The Barn Owls of Low Laithes

This Barn Owl was found lying by the side of the M1 near junction 40 earlier this week. A member of the Wakefield Naturalist’s spotted it and brought it to the meeting on Tuesday. Sadly, this if a first; at the meetings of the Wakefield Naturalists’ Society that I’ve attended over the last 40 years, I don’t ever remember anyone bringing in a dead bird but this was apparently a regular feature of the society’s meeting in the Victorian period in the bad old days when one of the axioms of keeping biological records was ‘what’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery’. Even some of the founding fathers of conservation like Audubon used the gun to collect huge numbers of birds, and not just strictly for reference purposes when illustrating his Birds of America, he apparently enjoyed the sporting aspect of shooting wild birds.

There’s a record of an Otter which was shot on the Calder at Stanley on 3 February, 1869. Rather worryingly there’s a note in the Wakefield Naturalists’ Society Annual Report for 1883 (illustrated here with an engraving by Thomas Bewick, or one of his followers):

 Otter – Lutra vulgaris. Several have been obtained.

The Wakefield Naturalists’ Society was founded in 1851, ten years before the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, which celebrates its 150th anniversary with a conference on The Ever-changing Flora and Fauna of Yorkshire at Garforth on 19 March this year. Obviously there had to be a network of naturalists’ societies before a county-wide Union could be formed.

Coming back to the unfortunate Barn Owl; it’s hunting habits, flying low over open, scrubby grassland, in the half-light of evening are sooner or later going to put it on a collision course with motorway traffic. Low Laithes golf course provided a hunting territory for Barn Owls as their numbers began to recover locally in the 1980s. They’re continuing to spread around Anglers Country Park today.

Appropriately the place name Laithes comes from the Viking word for barn. My Walks around Ossett follow circular routes around the town from Mitchell Laithes in the south-east to Low Laithes in the north-west.

When I was checking out the Low Laithes walk for the booklet, I came across a familiar-looking image of a Barn Owl. Flags and signs at Low Laithes golf course are emblazoned with the owl logo I drew for them back in the late 80s or early 90s. It’s even been carved in bas-relief in sandstone by the entrance gates; the first time I remember anything of mine being carved in stone.

End of terrace on the junction of New Street and Prospect Road, Ossett, drawn during a coffee break at Cafe Vie.

New Sketchbook

A NEW SKETCHBOOK and, I hope, a new start. I’m pleased to consign my finished 6 inch square sketchbook to the plan chest drawer, dominated as it was by drawings I’d done during visiting time in the cardiac ward and in the hospice. At least I kept up my drawing as much as I could. It’s now four weeks since my mother-in-law’s funeral but it hardly seems it as there’s been so much to do.

With my new sketchbook I’m broadening my outlook; it’s A5, 6 x 8 inches, as a opposed to 6 x 6, so there’s that extra space to breath. More depth, I hope, in dimension and in intention. And I’m feeling the urge to travel . . .

One of the reasons we miss Betty is that she’s no longer there to call on and to tell her tales of our travels – for instance on Friday when we took a relaxed shopping trip into Leeds. But at least we did a lot of travelling with her, when she was fit enough to get about. Even when she wasn’t so fit, for that matter.

Travelling in by train from Dewsbury is my favourite way to commute to Leeds. There’s no winding about on motorway feeder roads as you approach the city centre. Although it’s such a short journey there’s still enough time to take out a sketchbook and draw the passing scene or – in the long tunnel deep beneath Morley – commuters in the carriage.

Paper Clip Art

I’ve been looking forward to doing the collage exercises in The Professional Step-by-Step Guide to Cartooning(Hissey & Tappenden). It’s so unlike anything that it would normally occur to me to do. The nearest that I get to collage in my sketchbooks is sticking in a ferry ticket or a tea-bag tag when we’re on holiday. I’ve stuck as closely as I could manage to Ivan Hissey’s sample artwork but to do it with his ease and panache I’d have to practice a bit more. Collage calls for forward planning, care and precision. Not my strongest points. You’ve got to look out for things like ragged edges – unless you intend to use a ragged edge – and splodges of glue.

And of course I’ll be in trouble next time Barbara needs to refer to the storage section of our Ikea catalogue!

Ginger Tom

“That looks twee!” said Barbara as she looked over my shoulder this morning as I was colouring in this cartoon. She’s right, I don’t normally do cuteness, so it’s been a strange experience, working through this cartoon course (see previous posts), as I’m obliged to try and work in someone else’s style. Again, I’ve changed the subject matter; this exercise in colour harmony features a monkey and a pile of bananas in the original example but I thought I’d include the daffodils that are now showing in our garden border and the large ginger cat that has adopted our back garden.

My priorities for the back garden might be attracting wildlife and growing vegetables but the ginger tom sees things differently:

  • stalking practice; sitting on the patio watching the birds on the feeders
  • liquid refreshement; using the pond as a watering hole
  • comfort break; using one of our freshly dug raised beds as the ultimate cat litter tray

This huge, fluffy ginger cat also enjoyed a spot of crazy breakdancing, pouncing this way and that on one of the veg beds like an overgrown kitten at play. The sparrows who normally hang around in the adjacent hawthorn hedge flew up in agitation, chirruping in alarm, apparently unsure what to make of this crazed predator.

Rainbow Trout

Continuing with the cartooning course, these are experiments to test how colours will blend in different media; in my case I used my regular watercolours for the peacock, coloured inks for the rainbow trout and Sharpies and other marker pens for the butterfly.

It’s a rare opportunity to use my Pelikan inks, which have been sitting in the back of a drawer for decades and getting them out makes me realise that I need to sort out my art materials. For instance, the cheap sable brushes that I bought years ago are now too splayed to be a pleasure to use and some tubes of gouache have dried out and set solid.

However, I still have enough tubes of gouache to try the exercise for building up a furry texture using a fine brush and this opaque medium. Apart from changing the species from a bear to a weird kind of furry fox, you can see I’ve stuck pretty much to the examples shown in the book, The Professional Step-by-Step Guide to Cartooning, (left, behind my bottles of vintage ink).

In the next exercise – which demonstrates the way you can use a limited colour palette, in this case red and blue ink – I substituted the cowboy in the book for Roundhead commander ‘Black Tom’ Fairfax, who pops up in my latest booklet Walks around Ossett.

I think that I’ll eventually be able to relax into a personal cartoon style but this drawing looks rather stilted as I was simultaneously following the style of the cartoon cowboy and the content of the equestrian portrait of Fairfax. The fanciful background sketch of Thornhill Hall (accidentally blown up at the end of Fairfax’s siege), which I’ve substituted for the wild west background of the cowboy, looks less self-conscious than the horse and rider.

Cartoon Course

I came across The Professional Step-by-Step Guide to Cartooning by Ivan Hissey and Curits Tappenden a couple of weeks ago and after the final push of getting my walks booklet into print, I thought that I deserved a bit of a change, so I’m going to have a few days off to go through some of the practice exercises in the book.

My main thing, of course, is drawing from nature, so why should I be interested in cartooning? This book is a practical introduction to drawing as a way of telling a story or communicating an idea, which is what I try to do in my publications. If drawing from nature was my sole concern, I could just as well present my drawings in isolation – framed on a gallery wall, for example – but invariably I present them as a sequence, along with varying amounts of text.

I’m hoping this book will make me rethink the way that I tell stories and communicate ideas in my publications.

Opposing Black and White

This first exercise calls for fineliner pen (I used a Pilot drawing pen) and black Indian ink applied with a number 3 round brush. Starting it in pencil, I’ve closely followed Ivan Hissey’s step-by-step but I’ve gone for a geological context rather than the darkened room of the original. I like the woodcut style, where you aim to balance the black and white portions of the image, but to get the sharp gouged line of a woodcut calls for some confidence and forward planning when you ink in with the brush. In the places where you can still see my drawing pen line it comes over as too soft and tentative for this style of cartoon.

I look foward to getting a bit more practice . . .

Life After Rhubarb

THE LAUNCH of Walks around Ossett went well at the Rhubarb Festival (yesterday and Friday) but it’s wonderful to get back to normal life!

I launched Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire at last year’s Festival. One of my first customers then was a woman from Nottingham who protested about any suggestion that Robin might be a Yorkshireman but I managed to talk her into buying a copy so I was delighted when – returning for this year’s festival – she said that she’d enjoyed reading it and she’d learnt a lot from it. I feel that’s quite an achievement!

It’s always a struggle to reach the deadline for this February event, following as it does the distractions of Christmas and, as often as not, some difficult weather for checking out the walks but it’s a good time of year to be starting afresh. Snowdrops, crocus and the first miniature daffodils are beginning to show and as we walked through the woods between showers this afternoon the leaves of bluebell, wild arum, golden saxifrage, dogs mercury and other woodland herbs were showing. I’ve got ambitious plans for drawing from nature and for book projects this year so hopefully I’ll be out there drawing the wild flowers as they appear throughout the season.

The Admiral Benbow

Here we are at the Admiral Benbow, the inn where young Jim Hawkins encounters Billy Bones and Blind Pew in Treasure Island. You might detect some echoes of last year’s Dame Dibble’s Dairy from Jack and the Beanstalk, in my sketch; this is because of my habit of recycling backdrops. Instead of starting the scene afresh, I’ve converted the half-timbered exterior of the dairy into the half-timbered interior of the inn.

This gave us time to flip the flats around this afternoon to quickly convert the sky blue scene of Jack’s Cloudland Castle into a tropical Treasure Island with palm trees, dunes and smouldering volcano (a detail that I don’t recall in the Robert Louis Stevenson original).

Spike’s Script?

The first big production of the Horbury Pageant Players that I got involved in was Treasure Island, in 1967, but that was in the days when the Pageants prided themselves on never doing pantomimes so the scripts we used were on loan to us from the Mermaid Theatre, where Bernard Miles’ production had been a great success. In that version, comic genius Spike Milligan played Ben Gunn, the castaway with a fondness for cheese.

In our 1967 version, my younger brother Bill played the pirate who took Jim Hawkins’ kit on board the Hispaniola. Bill told me that one of the scripts had weird figures doodled all over it.

I never saw this script and all the whole batch were returned to the Mermaid after the production but I’m convinced that must have been Milligan’s script, annotated in characteristic style by him during rehearsals.

It would be a small treasure of Milligana if it had survived!


I have been drawing recently but you wouldn’t know it from my sketchbook; these are all I have to show for the last week or two. I’ve been drawing the maps for Walks Around Ossett in the odd hours I’ve had between family matters and parcelling up my books. Parcelling up books and shipping them out to customers never seems like real work – it’s therapeutic but hardly taxing – but it is, after all, the way I make my living, so I shouldn’t grumble!

I think that I can see a patch of calm, clear water ahead but at the moment I really feel as if I’m swimming against a backwash and getting nowhere and that is reflected in this handful of sketches:

  • a couple of people at the Wakefield Naturalists’ meeting on Tuesday
  • a newspaper drawn when I waited to have my hair cut last week
  • two chair backs

The chairs are entirely typical of my unsettled life at present; I started drawing one chair then got moved on after I’d drawn two lines then – at my next port of call – I’d no sooner started drawing a second chair when someone came along and moved it!

Rhubarb Rootstock

Finally, this afternoon, after a morning painting scenery and an afternoon at a farm shop event, I got the best part of an hour to sketch. As it was a Rhubarb Festival event the most appealing subject to hand was a basket of forced rhubarb and an example of the rootstock from which the shoots are grown, at this time of year, in total darkness to ensure an early crop, at a time of year when there is a break in the supply of soft fruits.

The Cat & Clothes Line

Barbara shouted up to me ‘Just take a look at that cat on the lawn!’

It’s been a wild day, wild but mild; this morning our neighbour’s three-year old boy got blown over in a gust on the way to school and the handful of stallholders who turned up at Ossett Market were sent home because of the danger of goods and even stalls being blown around. I felt particularly sorry for the fishmonger with all his fresh fish, having to pack up his van. We’ve had a lot of rain too and the Calder is running beige-brown and flowing up over the bridge piers but not quite at flood level yet.

But some are enjoying the call of the wild; the frayed end of the broken washing line (broken by blue tits pecking at it!) was snaking and jerking around on the lawn near the pond, exactly in the way that you’d tempt a kitten to chase a piece of string, but on a larger and livelier scale.

Too much of a temptation for this black and white cat which was taking it’s usual shortcut back from the meadow via our back garden path. You can see (below) that at times it turned its back on it but then thought ‘Well, just one more go . . .’

It was so happy rolling on its back, pouncing and sitting with its ‘prey’ wrapped around its shoulder. Occasionally it did pause and look around as if thinking ‘This is silly, I hope no one is watching me.’ But it still couldn’t resist another mad tussle with the playful frayed end of the rope beckoning.

I’d love to have had time to make quick sketches but the last ten days have been taken up with preparations for Barbara’s mum’s funeral on Monday. I’m not going to really settle down until after there’s been that short ceremony of closure.

Over the past weeks and months I’ve slipped further and further behind with my latest booklet, the deadline for which is looming up in the next two to three weeks, but haven’t been able to make any real progress on it.