York Away Day

York works well for us: we can clock up our 10,000 paces on a walk around the walls and then get a meal and browse around the shops. Some day we’ll find time to visit the art gallery or one of the museums, but today we just needed to escape.

Halfway through our 10,000 pace circuit of the walls we stop at the Gatehouse Cafe in Walmgate Bar, where I draw the houseplant.

Hart’s Tongue

Hart’s tongue fern (left) grows in the crevices of the old brick wall by Jamie’s Italian, next door to the Lendal Cellars.

Wall rue grows from crevices in the capstones.

2.55 p.m.: On the train home, we cross the Vale of York, then cut through the gentle dip slope of the magnesian limestone ridge.

30 Minute Landscapes

‘Sometimes working in a different medium can add that all-important spark of excitement’, writes Paul Talbot-Greaves in Collins 30 minute Landscapes in Watercolour. As a new year refresher, I’m trying out one of his half-hour demos.

I’m stepping out of my comfort zone because my habitual way of working is to start with a pen and ink drawing, then add a wash of colour but here, after a minimal pencil outline, it’s blocks of colour first and any suggestion of detail, such as the pattern of stones, is left until you add the final touches.

I’ve noticed recently that my brushes are looking the worse for wear, so before starting I bought two sable brushes.

Daler Rowney Aquafine Sable Round, 10 and 6.

Ready Mades

I’m interested in Talbot-Greaves’ choice of colours; I try and keep things simple by sticking to a couple of versions of each of the primaries in the pocket-sized watercolour box that I use on my travels but he suggests some useful shortcuts:

“There are a number of ready-mixed colour, such as Raw Sienna, Sap Green and French Ultramarine, which have been developed to make colour selection easier for the artist. Each one is like a shortcut to a popular colour that is found in the landscape – for example, Sap Green can be used to paint grass, Cobalt Blue is a good match for sky blue, and Cadmium Red is ideal for suggesting the warm glow of a sunset.”

The colours in my version of the demo aren’t as subtle as they are in the book and I think that could be due to having a brighter, yellower version of Sap Green in my range of watercolours and having to use Lemon Yellow and Indian Red as substitutes for two of his recommended colours: Naples Yellow and Light Red.

For the purpose of the exercise, all the colours are mixed on the paper, blended into each other, as you paint, not mixed in the palette beforehand. I need more practice at this; the wash-backs in the sky and on the road are caused by adding a bit too much water to my wash as I blended it with a still damp colour on the page.

I’ve learned a lot from trying another approach and look forward to trying another of the 30 minute demos in the book.


Paul Talbot-Greaves

Collins 30 minute Landscapes in Watercolour is currently out of print.

Away Beyond the Chimney Tops

A few sketches from our visits to Barbara’s brother who is currently in the stroke unit in the Brontë Tower, Dewsbury Hospital.

The parlour palm sits in a corner by the piano in the dining room.

11 a.m.: Looking WSW from the Brontë Tower. Mist obscures the moor tops, Castle Hill showing as a misty outline.

When the Furze is in Flower

The old country saying is ‘when the furze is out of flower, kissing’s out of favour’, but the gorse has been in flower for a few weeks, at least one bush on Storrs Hill has been, where it overhangs a south-facing embankment wall.

The female great spotted woodpecker is a regular on the sunflower hearts: it prefers them to the fatballs.

We hadn’t seen the pheasants in the garden for months but the recent wintry weather brought a male in. He settled down in the shelter of one of the plants in the border as the rain lashed.

Sweet Box

‘Purple Stem’ Sweet BoxSarcococca hookeriana var. digyna*, is now tasseled with sweetly fragrant blossom on the woodland bank behind the bench by the Druid Bridge below the Cascade at Nostell Priory. Each blossom has just two styles and one central stigma; with a scent like that, who needs petals?

The generic name, Sarcococca,  is from the Greek, ‘sarc’ meaning flesh and ‘kokkos’, berry.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Joseph Hooker.

The species name honours botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) who collected this winter-flowering shrub on a plant-hunting expedition in southern China. Hooker was a friend and confidant of Charles Darwin; Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Hooker in Creation, the biographical movie about Darwin. This weekend he appears in the final episode of Sherlock, so perhaps he’ll now be able to get back to playing Victorian botanists, which he does so well. 

The newly planted Sweet Box by the bench should spread by suckers to form a thicket a metre in height.

* I guess that it’s possible that this is a garden hybrid, closely related to S. hookeriana.

After a week of wintry and sometimes very windy weather, it’s good to be walking through the parkland under blue skies with low winter sun picking out the textures on the trunks of the old beeches and oaks. It’s also picking out the bark-like layers in the sandstone of the old quarry in the Menagerie garden.

Walled Garden


Winter aconite

In the walled garden the first snowdrops have appeared and the winter aconites that we first saw opening midweek are continuing to come into flower.

In the shady shelter of the far northeast-facing wall of the garden, Timperley Early (right) is one of the few rhubarb varieties to have started sprouting leaves but Victoria is just ahead of it, with some of the leaves already opening out.

Adder Bite

A dramatic incident on a Wakefield Naturalists’ Society meeting on a summer’s day in 1881:

In an attempt stop the poison spreading the ‘venomed finger, as well as the wrist and arm, were bound round with twine as tightly as possible’.

Messengers were despatched to Pontefract for medical assistance and a Doctor Simpson hurried to the place, and recommended that the sufferer should be removed to Pontefract:

“but Mr. Wainwright decided to be driven to his own residence. On reaching Wakefield about midnight, Dr. Wade, the medical officer for the borough, was called. Notwithstanding that poultices were applied at frequent intervals through the night, the sufferer became delirious, the hand and arm assumed unusual proportions, and Mr. Wainwright had evidently much pain. On Sunday afternoon, on a Wakefield correspondent calling at Springfield House, he was informed that the sufferer was sleeping soundly, and that he appeared to be progressing as favourably as could be expected.”

Fortunately Mr Wainwright survived. He died in Wakefield on the 10th April, 1884.

Yew Male Flower Buds

The wind has blown a few shoots off the yews in the woods around the lake at Nostell Priory. Yew, Taxus baccata, is dioecious – each tree is either male or female – and these mini-Brussels sprouts clustered on the stem in the axils of the leaves are the buds of the male flowers.

They will open in February to shed yellow pollen.


Male flowers.

Female flowers are less conspicuous and are solitary, borne at the end of the stems. They produce berry-like fruits each with a single poisonous seed surrounded by a bright red fleshy cup, the aril.

Woodpeckers Drumming

Quarry in the Menagerie area, Nostell Priory.

Nostell Priory, 10.10 a.m., 4°C, 39°F: The rival great spotted woodpeckers are drumming again, one in the middle of the Pleasure Grounds, the other, from the sound of it, from the far side of the Lower Lake. The first time that I heard it, I was likening the drumming of the nearer bird to the percussive sound of castanets but today I realise that a castanet is too clackety; the tree that this woodpecker has chosen resonates with the more satisfyingly hollow sound of a Chinese block; ‘tockety-tock!’, not ‘clackety-clack!’.

Also calling, a green woodpecker; we hear it’s ‘yaffle’ call a couple of times from the woods on the west bank of the lake but this morning we don’t actually see either species of woodpecker.

We’ve done well for seeing goldcrests this winter. In previous years, the few views that I’ve had of them have been of silhouettes amongst the branches of tall pines but this year they seem to have been more confiding, oblivious of our presence. This morning a single goldcrest is the first bird that we see as we walk out of the courtyard into the gardens, as it checks out the branches of a yew.

In the Pleasure Grounds a treecreeper is working its way methodically up the trunk of a tall oak. It ascends in a straight line; unlike the nuthatch, it doesn’t have the option of going downwards and this one isn’t even tempted to veer off sideways.

There’s a bright spot of colour on a dull morning as a kingfisher flies diagonally across the Middle Lake.

Goosander Central

You could imagine The Lady of the Lake emerging with Excalibur from the Lower Lake at Nostell Priory this morning. There’s a mist hanging over it, which melts away as we walk along the shore. In the shade of the trees, ice still covers half of the surface but it’s covered by a film of water so that mallards can stand about in groups in the middle of the lake.

Most of the Middle Lake is ice-free and eight drake goosanders have gathered in the middle of it, probably accompanied by as many females, but it’s difficult to make a definitive count as at any time one or more of them is likely to be underwater.

As we stand on the top of the banking, trying to count them, I’m aware that the lake’s resident pink-footed goose has started swimming towards us. As I lower my binoculars, I’m astonished to find that it’s waddling along beside us. While we were counting goosanders it must have walked up the near vertical banking!

Herons over the Viaduct

It’s gone midday but the gloom has never lifted. Two grey herons fly over the century old grey-brick viaduct.

A small group of long-tailed tits descend on the fat-ball feeder, leaving the sunflower hearts to the great tits.