Victorian stone masons left their marks on this embankment wall, south of Wakefield Westgate Station.
The Roman numeral ‘IV’ carved on this sandstone block appears to relate to the iron bracket that has been added to brace the wall but it’s the mark below that intrigues me: it looks like a flag, a key or a crossed out semiquaver. It has weathered more than the numeral, which suggests that the ironwork is a later addition.
The sun was at a perfect angle this morning for picking out the marks and we spotted dozens of them.
They’re carved at the centre of the facing side of each block. Some masons used letters of the alphabet. You can see that the quality of the sandstone varied because the ‘H’ in the top right of my photograph has faded away more than the one on the left.
There are crosses, arrows and triangles but my favourite marks are the fish-like hieroglyphs and that rabbit’s head (or perhaps it’s an upside-down ‘R’) in the bottom right-hand corner.
This embankment wall, between Westgate Wakefield and the first arch of the Ninety-nine Arches railway viaduct over Ings Road, was constructed in the mid-1860s.
There’s often a carrion crow on the old felled sweet chestnut trunk near the Lower Lake bridge, feeding on grain that’s been left there and frequently being photographed. You can see in my photograph that it’s stuffed its crop with grain.
A few rooks feeding alongside jackdaws on the turf in Obelisk Park also have full crops, but they are more likely to be feeding on earthworms and insect larvae, such as leather-jackets: the caterpillar-like larvae of the crane fly.
Under a yew near the Menagerie seven grey squirrels have gathered. They’re turning over the leaf litter and stopping to nibble at frequent intervals. One appears to have found half a nut, probably an acorn that it – or another of the squirrels – had hidden during the autumn.
We disturb the adult grey heron yet again. This time it was hoping to be left in peace at the top end of the lake beneath the Cascade Bridge. It takes off, clearing the clapper stones of the Druid’s Bridge with inches to spare.
The flock of fieldfares are still around. Wigeon have left the now completely ice-covered field pool. There’s a pair on the Middle Lake, along with two pairs of gadwall, tufted, the usual mallards and swans and an increasing number of goosanders, some swimming in pairs.
There are more wigeon on the ice-free Upper Lake, which isn’t accessible from the Park.
As we walk along the edge of Top Park Wood, a kestrel wheels from tree to tree ahead of us.
On the northern half of the trunk of an oak by the Lower Lake a coating of powdery green algae shows up in the morning sunlight. It is absent from the sunny south side of the tree so, if you’re trying to do a bit of natural navigating and you’re lost deep in the forest this could help you to orientate yourself.
This is probably Pleurococcus or a very similar-looking species of green algae. Seen through a microscope, Pleurcoccus is a globular single-celled alga with a thick cell wall to help it resist desiccation. The individual cells are slimy and stick together to form the powdery coating.
Green algae contains two kinds of chlorophyll: Chlorophyll A and Chlorophyll B. The two molecules work together; Chlorophyll A absorbs blue-violet and orange-red light while B extends the spectrum by absorbing blue light. The green that we see is the light that doesn’t get absorbed.
There’s a thin layer of slushy ice on a sheltered section of the canal, in the shade and shelter of the sandstone escarpment of Hartley Bank Woods, but some shards of thicker ice have been blown alongside the concrete canal bank and gathered in shards as they’ve piled up against a clump of grass at the water’s edge.
This is probably reed canary-grass, Phalaris arundinacea, which sometimes gets the nickname ‘canal grass’. I’ve even heard it described as ‘designer phragmites’, an alternative to the common reed, Phragmites australis, where space is at a premium!
A cormorant flies up from the marshy field known as the Strands. What open water there is here appears to be entirely ice-covered. The small lagoon by Beeston Bridge at the foot of the Balk is also frozen solid so the resident moorhens have lined up on the river’s embankment to peck amongst the rough grasses there. It’s probably marginally warmer over by the river.
Call of the Wild
11.45 a.m.: As I clear the snow from our driveway I hear an approaching cachophony: an unfamiliar sound . . . A little dog? A radio? The hooter of a child’s pedal car?
Soon a skein of eighty grey geese appears, three or four hundred feet above the rooftops. It’s a different sound to the argumentative sounding Canadas that we’re more familiar with; slightly deeper and, I think, a wilder kind of call.
They’re heading in the same direction as the skein we saw at breakfast time the other day: south east; so perhaps towards the Humber or the Old Moor RSPB reserve?
Against a clear blue sky, the winter sun picks out slashes of creamy white on the top branches of a tall sycamore, which I suspect are the result of grey squirrels stripping the bark. There’s no sign of damage on the adjacent oak but its bark, loaded with tannins, is probably not as nutritious as that of the sycamore.
The sycamore is probably the nearest that the squirrels can get to the tastier-sounding sugar maple, which, like the grey squirrel, is a native of North America.
In the topmost branches of another sycamore, a squirrel leans out to pick off buds from slender twigs which it eats, one after the other: a healthy snack.
In the summer and early autumn, hornets nested in an old ash trunk in the parkland near the Pleasure Grounds. By mid-autumn the trunk had rotted through at the base and come adrift from its roots but it was prevented from falling towards the path by the surrounding stout stems, which had sprung up around it: a natural equivalent of coppice shoots.
Now it has fallen back in the other direction and it lies on the ground. I can’t see the cavity that contained the hornets’ nest – it’s probably hidden on the underside – but all the timber is riddled with tunnels, some of them stuffed with frass, which has set hard like fine-textured chipboard.
The fine cold morning has brought in fieldfares, twenty-five of them. We’ve been expecting them to turn up here on the grassy slopes of the Obelisk Park.
Also back this morning, on a small, partly iced over pool in the corner of a grassy field just beyond the park boundary, are fifty wigeon, which often graze on the short turf here.
Joining the regular great tits, blue tits, coal tits and robins in the lakeside woods is a goldcrest, which, thanks to its size – along with the firecrest, it’s our joint smallest British bird – can inspect the slenderest of twigs.
A jay flies up into a sapling and we notice that it seems to be keeping an eye on a kestrel, a falcon of open spaces which seems a bit incongruous in this woodland setting.
It settles for a while, looking out over the lake. We rarely get such a good view of a kestrel and I make a mental note of its yellow beak, tipped in black; the tear-drop shaped dark patch beneath its eye; and the russet tan plumage of its back, speckled with dark brown.
As it flies to another perch, it shows pale grey tail feathers, banded with dark brown, almost black, at the tips.
Mallards and Mute Swans
Midwinter is hardly over but already, on the ice-fringed Lower Lake, the mallards have mating in mind. A drake head-bobs as he swims around the duck prior to mating.
As we round a corner by a lakeside bench, we disturb a heron. It must be getting tired of seeing us as we disturbed it here, same time, same place, yesterday morning.
One of the two cygnets of the mute swan family on the Middle Lake has now lost the last of its grey feathers. It’s now almost an adult, except for its bill which gives it away as a juvenile: this looks as if that has been given a coat of grey undercoat prior to the final coat of orange, which looks so striking on the adults.
The other cygnet still has a some grey on its back, as do the four cygnets of the swan family on the Lower Lake. They seem to be spending more time away from the adults, this morning at the far end of the side arm of the lake.
At the lakeside, a cigar-shaped seed-head of reedmace disperses a couple of wisps of its downy seeds. It has been calculated that one stalk can produce 200,000 seeds.
The pied wagtail patrolling the courtyard of the Stable Block at Nostell Priory reminds me of David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot: busy, alert and pausing regularly to survey the scene with a detached intensity. Its jerky walk and the continuous polite little boughs of its head give it the deceptively ridiculous air that Poirot adopted to lull criminals into underestimating his intellectual powers.
The neat black-and-white pattern of its plumage reminds me of the immaculate old-fashioned formality of Poirot’s dress and of the smart white spats and black patent leather shoes that I can imagine him wearing.
Despite the cold raw wind, the rooks have gathered at their nests in the treetops in the south east corner of the park. Crows and jackdaws are circling and calling around Joiner Wood and the Pleasure Grounds.
At Nostell, we hear the green woodpecker more often than we see it but today as its laughing call rings out over Top Park Wood we see it fly over to a dead beech tree where it settles to explore the pockmarked upper bough.
We saw a small flock of about twenty fieldfares gathering in the treetops last week but they’re still not regulars. The large thrushes with smaller birds that we spot in the canopy of a tall oak by the Lower Lake prove to be half a dozen mistle thrushes accompanied by a few starlings, rather than fieldfares accompanied by redwings.
Goosanders and Gadwalls
Goosanders are gathering on the Middle Lake. There’s a conspicuous group of six black-and-white males but the red-headed females are diving in a quieter corner of the lake, twenty or thirty yards away.
Other winter ducks joining the year-round mallards, included a dozen tufted and three gadwalls. In recent weeks a flock of around fifty wigeon have been grazing close to a small pool just outside the park boundary beyond Top Park Wood but they’re not here today. Perhaps the sound of a pheasant shoot not far away has persuaded them that it’s time to head for somewhere away from the firing line, such as the far corner of the big lake at Anglers Country Park.
Bonus Woodpecker and Wild Geese
As a bonus, we spot a second species of woodpecker in the late afternoon: a great spotted coming to the fatball feeder that hangs on our washing line. It’s a female with no red on the back of her head but with a conspicuous red vent as she hangs awkwardly from the feeder, tail cocked upwards for balance.
This morning, before sunrise, a shallow V-shaped skein of geese passed over our house, heading south east. A warm front had been sweeping across the country from the south west, resulting in snow as warm air coming in from over the Atlantic meets cooler air from the north. Snow disrupted travel in the Midlands but we had just a few wet flakes of snow mixed in with a shower of rain at breakfast time.
There’s a heavy crop of oyster mushroom(above) on some sweet chestnut logs, the entire trunk of a felled tree, which have been left as a habitat in Thornhill Park. Oyster mushrooms are currently £10.80 per kilogram at Sainsbury’s, so there must be hundreds of pounds’ worth here, although some are a bit past their best.
The logs are also sprouting honey fungus(left), which is said to be edible when young.
On the stump itself, the common bracket fungus of dead wood, Trametes versicolor is growing. The brackets are paler around the edges.
This silver birch, down by the canal near the Figure of Three locks, was catching the sun. I’ve added a watercolour filter in Photoshop to bring out the texture of the diamond-shaped scars of its bark. Hopefully, I’ll be getting down to actually painting some watercolours in the new year!
I feel that I can already tell that the days are getting longer and it’s good to think that, in two months time, dogs mercury and lesser celandine will be springing up on the hedgebanks with coltsfoot appearing on disturbed ground.
For the moment though, the only conspicuous flowers are those of hogweed.
Hazel catkins, as yet unopened, are now prominent in the hedgerows.
There was a soft arc of a rainbow over the valley this morning as we set off across the fields via Smithy Brook to Thornhill.
Boxing Day Walk
I’m pleased that over the Christmas period we’ve managed to get out into our local countryside to walk our regular ten thousand steps because a news item in this month’s Healthy Food Magazine reports that researchers at The University of British Columbia have:
“found a link between getting a nature top-up with an increase in general happiness and health during a two-week study. Participants were split into three groups: a control group, a group noting down human-made objects and those documenting nature finds. It was the last group that experienced the biggest boost in self-perceived wellbeing.”
There was me thinking that catching up with my family and eating lots of Christmas cake and mince pies was what had given me a seasonal glow of wellbeing. I should have realised that it was getting my boots muddy and observing rainbows, fungus-covered logs and birch bark.
People were tobogganing at Ilkley, skating on the Mere at Scarborough and photographing snow-covered trees in the Gorge at Roundhay Park after the Great Snowstorm of Christmas 1906.
Despite the snow, a large crowd turned out to watch the annual Fishermen versus Firemen football match on the beach at South Bay, Scarborough.
My thanks to Gordon Berry of Chicago for sending me this photograph of work to clear the tram tracks between Wakefield and Horbury. I’ve seen another photograph, presumably taken at the same time, of an electric tram making progress through the drifts.
Gordon’s grandparents and their family lived at Smeath House, Horbury, in the early 1900s (later, in the 1950s and 1960s, Smeath House was my childhood home).
Gordon tells me:
My grandfather’s family (Alfred Edward Berry and Fanny Albiia Murgatroyd) lived at Smeath House from at least 1906 till 1909. My father was the third son, Henry Vernon, born in Huddersfield in 1901. The fourth and youngest child was Cynthia Berry born at Smeath House in 1909.
My brother John Berry was a medical doctor as a GP in Horbury and Ossett (he retired about 15 years ago and died 2 years ago) – his practice went all the way through to Netherton. He said when he first got there , some old people remembered the Berry family.
I am pretty sure that some of the boys in the photo are my father Henry Vernon Berry, his older brother Rex (Reginald), and their father Alfred Edward Berry.
I am sure they were in Kristiania (now Oslo) in Norway from 1910 to 1914. I have a record of Rex being at Pannal Ash school Harrogate in the school year 1910-11, recorded as a boarder in the 1911 census, plus a letter to the family in Kristiania in February 1914. Since I cannot find the family anywhere in the 1910 census, they must have gone to Norway then. They certainly returned before the outbreak of World War I.
Presumably, Alfred Edward was a mill or brewery manager in Horbury.
In later years, Daddy still knew a few phrases of Norwegian, and he also learned to ski and to ice-skate in Norway (occasionally there was enough ice on Bretton Park Lake for us to watch him to skate). There was also a Norwegian plaque on the wall of our parents’ bedroom in Louisville.
There is a family story that Alfred Edward was a golf-pro at Filey Golf Club when they returned from Norway – he apparently had an excellent golf handicap of 1.
Wakefield Road, Horbury
I believe the photograph shows what today is the Horbury Road, looking southwest towards Horbury. Just visible in the background are two tall chimneys which might belong to Richard Sutcliffe’s Universal Works. Sutcliffe patented the first conveyor belt for use in coal mines in 1905. He bought a former dyehouse here and in that year produced his first six belt conveyors here for Glass Houghton Colliery.
The present day Horbury Road dips under the M1 motorway here.
There’s a twinkle in bookseller Thomas Gent’s eye, As he sits by the fire with his port and mince pie: “I shall go down in history in Old Ripon Town; With my red Russian hat and my long college gown:
“On this fine Christmas Eve in the snow-covered square By the Old Obelisk with my books, I’ll be there! When the Wakeman of Ripon blows thrice on his horn I’ll take up my sack and be busy til dawn.
“With six fine stags from Studley all yoked to my sleigh With novels and poems, it’s up and away! Now, Defoe! now, Dryden! now Shakespeare and Swift! There’s nothing like books to give spirits a lift!”
Thomas Gent, Bookseller
When I saw Nathan Drake’s portrait of Thomas Gent(1693-1798), the Yorkshire historian and bookseller, I couldn’t help thinking that, popping up in that hearth-like alcove, sporting those luxuriant side whiskers and with his right hand extended, offering us a copy of his ‘quaint’ and ‘charming’ History of Ripon, he’d make a great Santa.
With a little Photoshopping, I was soon able to make a Fake or Fortune-style restoration of the painting and I felt that he also deserved a verse or two to hint that even an Ebenezer Scrooge lookalike might have had a hidden, softer side.
If you’d like to know more about the real Thomas Gent, you’re in luck because, just published this month, there’s The Autobiography of Thomas Gent, Printer of York, edited by his descendant, Frank Gent.
‘The name of Thomas Gent has obtained a wider celebrity than that of any other York typographer. Author, printer, and artist, his labours extended over more than half a century, and during that period many of the numerous productions of his pen, both in prose and verse, were printed at his own press, and embellished with engravings executed by his own hand. His works are, for the most part, below mediocrity, yet they possess a certain quaintness and eccentricity of character which are not without their charm’
Robert Davies, 1868
The Autobiography of Thomas Gent, Printer of York is available from Rickaro Bookshop, Horbury, where you can view the portrait by Nathan Drake.
(So far there’s no evidence that Gent ever acted as Santa Claus to the townsfolk of Ripon).
My autumn sketchbook work isn’t very impressive; between online courses and fitting in my ten thousand paces a day, I haven’t given myself much time for drawing, which is a shame as we’ve taken short breaks in the Lake District, the Dales and on the Yorkshire Coast.
We’re now into winter proper, specks of snow are drifting down over the garden and I’ll be quite happy to stick to day trips for the next couple of months.
We saw large flocks of fieldfares one misty morning on our Dales break in Langstrothdale but we’ve seen very few on our home patch. On our regular visits to Nostell Priory, we’ve seen flocks of crows and rooks on the grassland, along with a few mistle thrushes. As it has been such a good year for berries, perhaps our winter thrushes are still foraging in the hedgerows.
Tufted ducks and gadwall have joined the resident mallards and Canada geese on lakes and there are now two or three pairs of goosanders beginning to gather in their regular spot on the quieter side of the Middle Lake.
The grey squirrels – all of them looking sleek and bushy-tailed – all seem to be engaged in caching their sweet chestnuts for the winter. We haven’t seen many examples of them chasing each other, prior to mating.