Kat Kong

On our walk along the towpath yesterday afternoon, I tried photographing the Canal House cat – well one of the Canal House cats, there are several – as it sat on a shed roof and it’s ended up looking giant-sized compared with the old barge-horse stables, like Kitten Kong in The Goodies, which rampaged around London and demolished the Post Office Tower. Barbara and I saw Jack Black in Gulliver’s Travels in 3D last week so perhaps that influenced my viewpoint.


I’ve never taken so many photographs as I have since I got my little Olympus Tough a year ago; it’s almost always with me. I’ve drawn this deposit of flowstone in my Wild West Yorkshire diary before but yesterday I took the opportunity to photograph it on the camera’s macro setting. It’s such a small camera that all I need to do is lean over, holding it at arm’s length, to get near the outflow, which comes out of the canal bridge on a steep banking. In close-up it looks like deposits that I’ve seen in limestone caves. I assume that water is dissolving lime in mortar between the stones of the bridge piers.

Hoar Frost

Yesterday afternoon the shadows were white – white with frost. The towpath is something of a sun trap, even when the sun is so low on a winter’s day, but the ridge of trees opposite casts a long shadow so in places the path is muddy but just inches away the ground is frozen solid and the vegetation rimed with hoar frost where it has remained in shadow all day.

Towpath Birds

Each bird has it’s distinctive way of getting across the canal;

The Moorhen has the most amphibious method, combining land, air and water for the short journey. As it sees us approach, it pauses on the towpath, stalks a few tentative steps to the bank, launches itself into the air with limited effect then staggers along the water surface for a few paces – with the out of control momentum of someone jumping onto the platform before the train has stopped – before settling to swim the last yard or so to the seclusion of the bankside vegetation.

The Wren zooms along, wings a-whir, from the undergrowth on the towpath side to the hedge on the far bank.

A small group of Long-tailed Tits take a roller-coaster flightpath from the tops branches at one side to those on the other. Repeated wing-beats interspersed with short rests result in their bouncing flight.

A pair of Mallards swim across with a surreptitious air. The drake might be trying to avoid the attention of rival males. Later we see a duck closely pursued by two drakes flying up river.

Razor Shells

You can see why the razor shells you find on sandy beaches get their name when you see old cut-throat razors like these; they have the same proportions and gentle curve. Abalone shell has been incorporated into the grapevine decorations on the handles of these razors. The abalone is ear-shaped with a row of perforations – which would be the effect one of these cut-throats would have on my ear, if I ever attempted to use it!

In Wild Yorkshire on 7 August I wrote about my great-great grandad, Samuel Bergin Swift who designed a cut-throat razor for Napoleon III.

It seems that his son George, my great-grandad on my mum’s side, might have been equally talented. I like to think my enthusiasm for applied arts – if I can include writing and illustrating books in that category – comes from that side of the family. Yesterday, while having a cup of coffee with my mum, we were talking about Samuel Bergin’s designs and she mentioned that she has two cut-throat razors that belonged to George.

maker's nameThey have the maker’s name on the blades; ‘JOSEPH RODGERS&SONS, CUTLERS TO THEIR MAJESTIES, No.6 NORFOLK STREET’; the firm where at least four generations of my family worked. The final line of the address, ‘SHEFFIELD’ is almost entirely worn away.

A collector who has a special interest in Rodgers’ pen-knives and razors tells me:

It’s very difficult to date Rodgers razors but they look to be late Victorian or Edwardian.  The reference to THEIR MAJESTIES simply means the fact that Rodgers have been cutlers to George 4th, William 4th, Victoria and so on.

I have never seen decoration like that on a Rodgers razor before and so if you look, the pin at one end is different from the other end.  My thinking is that these razors were either bought as standard razor blades and had different handles fitted.  Or, the original handles got damaged and were taken off and replaced with these.  This would not be unusual.

The very good news is that they have been replaced with some stunning inlaid pique work using possibly pieces of mother of pearl but the majority of it is definitely abalone.  It is a much more iridescent and colourful shell than MOP.  Your relative who worked at Rodgers would have likely been able to do this work easily or he would know someone who could.  I think these handles are one of a kind.  It doesn’t make them unique in particular, it just means they are a good example of pique work.  Because pique work like this is all hand done, every item is different in some way.  The grapes were a popular symbol of art nouveau decoration which makes me think these are late Victorian.

The decoration is superb.  I forgot to mention that it looks like there is some inlaid metal in there as well.  That would be perfectly normal.  The metal and abalone compliment one another.  It could be gold or silver, it’s difficult to say without seeing it.

The handles themselves look to be an early bakelite/plastic but it’s hard to say.  They could also be buffalo horn, ebony wood or tortoiseshell.  I didn’t think so at first but them I remembered that unpolished shell does have a very dark colour to it, especially when it’s thick.  I’m sorry I cannot help you more in that handle material.  One thing you could do is hold the handle up to a bright light and if i has a browny colour, it will be shell.  Horn and ebony tend to have a grained appearance which I don’t think these have.  If you cannot see a grain and it doesn’t shine brown through a bright light, I would think they are bakelite.

Because the handles are mounted on metal, I haven’t been able to shine a light through them. Along the edges, I can’t see any signs of them being translucent.

Tankersley Park

Tankersley Park“From Rotherham we turned north west to Wentworth, on purpose to see the old seat of Tankersley and the park, where I saw the largest red deer that, I believe, are in this part of Europe: One of the hinds, I think, was larger than my horse, and he was not a very small pad of fourteen hands and half high. This was anciently the dwelling of the great Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, beheaded in King Charles the First’s time, by a law, ex post facto, voted afterward not to be drawn into a precedent. The body lies interred in Wentworth Church.”

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, 1727

M1 near TankersleyAs you head north on the M1 from Sheffield to Wakefield you pass the Park, now a golf course, visited by Defoe in the 1720s. There had been 280 deer in the park in 1653 but by the late 1800s the Park had long been split up and the remaining deer were removed to Wentworth.

golf courseThe mounds on the golf course are spoil from shallow pits dug to get at a layer of ironstone. Sparse, rabbit-nibbled grasses, yarrow, birdsfoot trefoil and other wildflowers cover each circular mound of shale but in the central depression, where the old shaft has caved in, thorn and elder bushes take root.

Churchill TankThese ironworkings date from the 1790s, after the break-up of Tankersley Park, and by 1850 about 250 ironstone miners worked here.

Over one thousand Churchill Tanks were assembled here during World War II in a factory which stood on a site 500 yards west of the M1.

Tankersley Church‘Many were slain and some taken prisoners’ when the Royalists won a victory over the Roundheads in the Battle of Tankersley Moor, 1643. Sir Francis Wortley, a Royalist who led a troop of some 900 men in the battle, had cannon balls made at his forge a nearby Wortley. TankersleyCannon balls and a bullet found on the battlefield are preserved in Tankersley Church, which stands on the hill overlooking the motorway.


A winter’s afternoon: ‘It was as cold and crisp as an ice cream with . . . um . . a crispy coating. The Moon rose like a pizza splodged with mozzarella . . .’

Okay, I’ll have to face it, after a harrowing day, a short walk over Horbury Bridge to the post office isn’t going to give me the material I need for my ongoing nature diary.

For once there are no birds on either the canal or the river . . . but what’s that bicycle doing down there on the strandline?

There was an early feminist proverb: ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.’ Perhaps this one has been abandoned by a large Sea Trout (see http://wildyorkshire.blog/2011/01/salmon-or-sea-trout/ ) trying to make its way upstream.

A flock of a dozen or more Jackdaws flies over as the Sun sets and the fleecy clouds over the wood are tinted coral red like flamingos.

More lights in the wood this evening; bright blue starbursts threading  through the trees. A police search?

No, it’s a group of lads (or possibly fish, I can’t actually see them in the darkness) are cycling around the quarry area.

The rear lights are equally clear: ‘Blue as they approach, red as they recede,’ – like the spectra of stars moving around our galaxy – as Alan Garner described motorway traffic in his novel Red Shift.

Great writer Garner; he’d never have come up with ‘The Moon rose like a pizza.’

Compost Bin

The main component in this compost bin isn’t the timber or the nails; it’s the sheer intellectual effort involved!

Working with recycled timber means that you’re improvising all the time, planning which piece to use where. The only materials we bought at the local builders’ yard were two packets of galvanised nails and one sheet of outdoor plywood for the lids and one of the ‘doors’.

So is  it really worth all this effort for a compost bin?! Of course! The compost bin is at the heart of the garden, turning plant waste into valuable humus (another bonus is that at last we’ve whittled down the stack of timber that I salvaged ‘because it would be useful’ but which has been leaning against the shed for several years!)

This double bin holds 2.5 cubic yards of compost (almost 2 cubic metres) which would weigh about 1 ton (or somewhere in the region of 1000 kilograms) depending on how wet or dry it was. Imagine bringing that lot home from the garden centre! And, for that matter, think of the cost of transport if we sent our garden waste away with the local authority collection. We told them we didn’t require a bin when the scheme started but we did take them up on an offer for a recycled plastic compost bin which sits in another corner of the garden, by the shed.

I had to manhandle my mum’s compost wheelie bin down her driveway this morning so I’m well aware how heavy bulky organic matter can be.

What I don’t like about this design of compost bin:

  • it’s so large now that it shades one end of the greenhouse
  • with the lid on, the birds can’t get at it – although I’m sure the Toads will find their way to it

Covering the compost and insulating it from the weather helps speed up the composting process. This bin is double-walled with cardboard cartons acting as insulation in the cavity. When the cardboard starts to rot down, that can go into the compost too (if I can find a way of lifting it out of the narrow cavity, that is).

produceIt’s unfortunate that the compost will be out of bounds to birds in future but at least the Robin got a chance to hop around the disturbed ground as we worked today, almost under our feet.

We’re going to have some amazing crops of vegetables from the compost this bin will produce!

Birds at a Glance

chaffinchThese aren’t drawings of the birds’ ‘true’, accurate appearance – it would be easier to study a bird book for an authoritative version of that – but they aren’t drawings of the birds as I saw them either; they’re drawings of the way I remembered the appearance of the bird after I’d looked at it for as long as possible, which wasn’t long enough, through binoculars.

This way of drawing varies from my normal approach where I look and look and look again, building up a drawing from dozens, probably hundreds, of little observations. blackbirdThat’s not an option with most of the birds in our garden. I took mental notes of shape and colour during my one lingering look at each bird and then tried to stick to that, rather than revert to the familiar picture of, say, a Blackbird, that I might already carry in my mind.

I gave myself license not to worry if the final drawing didn’t look all that much like the bird. As I say, I could have referred to a bird book if that had been my aim but these are the colours and the shapes, as accurately and honestly as I could transfer them from memory to paper.

The species I drew are male Chaffinch, Starling, female and male Blackbird, Great Tit and Woodpigeon. I used an ArtPen with brown Noodler’s waterproof ink and Cotman watercolours.

Ash Trees at Dusk

Coxley Wood, sunset

blue titrobin and blackbird4 pm; I was going to draw birds but there was little activity by the time I’d filled up the feeders and settled down with my sketchbook. A couple of Blue Tits briefly peer out from the hedge, a Robin flits about below, a Blackbird pecks in distracted haste at the bare earth of the border while over in the wood, three Woodpigeons are clattering around in the tops of the Ashes.

Ash, Horbury CemeteryYesterday morning I was sorry to see this large Ash (left) in Horbury Cemetery being felled, one of several that are to go. It appears to be a healthy specimen but there’s no doubt that in some gale over the next decade or so it would have blown down, causing considerable damage to the houses that were built adjacent to the cemetery in the 1960s, when the tree was probably already half a century old (if I get the opportunity, I’ll count the rings). Unfortunately trees can do more than damage property and this autumn, during one evening of high winds punctuated by more powerful gusts, a huge bough from a tree at Stanley Churchyard crashed down onto a passing car, fatally injuring a woman.

Luckily the Ashes and Crack Willows in my watercolour of the lower end of Coxley Wood, don’t threaten any road or property and it’s highly unlikely that anyone would risk walking through in the kind of high winds which caused the accident at Stanley.

Spring Mill Beck

Spring Mill Beck
Alder, Spring Mill Beck

Working on my latest booklet of local walks, I’m discovering the odd footpath that I’ve never walked on before, then there are others, like the one beside Spring Mill Beck (above), that I’ve known since childhood but walked on only a handful of occasions. Some footpaths don’t connect with any of my regular routes so, although they might be nearer to home than some of my favourites, there’s rarely the opportunity to visit them.

My first memory of this path alongside the beck between Ossett Spa and Horbury, was of walking it with my younger brother Bill in the 1960s when I was in my early teens. We spotted a Toad on the path ahead of us and this was such a rare find that we decided we’d take it home so that it could live in the moist, ferny toadatmosphere of father’s greenhouse. We’d heard that having a Toad in the greenhouse was a natural form of pest control. I wouldn’t relocate a Toad for this reason today!

Carr Lodge play areaBill caught it and carried it home, a mile through the streets of Horbury, in one of his shoes.

Bill and I used to climb up the quarry face at Storrs Hill but today’s children don’t have to go further than the local park to climb. Since the last time I walked through Carr Lodge Park in Horbury these climbing rocks have been erected in the play area. The rock in the foreground isn’t suffering from a mystery virus; those spots are climbing holds inserted in the rock. If no one had been looking I’d have been tempted to give it a try!

The Hawk and the Squirrel

Harris HawkWatching a Grey Squirrel carrying bedding to its drey the other day, I was thinking what an easy life these suburban squirrels must have, with no natural enemies apart from the occasional Fox, which can’t follow them up into the tree-tops. But the squirrels of Spring Mill Park must be well aware of one powerful predator that has been hawking around the area for the last 14 years; this North American Harris Hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus, one of three which belong to a local falconer.

grey squirrelHe exercises them regularly but confides to me that it’s now getting a bit too much for him. When the bird goes down on prey it’s not like a retriever dog, it won’t bring the prey back to him, so it might end up half a mile away – as the hawk flies – up the slope in one of the pastures between Spring Mill Park and the motorway.

This hawk can easily tackle prey such as Rabbits and Magpies but if you’re hawking for Grey Squirrels – which, for all their cuteness, are often seen as a pest species, here in Britain where they’ve been introduced – the hawk needs to be equipped with special leg-guards as the squirrel, when caught, can swivel around and use its impressive incisors to bite into the back of the hawk’s legs, potentially inflicting permanent damage.

Flying weight is critical for hawking; fly a bird that’s even a few grams over its ideal weight and it will happily soar about all day without bothering to go for prey. This female Harris Hawk, I’m informed, needs to weigh in at precisely 2 pounds, 1 ounce and 3 grams, when it is taken out to hunt.

goshawkThe falconer was once surprised, when he was calling back one of his hawks, by the sudden appearance of a Goshawk which flew down and perched on the fence nearby. It had jesses so he managed to get near it and take it back to his avairy. The ring, which all captive falcons wear, revealed that it had been lost by a falconer who lives at Addingham, 23 miles to the north-west of Spring Mill, so he was able to reunite the bird with its owner.