Room for one last little landscape sketch in my postcard-sized Seawhite Watercolour Travel Journal: a stubble field at Field House Farm, Overton, seen from the Seed Room Cafe at the Horticentre. The houses of Thornhill Edge sit amongst the trees on the ridge in the background, on the far side of the Smithy Brook Valley.
The original sketch is 9 cm, just over 3 inches, across.
12 noon: When we arrive at Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Whitley Lower, there’s a clear view across Mirfield and the Calder Valley to the hills beyond, with patches of sunlight scudding gently across the landscape.
On the highest ground in the distance, there’s a white brilliance, which appears to be a powdering of snow.
A buzzard circles over Liley Wood, below us to the west.
Grey cloud and misty rain obscure the view for ten minutes or so, as a shower passes over.
Charlotte’s used to be a regular weekly destination for several years, when we’d head here on a Thursday morning for coffee and scones with my mum. She died a little over two years ago but, had she lived, we would have been celebrating her ninety-ninth birthday last Sunday. In fact, she once suggested that for her one hundredth birthday she would like treat all her family and friends to a gathering at Charlotte’s.
Her latest great-grandchild, Henry, is making his first visit here today, but he’s far too young to appreciate the ice cream.
A large spotted pig is contentedly snoring in its pen.
Also taking a break, there’s a pochard on the duck pond, sleeping with its bill tucked under its wing.
Along most of this stretch of the valley the River Calder is kept within its course by flood embankments except after exceptionally heavy rain, such as in last winter’s Boxing Day floods, but once it has overtopped these manmade levees there’s no direct way for the water to make its way back to the river as the flood subsides.
Increasingly, the canal, the Calder & Hebble Navigation, which runs parallel to the river, acts as an overflow channel but downstream from the Figure of Three locks the canal itself has what effectively acts as an embankment possibly built up in part by the navvies tipping spoil alongside the channel when they excavated this stretch of the navigation in the 1830s.
Following the Boxing Day floods, the farmer’s solution appears to have been to flatten a short stretch of the banking and to cut an overflow notch so that the field can drain across the towpath into the canal.
The excavations have exposed alluvial deposits which are typical of this stretch of the Calder valley: sandy silt containing pebbles of what appears to be local sandstone.
As I understand it, these deposits were laid down after the last ice age in a valley that had been deepened because the river that occupied it was heading down towards a lower sea level. Sea levels were so much lower during the ice age that most of the North Sea was dry land.
Swollen by meltwater, this precursor of the Calder was more powerful than the river as we see it today, which meanders over its flood plain re-sorting the alluvial deposits by cutting into the riverbank on the outside of a meander and depositing a sandbar elsewhere. I imagine that flash floods were more powerful in the treeless landscape of the ice age.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, stretches of the river were channeled into a straighter course by canal building navvies and much later in the early 1960s the river was diverted during the construction of Healey Mills railway marshalling yards.
South Ossett, 10.20 a.m.: The morning sun is just getting into this sheltered corner and the flowers of the dandelion are steadily opening; ants are scurry across the paving.
The dandelion head on the lower right has turned to seed but dozens of them are lying on the wet paving slab, parachutes (pappus) unopened. It looks as if some bird has been pecking at it, perhaps one of the sparrows that I can hear calling from the rooftops.
We’re back at Blacker Hall Farm shop for lunch with a view from the restaurant in the barn of the Barnsley to Wakefield Kirkgate railway.
At the car park at Cannon Hall a gaggle of about a dozen farmyard geese, mainly white, graze on the grass verge until a couple of walkers arrive with a bag of breadcrumbs.
The domestic goose is descended from the greylag but stands more upright than its wild relative because it has been selectively bred to be three times as heavy and to accumulate fat around its rear end. One of the geese had a dewlap and a similar flap hanging between its legs. This is a feature of the Toulouse, an old French breed.
In the American Pilgrim goose, males are always white and females grey.
‘Denied the opportunity to forage [geese] are uneconomic,’ writes John Woodward in The Field Guide, ‘for they have large appetites . . . the income derived from geese rarely justifies the use of valuable pasture.’
A toddler with a large bag of breadcrumbs is next in line to feed them.
Jumbo Grip Pencil
My drawing is a composite as these geese never keep still. I started with the head and worked down. When the birds set off in a different direction I kept adding to the sketch, transposing the shapes as if I was mirror-writing. Sometimes I’d be drawing one of the white geese, sometimes the one with the dewlap but the greyish-brown geese did have the white rear end, as I’ve drawn it here.
I drew the goose with a Faber-Castell Jumbo Grip pencil (below). With its triangular cross section and its rubberised ‘SoftGRIP’ stipples, this is one pencil that you’re not going drop even if you’re working in gloves. The matching pencil sharpener is easier to use on location than a craft knife. There’s a pencil-thin slot in my art bag that it fits neatly into so it’s not going to lose it’s point by getting jammed in with my pens and watercolours.
I’ve used various clutch pencils, otherwise known as propelling pencils, but they don’t have the bite of a real pencil. The Jumbo Grip is rated B for hardness and is described as ‘ideal for learning to write’. But I like it for drawing too.
Losehill has its head in the clouds as we walk along Hollowford Road, the old route between Castleton and Edale. The verges are lush of meadow crane’s-bill, yellow vetchling and meadowsweet.
A male bullfinch investigates a blackthorn by an old field barn then joins his mate as they make their way along the tall hedgerow.
Calf number 500196 takes a passing interest in us as I photograph him through the fence with Mam Tor in the background.
It still amazes me that we can reach this horseshoe shaped valley in just over an hour’s drive from home. We’re delivering books today, so we’ve come the long way around via Sheffield. On what’s become a regular run for us, I find it impressive that such a busy, and what I’d call vibrant city – with galleries, theatres, museums and a botanic garden so close to lonely gritstone moors and green limestone dales.
In the Hope Valley we’re right on the border of these two Peak District landscapes, where tropical limestone seas gave way to the river deltas of where the millstone grit was deposited. Between the two, looming behind calf number 500186, we have a great pile of Mam Tor sandstones and Edale Shales. Which are notoriously unstable. Beyond 500196’s hindquarters, you can see that landslip that closed the A625 Sheffield to Stockport road in 1974.
There’s more lush vegetation by the stream in Castleton including an umbellifer (hogweed?); a garden escape, yellow loosestrife and a clump of reed canary grass, Phalaris arundinacea.
Hope we’ll be back in the Peak District again before too long.
We’ve had a little round of appointments to catch up with over the last couple of days, not just the dentist’s and doctor’s, where I made the two sketches in the waiting rooms, but also the opticians where I had a fitting for my new glasses (same frames but with new high tech varifocal 100% UV proof lenses) so we deserved a lunch break at the Seed Room, where I drew the view looking north over Smithy Brook Valley and Thornhill Edge.
At least a dozen swallows fly low over the pastures alongside the Balk, some of them nesting in the stables.
There’s a double yellow line of stonecrop in flower on a sunny, south-facing stretch of the concrete canal bank, one line along the top of the bank, the other on the lower ledge.
The green roof of an outbuilding in Netherton is covered in stonecrop but there it is showing predominantly the red of the succulent leaves rather than the yellow of the flowers.
To judge by how many times we’ve heard them singing, it must have been a good year for song thrushes. I recognise them by their thrice repeated phrases. Many of these varied phrases sound familiar but I can’t quite place them as impressions of other birds. Sometimes they’ll insert an anxious mewing phrase that reminds me of a bird of prey.
Blackbirds and others are joining in a late afternoon chorus in a strip of hawthorns and trees alongside a canal cutting. The vertical wall of sandstone on the opposite bank adds resonance.
We’re always listening for approaching bicycles on the towpath so we both automatically glance over our shoulders when we hear what sounds like a child’s hooter behind us; ‘pip, pip, pip, pi – peep!’. It’s a moorhen calling.
A moorhen swims alongside a mute swan nesting on a platform of vegetation at the edge of the canal. There’s no sign of cygnets this afternoon.