Colours of Britain


GIVE OR TAKE a few colours that have been swapped around since, this is the box of Winsor & Newton’s artists’ watercolours that I took with me on a tour of England, Wales and Scotland, when I compiled my Britain sketchbook for Collins (1981). One review commented on ‘the brownish greenish charm’ of my sketches. That was partly due to my choice of colours, including so many greens and earth colours in my selection, but also because, in the mainly off season periods when I drew on location, Britain really does have a certain brownish greenish charm.

Rannoch Moor, July 1980, Britain sketchbook.One of my favourite pages was a double page spread of Rannoch Moor, where I let heather, bog and misty hills fill the entire field of view. You can’t get much more greenish brown than that! The book was printed on slightly tinted paper which muted the colour still further.

I scratched away at brown watercolour washes to suggest some of the lighter stems of rushes and the wake of a Water Vole, swimming across a peaty pool. I’d forgotten that Water Vole until I took the book off the shelf just now.

swatchesI can see why these colours appealed to me at the time. If I was making up a similar box today, I’d definitely include a cooler red – alizarin crimson for example. I’ve just added four colours that I happened to have spare, to fill in a few gaps. I could take a guess at the names of most of the remaining original colours – sap green, sepia, burnt sienna and so on – but at least painting these swatches familiarises me with the general layout.

Why have I dug out this battered old paintbox from the back of the watercolours drawer? I’ve got 4 art bags and one art passport wallet on the go at the moment, with sketchbooks ranging from postcard to place-mat in size but it’s frustrating when, like Goldilocks, I grab a bag that is ‘just right’ for the location I’m heading for, then later realise that I’ve forgotten to transfer the watercolours. Hopefully I’ll end up with 5 bags with a reasonable box of watercolours in each.

Lakes on a Plate

We’d sent a ‘rush hour in the Lake District’ postcard to friends. Little did we know that we’d get stuck in the rush hour on our return journey near Ullswater!

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO we enjoyed Peter Sidwell’s Channel 4 cooking series Lakes on a Plate where the chef tracked down and cooked the National Park’s local ingredients. Despite our regular visits we’ve never been lucky enough to spot him filming on location and get chance to sample the finished product but his new cafe at the Rheged Centre, Penrith, is the next best thing.

As you can see from my sketch, the setting is appropriately scenic there; I sat and drew the waterfall and lime kiln seen through the floor to ceiling windows of the cafe as we tried the pea, mint and watercress soup with a crusty hunk of artisan bread.

But we weren’t quite getting the mint so I asked the waitress;

‘We wondered if it was another herb – tarragon perhaps?’

‘Or perhaps it was dried mint?’ chipped in Barbara.

The waitress looked stunned; ‘We always use fresh ingredients!’

They do; perhaps we were getting the pepperiness of the watercress!

We’re planning a diversion every time we visit the Lake District now because we’re curious to try some of the other items on the menu such as wild boar burger, posh fish finger sandwich, chocolate and churros and lemon meringue posset.

3D Journey

Before we set off home, I bought this 3D map of Northern England from the Pitlochery store by the piers at Bowness. I’ve always been fascinated by 3D models and a maps of the landscape and this one could have been tailor made for me as it is centred on our home in West Yorkshire (our return route is highlighted in red). The vertical scale is highly exaggerated – Pen y Ghent would tower over Mount Everest! – but having driven back today via the Kirkstone Pass, Ullswater and Whernside, this broad-brush interpretation really brings out the character of the landscape. It’s a clear, simple way to see how Pennines, Peak, Lakes and Snowdownia fit together.

At A4 size it’s something you can pick up and look at from slightly different angles, which makes it more vivid than a regular 2D map or even the 3D version of the same area in Google Earth which you can ‘fly around’ online. With this version you can run your fingers over the mountains, tracing your route.

For instance Whernside (737m), a ridge with a sphinx-like northern scarp between the Lune and Ribble valleys, the bulkiest and, to me, the most forbidding of the Three Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales, a dominating feature of our journey is equally conspicuous on the map.

Looking at the map makes me keen to get out a bit more and visit the four corners of my extended ‘local patch’; Snowdon in the south-west, Stranraer and The Rhins in the north-west corner, Cross Fell and Upper Teesdale to the north and, in the corner that I’m more familiar with from several trips to Norfolk, the Wash to the south-east.

I shall keep it knocking about in the studio and keep looking at it to choose the next place I’d like to visit. All within 170 miles from home (at least as the crow flies).

The Last Reef

Another 3D experience on our return trip; we have time to watch an IMAX movie in the cinema at Rheged, The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea. Apart from being there, there can’t be a better way to experience the jellyfish lagoons of Pilau, the high cliffs of a Pacific atoll or the life of sea slugs and flatworms; who would have thought that slugs and flatworms could be so spectacular, like extravagant extra-terrestrials and flying carpets.

I’ll want to make an IMAX a regular feature of our Lakes visits now.

The widescreen, 3D cows of Castlerigg were equally impressive, and almost as wet . . .

Rush hour at Castlerigg, Monday afternoon.

Links; Peter Sidwell @ Rheged Cafe, Dorrigo 3D maps.

Spring Gentian

 DREW THE bluest of the gentians on Männlichen, the Spring Gentian, Gentiana verna, then set out again on the Panoramaweg in what we thought would be a brief shower but which turned into rain. We dried out by stopping at a mountain restaurant for soup and a roll.

1.30 pm, Kleine Scheidegg station.

The Alpine Choughs have very dark eyes, which don’t show up at any distance like those of our Jackdaw. Perhaps the dark pigment in the eye acts as a U.V. Filter.

2 then 3 or 4 choughs descend on plates of noodles and spaghetti as soon as they are left, casting plastic forks and paper serviettes aside before throwing the paper plate itself onto the ground.

We take the train down to Grindelwald Grund then return back up via the gondola to Männlichen. We can’t resist fitting in our marmot-spotting journey just one more time.

A buzzard circles in a clearing amongst the tall conifers, giving us a view from below, then on level with (we can see the details of its eye and cere) and finally from above. As we glide past in our gondola it’s like being in a wildlife documentary where they film at treetop level from a microlight.

Some of the conifers are the height of our electricity pylons and in proportion as long and thin as slender pencils. Very long slender pencils. Some have bunches of long purple cones, similar to the weights on traditional cuckoo-clocks.

We spot only one marmot, sitting like a sphinx, looking uphill but as a final bonus a red kite gives us a fly-past just as we near the upper station. Like the buzzard it gives us a perfect, unhurried diagnostic view, enabling us to see the shallow ‘V’ of its wings as it glides towards us, then the markings as it dips below us.

No Chamois today but flock of Alpine Choughs dip down to the cable car, as if in a farewell salute, then fly off over the crags.

6.30 pm, After all the travelling around, looking at wonderful scenery during this wonderful two week holiday, I realise that I would have been equally happy to have been fixed in one spot, taking a close look at the birds, butterflies, flowers and fossils. Perhaps next time I should go to a small island!

I draw these wild flowers in the meadow by the children’s play area in Wengen. It’s on an embankment with a retaining wall, so I don’t even need to bend down to draw them. My varifocal spectacles are perfect for this kind of work with flowers and my sketchbook both comfortably in their focus zones. I find myself using a fine no.1 tipped Pilot Drawing Pen and adding small-print notes to my drawing, as I did 30 years ago when compiling my Richard Bell’s Britain sketchbook.

The flower on the left is a bellflower, Campanula rhomboidalis, which is found in the Alps and the Jura up to 2200m in meadows and on grassy banks.

On the right is a species of scabious, either small or shining, S. columbaria or  S. lucida.

The Spiked Rampion, in the middle, is a member of the bellflower family but it lacks the showy bells of its relative. Instead it has this plume-like flowerhead.

Lake Brienz


CLOUDY THIS morning and from the gondola down from Männlichen we spotted only one marmot by its burrow.

When we arrived at Grindelwald we found that the Tour Suisse had arrived and the small town had taken on a festival atmosphere. We decided to leave the bustle behind us and we took the next train to Interlaken Ost, then decided to get off at Wilderswil to walk alongside the river to Bönigen on Lake Brienz.

12.55 pm, Lake Brienz, or Brienzersee, from the ferry landing stage at Bönigen. Compared with Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake, the water is turquoise with the surrounding hills rising to about three times the height.

Drawing this view reminded me of the song Bali Hai sung by Jaunita Hall in her role as Bloody Mary in the musical South Pacific – a film that I saw only once, one torrentially wet day in Ayr in 1959, when the windscreen wipers of our Standard Vanguard estate broke, being unable to cope with the force of the deluge on our Scottish summer holiday. I’m surprised to see on Google-Street that the cinema – a rather forbidding-looking grey blockhouse of an Odeon on its ‘own special island’ – still stands in the middle of town and the garage where I remember us stopping half a century ago is still there, now a filling station.

The craggy island in the film is shown in glorious Technicolor ‘floating in the sunshine, [its]head sticking out from a low-flying cloud’.

I also remember a large hotel in Ayr where we sat drying out with a tray of tea by a fireplace decorated with tiles depicting the Greek myths. I kept pestering my mum to tell us the story behind them, such as the one of Hippomenes who threw down three golden apples to distract the huntress Atalanta in a race.

Wonder if the hotel too has survived and if so whether the wonderful fireplace survived the era of ‘modernisation’ in the 1960s and 1970s.

I’d be about 8 years old at the time and I’d already taken drawing books on previous holidays but that Scottish holiday was the first on which I remember trying to write and illustrate a holiday journal. I went for a magazine format, folding up some reject offset paper my dad had brought back from work (disadvantage; it had the yellow separation of a colour photograph of a woman in fur coat printed on it at regular intervals). My cover drawing was of a Scotsman in a kilt, carrying his bagpipes through a glen and stopping to smile at a sheep. The back cover featured the Edinburgh Castle Tatoo but I think that was about as far as I got with it and unfortunately I lost it long ago.

2.45 pm, Japanese Garden, Interlaken


4.30 pm, on the return journey we see four marmots in what I’ve come to think of as the lower colony near the stream but none in the upper colony near the gondola station.

We get good views of a couple of Snow Finches, looking down on them as our gondola approaches the upper station. Appropriately one of the finches lands on a patch of snow and starts pecking about. The book says ‘often seen foraging at ski-resort restaurants’.

Until I looked up this bird in the book when I got home, I’d assumed that these were Snow Buntings, which I’ve seen in the Cairngorms and Iceland but in the Alps they’re replaced by this similar but not very closely related species.

The Marmot’s Tail

 Friday (Freitag), 10 (zehn) June (Juni)

Sound of whistling – repeated 2-note phrases – as we passed over the marmot burrows. These two appeared to be keeping watch on some walkers 100 yards away.

Seen from above the marmot has a tail as thick as a German sausage – thicker in fact – with a black tip.

A stand-off – who will come out on top? –

A pair of Ravens or the mighty marmots – Europe’s largest member of the squirrel family?

No contest; one Raven pecks the tail of one of the marmots, which scampers off and stands right next to its bolt hole. The other marmot likewise stands beside a hole while the Ravens continue to strut along as the cocks of the walk.

Some of the marmot holes are enormous – perhaps where multiple tunnels have collapsed into each other.


Pipit, Alpiglen

The Wengen-Männlichen gondola was back in operation again yesterday after repairs to the supporting cable following a lightning strike so this morning we were on it at about 9, up in the high Alpine grasslands about ten minutes later and before 10 we’d made our way to a little knoll on the north end of the Männlichen ridge that gives views of all the places in the vicinity that we’ve visited – Interlaken, the Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte, Grindelwald, and the Lauterbrunnen Valley, although this morning cloud blotted out the Jungfrau.

Drogerie, Grindelwald station

After coffee at the restaurant we followed the Romantiweg – the Romantic Footpath – across the slopes down to Alpiglen, making slow progress as there were so many different species of wild flower to stop and try to identify.


On our return descent to Männlichen, in a cable car filled to capacity, we were able to position ourselves on the north side of the cabin so that we could see the area that the Chamois Trail footpath goes through on a steep upper slope where narrow meadows streak down between phalanxes of conifers. We were in luck; we saw our first Chamois. Well, actually I’d just decided that it was an odd-shaped sandy grey boulder lying by the path when Barbara spotted another 10 yards away from it, making its way along the path into the forest. We could make out the general shape through binoculars but not whether it had horns.

My close up of the Chamois (right) was of a stuffed specimen in a glass case in the lower cable car station. It was larger than I imagined; the size of a goat.

A day or two later we got a better view of a single Chamois, spotted by a sharp-eyed Australian as we waited for the cable car to descend. It was standing at the foot of the grassy gulley/clearing that runs below the cables. That one definitely had horns.

Mist over Männlichen

6.30 pm; These lower pinnacles of Männlichen were soon completely swathed in cloud when I started adding the watercolour to this little sketch made from our balcony. It’s now raining heavily (rather than torrentially) but it’s also brightened; there’s an overall yellowish hue to the meadows and chalets of Wengen, below the increasingly misty mountain above. The light is similar to the yellow band in a rainbow.

Murrenbach Waterfall

Mürrenbach waterfall, drawn from the kiosk cafe at Stechelberg at the top end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley 

WITH CLOUD swirling over the upper slopes we make our way down to Lauterbrunnen. We’re surprised to find hoof-prints, and fresh cow-dung, on the winding path through the woods – surely they don’t take the cows up and down this path for milking every day!

Talking to Barbara (another Barbara) who serves us coffee at the Jungfrau Hotel, we learn that today is the day that the Lauterbrunnen Valley cattle are taken to the upper pastures on the Wengen side of the valley. On the Mürren side they were taken up a week earlier. This proved premature as an usually late snowfall meant that they found themselves up there in the snow.

Looking at my drawing of the Altetsch Glacier, Barbara tells us that she runs in the Aletsch half marathon which involves 21 kilometres along the lateral moraine of the glacier at over 1000m altitude.

Sand martins, house martins and swifts swoop low over the river.

Folk Evening at Wengen

Wengen Bell Ringers parade along the main street with their enormous cow bells, creating a rhythmic racket. As we’re in the mountains their procession reminded me of the ceremonies that Tibetan Buddhist monks perform to frighten off evil spirits.

The Alpine horn also resembles and instrument played by Buddhist monks but in Switzerland to mellow, rather than other-worldly, effect. The Buchel horn resembles a curled up Alpine horn. The soloist performed a piece called ‘The Guy from Mūrren’ which a friend had composed for him.

The Wengen and Mūrren Yodel singers didn’t go for the sort of yodelling that would echo across the valley; their songs were rather gentle and harmonically complex, about homely, Swiss country life, such as ‘The Saturday Evening Meal’.

The event, the first of a series this summer, was held in a large marquee by the tennis courts.

The band finished with a Dixieland jazz piece and the evening finished with dancing to an accordian trio.

Lace-makers and spinners demonstrated their crafts and there was a chance to sample local food and drink.

Forest Trail

Wednesday (Mittwoch), 8 (acht) June (Juni)

View from our balcony at the Hotel Bernerhof, 1.50 pm

OUR ONLY day of the holiday without a travel pass, so, on this drizzly morning, we walk up to the Park Hotel to follow Wengen’s Forest Trail on the lower western slopes of Männlichen. You can get a trail leaflet from the Tourist Information Centre in Wengen.

It’s an easy way to get familiar with the trees and flowers of the area as 69 species are labelled with their botanical names and in German, French, English and Italian (we’re only 22 miles from the border with Italy, but that’s over the mountains and across the Rhone Valley). Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, for example, is Charme in French, Carpino in Italian and Weissbuche or Hagebuche in German.

2.15 pm

Rhododendron hirsutum is the German Behaarte Alpenrose, French Rhododendron cilie and Rhododendron peloso in Italian. The label suggests Hirsute rhododendron as the English name but I’d go simply for Alpenrose, which is also the name of one of the hotels in Wengen, one that has been attracting guests for over a century. In winter, one visitor tells us, you can ski right down to this hotel from the slopes.

The Top of Europe

THE DAY STARTS as our clearest yet, so we head up the hill towards Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe. After we change trains at Kleine Scheidegg the railway ascends via a tunnel through the Eiger, with two brief stops to take in the view. At the first stop you look through the most unlikely of picture windows, cut in the North Wall of the Eiger, down on Männlichen and Grindelwald while at the next you feel you’ve entered the mountain world as you look out over the Eiger Glacier.

Unfortunately by the time we arrive at the terminus station in the mountain at Jungfraujoch, cloud has shrouded the summits. It soon fills the valley below too, erasing the view even of these nearby pinnacles of the Jungfrau (above). The terrace by the restaurant is closed because of the danger of falling ice.

After a break for hot chocolate, I resign myself to drawing the icicles hanging from the roof – which is as far as I can see in the cloud – but I’m delighted when the cloud clears sufficiently for me to make my drawing of the glacier.

The Aletsch Glacier

At 23 kilometres (17 miles) long, the Aletsch Glacier is the longest – and also the widest – in Europe. There are no trees or buildings to give an idea of scale in this mountain landscape. It’s not until later, when I see figures far below walking on the glacier and tobogganing in the Snow Fun area, that I realise that those crevases on the left would be large enough to swallow up our house.

Ascending from Wengen (1274 m, 4180 ft) to Jungfraujoch (3454 m, 11333 ft) involves a large drop in air pressure so when I attempt to start drawing with my ArtPen, a fountain pen, I find that the ink leeks out uncontrollably. Luckily this doesn’t affect my Pilot Drawing Pens which are fibre tips.

For the view of the Aletsch Glacier I switch to pencil for the drawing before adding watercolour. In the original of this drawing the watercolour washes fade imperceptably into the white of the paper, something that seems to be impossible to reproduce in a low res scan.

As I sit on the floor by a full-length window in the coffee shop I’m just on level with a small Japanese boy who ask me repeatedly (as his father eventually translates) why don’t I use brighter colours, such as red.

Two South Korean women ask if they can photograph my drawing then photograph me with my sketchbook. I’m touched by the way they thank me; standing, side by side and bowing in unison.

Jungfrau from the Sphinx (left), which is the highest point you can visit at Jungfraujoch .

Pressure change also affects the journey down; I drink the last of my water as we wait for the train to set off, then screw the cap back onto the bottle. When I take the bottle out of my bag in the hotel, I discover that it has collapsed under the increased pressure.