing in the sea, diving in from a concrete post, so I decided to write a little more about that. I looked up the kingfisher in Birds of the Western Palearctic but even in the twelve pages of closely written notes of this nine volume handbook I couldn’t spot a suitably fascinating fact that would draw my article to a close.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology weren’t all that helpful either but then I remembered my favourite study of the roots of classical mythology, The White Goddess by Robert Graves. I’ve still got the copy that I bought as a student. His explanation of the myth of the kingfisher mentions the account written by Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, which I was able to track down via Google. Pliny describes the floating nest that kingfishers were believed to make at sea during the calm halcyon days of December:
“Their nests are truly wonderful; they are of the shape of a ball slightly elongated, have a very narrow mouth, and bear a strong resemblance to a large sponge. It has never yet been discovered of what material they are made; some persons think that they are formed of sharp fish-bones, as it is on fish that these birds live.”
That struck me as the perfect way to round off my article.
A couple we meet on the towpath tell us they’ve just seen a mink amongst the tree roots on the opposite side of the canal. As we continue on our way we hear them calling behind us. A mink is swimming across towards some overhanging vegetation. It seems to vanish when it reaches the bank.
It’s a sleek predator but I wish that we could return to the days when I regularly saw water voles alongside the canal. As the introduced mink spread into valley, the water voles disappeared.
As we walk back later that afternoon we come across a young heron that stands at the edge of the canal looking intently at the water, its yellow eye unblinking. It’s so intent that it lets us get within a few yards of it before flying off and settling twenty yards further along the towpath.
The Ashfields, between Heath village and the River Calder (OS ref. SE 353 206), were settlement lagoons for the pulverised fuel ash from Wakefield power station which was decommissioned in 1991. In the past thirty or forty years the process of natural succession has transformed them from silty open ground to orchid meadow and then from scrub to woodland.
Two longhorn beetles, Stranglia maculata, rest on umbels of hogweed and in a sheltered clearings there are a few speckled wood butterflies but the most common and persistent insect is the mosquito.
The Half Moon (SE 358 208) between Heath and Kirkthorpe is a cut-off meander of the Calder. A hundred or more whirligig beetles gyrate in a group on the surface close to the bank. Branched bur-reed grows amongst sweet-flag.
Amber snails graze on the sweet-flag. These snails are unable to fully retract into their shells. Their lower tentacles are much reduced.
Usually, as soon as I start drawing a commuter, he or she will change position or get on to a train but I thought that I had a chance with this man, sitting nursing his luggage and thoroughly absorbed with his phone. After five minutes our train started moving away but I’d made a mental note of the colours and I quickly added them. I like plain inky drawings but usually I feel that sketches like this come to life when I add a bit of colour; there’s so much more information in a drawing which includes colour.
‘You are now entering a great crested newt site’ a notice on the trackside near Hornbeam Park informs us.
Drab, Dry and Dusty
The countryside has a late summer look to it. Oaks near Horsforth now look drab, dry and dusty. The flowers of creeping thistle have largely turned to downy seed heads. There’s a decadent feeling that the party is almost over, frothy creamy white flowers of Russian vine and trumpets of greater bindweed are festooned over fences. The waste ground flowers that I associate with the end of the summer holidays have appeared: Himalayan balsam, rosebay willowherb, common ragwort, goldenrod and, looking rather dull and mildewed even at its freshest, mugwort.
It’s the first time that we’ve visited Harrogate for years but we’ll certainly return. We walk up through the Valley Gardens then through the pinewood on Harlow Hill. We don’t get chance to walk around the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Harlow Carr because we spend so long queuing for a leisurely lunch at the deservedly popular Betty’s Tearooms.
10 a.m., Nostell Park: As we reach the southeast corner of Priory Wood a brown hare runs right in front of us, only ten yards away, crosses the (filled in) cattle grid and hares off across the bottom corner of the wood.
“Did you see that?” I ask the man who’s just been putting a lead on his black labrador “I think your dog must have disturbed it.”
“It’s the farmer cutting this field,” he suggests, “I often see them around. There are a few setts around here.”
He’s wrong actually; a sett would be badgers, it’s just a form for a hare: a shallow depression in the ground. But I don’t like to be pedantic!
It’s great to see a hare so close up, close enough to see the prominent black and white markings at the tips of its long ears and its black and white tail.
Accounts suggest that hares aren’t doing well in the English countryside. Traditionally managed parkland, as here at Nostell, gives them a refuge and hopefully there isn’t too much lamping: hunting at night using powerful spotlights, which is thought to have led to a decline in their numbers in some areas.
Mam Tor from the Castle Inn, 1.30 p.m., 20°C, 69°F: You can see how Mam Tor got it’s name; it sits there like a mother hen looking down over the Hope Valley. The line running along the righthand side of the summit plateau is the line of the ramparts and the silted up ditch of an Iron Age hill fort.
The exposure of alternating layers of shale and sandstone cuts across the southeast corner of the hill fort. The scar is the result of a series of landslips. The piles of debris at the foot of the hill are still unstable and this resulted in the closure in 1979 of the road that ran across them: the A625 from Sheffield to Chapel-en-le-Frith.
11 a.m.: There are a lot of young coal, great and especially blue tits visiting the feeders at the Riverside Café, Hathersage, this morning. They look washed out, as if the colour saturation had been reduced in Photoshop. They’re not such sharp dressers as the adults, lacking some of the more emphatic markings like the breast stripe of the male great tit.