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?
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.
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.
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.
I like the extra fine nib Lamy pen filled with brown ink for detailed natural history drawings but this afternoon, as I set off in a wintry shower to draw this willow by the canal, I find the bold nib and black ink more useful. Shower over, the tree goes into high contrast, backlit by the sun, so it’s useful to be able to quickly build up tone in the shadow areas, following the pattern of the bark with quick pen lines.
As you can see from my photograph, the bold nib (in the yellow pen on the left) has a rounded end which moves easily in any direction over the cartridge paper of my sketchbook. Being larger, it is freer flowing, giving an satisfyingly inky line.
I’ve got there at last with my introductory frame for the Waterton comic and I enjoyed finishing off adding the colour this morning. There are a few things that I’d change if I’d started again but my main consideration is to tell the story as clearly as I can. This packs in the necessary elements. Time to move on to the next frame.
Charles Waterton was a hands-on conservationist so as he set about turning the grounds of his ancestral home, Walton Hall, into the world’s first nature reserve, visitors sometimes assumed that he was a gardener or labourer. In the first frame of my comic strip, a railway surveyor mistakes him for a tramp but when I put the meeting in its location by the Barnsley canal, he looks more like a bargee.
Sitting on the Fence
How do I make him look more like an idle bystander? How would that come across in his body language?
Instead of standing on the towpath making a mock-deferential bow, I try him sitting on the fence. And instead of having him wear a shirt and a waistcoat like a bargee, I give him a battered top hat and a rumpled tailcoat.
Waterton could climb trees with ease right into his 80s but I’m struggling to make him look at ease while sitting on the top rail of a fence. Barbara suggests that no one is going to look comfortable sitting on a fence so why not have him reclining on the canal bank?
Barefoot in the Park
Waterton liked to walk barefoot which helps identify him as a dishevelled tramp-like character but to look down at Waterton’s bare feet as well as up at the tree tops of the park beyond that high defensive wall means that I have to fall back on that old cheat used by illustrators, rubberised perspective. It’s not so much of a cheat though because, if this was a film, which is the way that I keep thinking of it, and this was a panning shot, the perspective would keep changing as the camera tracked across the scene.
Yes, Waterton has ended up looking like Willy Wonka, but I think that this version tells the story more clearly than my first rough. It also leaves plenty of space for the three speech bubbles that we need in the space between the characters.
The poplar leaves by the lock on the Leeds Liverpool canal at Gargrave have all but turned to leaf mould, leaving fragmentary leaf skeletons.
On a south-facing bank by the road I see my first celandines of the year bursting into flower, pushing up amongst their dark green heart-shaped leaves and the dried stems of last year’s growth.
At the foot of this gritstone wall I pick up a couple of garden snail shells to draw. Inside a third shell I find another species of snail sheltering. Compared to the garden snail this one has a more flattened spiral, rather like an ammonite.
IT’S HARD to believe that at last we’ve completed all our Christmas errands and finished off as many home improvements we need to before Christmas. The days are now getting longer, just two minutes a day, but that will soon add up. To celebrate this small but significant change and to draw a line in the sand (well in the mud at this time of year), we set off for a short walk along the towpath in the rapidly fading light.
A heron flies past Beckside Farm and over the old grey viaduct. Two Mute Swans bring grace and elegance to the canal basin at Horbury Bridge.
On one narrowboat, they’ve improvised a giant Christmas pudding by the tiller, using a black plastic bin bag and cut-out holly leaves.
We turn back when we reach the pylon wires, which are sizzling and crackling in the rain like sausages in a frying pan. The pylon, standing on the steep bank above a belt of broadleaves, makes a stark Christmas tree silhouette.
Just 15 minutes walk from our doorstep and I feel as if we’ve escaped into real countryside and experienced the wider world.
As we walk back up from the towpath alongside the Bingley Arms, I rub my fingers through the Wormwood to smell this bitterly aromatic herb. It’s appropriate that it should be planted here by the pub as it has been used in brewing and as a flavouring in absinthe and in some Polish vodkas.