Pondweed

AFTER  CLEARING the pond last week and leaving the water to clear we’re now adding ten weighted bunches of oxygenating Curled Pondweed, Potamogeton crispus. I’m thinking carefully before I choose the floating and emergent plants that we’re going to add next as I don’t want to introduce anything which will completely take over the pond as the Yellow Flag Iris did.

The evening after we’d cleared the pond and cut down some of the surrounding vegetation, we watched a Hedgehog snuffling around the pond edge. It waddled over to the garden shed to search amongst the grasses before disappearing under the hawthorn hedge into next door’s garden.

Snails are a regular part of a hedgehog’s diet but the empty and broken shells that we find on concrete paths in our garden are the result of another snail-eater which we’ve been seeing quite often recently; the Song Thrush. A week or two ago it came up to the patio with two youngsters. It may have nested in the ivy in the far corner beyond the greenhouse or in one of our next door neighbour’s dense evergreen shrubs.

Sadly another young Greenfinch collided with the patio windows on Sunday afternoon. We heard the bang. Sometimes the bird is dazed but it survives but this one was unlucky and apparently broke its neck on impact. The windows were open at the time but unfortunately it flew into the glass instead of flying into the house.

Crinoids

WHEN WE were walking between Hope and Castleton in the Peak District on Wednesday, we came across crinoid fossils in some of the capstones of the drystone wall as we crossed a stile. Crinoids are also known as sea-lilies although they’re invertebrate animals, relatives of sea urchins and starfish. They’ve been called ‘starfish on stems’; creatures that spread their arms to catch food particles.

They’re usually found where a current wafts across a reef. At the time these fossils formed what is now the Peak District lay close to the equator.

This comic strip version of how fossils form is from my 1991 geology A-level notes:

Graptolites

500 MILLION YEARS AGO: in the world’s oceans, graptolites, colonial creatures, float with the currents. They are too small for their accumulated remains to build up into sediments on the sea floor but, given enough time, they can leave a thin layer in the fossil record. This can happen only where sedimentation is slow, for instance hundreds of miles away from land.

Their fossils look like calligraphy, hence their name, taken from graptos, the Greek for ‘marked with letters’.

Life on the Reef

330 MILLION YEARS AGO Castleton: a reef built up by algae separates a calm shallow sea to the south from a sea at least 150 metres deep to the north. In contrast to the graptolites, which are heading for extinction at this time, some organisms are so successful that they form sedimentary rocks. These include in particular; crinoids, corals, bivalves and brachiopods.

In my A-level notes I’ve written; ‘Allochemical : stays in place’ but this is misleading: allochemicals are chemicals that come from elsewhere. ‘Allo’ is from the Greek for ‘other’ or ‘different’. In the case of the reefs at Castleton ‘allochemical’ might refer to the chalky ‘cement’ that holds the shell fragments together. The cement-like matrix may have come from elsewhere but shelly sediment itself is autochthonous, meaning that it is ‘not transported’ that it formed ‘in place’.

Stone-lilies 

‘. . . we find masses of limestone wholly composed of the stems of the stone-lilies, as they are rather poetically called. This stone is often seen polished in mantelpieces ; when exposed to the air, the softer parts, which are immediately between the stems, weather away, leaving the surface of the rock as if the fossils had been stuck on to it, as in the illustration of encrinitial limestone (Fig. 75). The heads of the animals which the stem supported were a corona of tentacules, with a mouth at the centre. These arm-like feelers waved about in the waters, bringing into their mouth the prey which they enclosed. As specimens, we give the Cyathocrinites planus (Fig. 76) and the Woodcrinus (Fig. 77).’

The Popular Educator, Volume. V, c. 1860?

A Bear at the Hepworth

SOMEWHERE DEEP in the vaults of the new Hepworth Gallery by the river in Wakefield, in the reserve collections, there’s one of my paintings; a 6ft 6 x 4ft acrylic on canvas of Waterton’s World, along with a sketchbook of the working drawings that I made for it. These were of South American birds collected by the naturalist Charles Waterton between 1812 and 1824. The sketchbook is handmade; a large-format section-sewn hardback filled with Saunders hot-pressed paper. It proved too cumbersome for everyday use and I only ever filled a quarter of the pages. I must pop in to the Hepworth and draw something special in it some day!

My painting has yet to make it into the public galleries but this cuddly bear and the bear tile, the work of our talented neighbour Alice, aged 6, have been exhibited at the Hepworth as part of a show of work by local children. An artist came into her school to work with them.

Alice tells us that her favourite modelling clay creation is this cheerful hedghog (right) but she explains that as it was made more recently it wasn’t included in the show.

Finding a battered butterfly in the garden, she used her watercolours for this large painting which she kindly presented to us.

Monkey Flower

11.50 a.m., 30°C in the sun, 90% cumulus

AFTER LAST WEEK’S big clear out, the pond is now a bit of a blank canvas. Duckweed is beginning fill in the shady corner by the shed but this Frog was resting on the sunny side of the pond, in the corner next to this Monkey Flower, Mimulus. This variety is ‘Highland Orange’. You find the plant on riversides, so I thought it would be happy with the pot standing in the water at the edge of the pond. It’s the first plant I’ve added to the pond. More important, but proving rather elusive in the garden centres that I’ve visited so far, is oxygenating pondweed. That’s the first aquatic plant that I need to get established.

Pond skaters have been attracted to the open water. There were always a few on the limited scraps of open water that remained between all the water plants before we cleared out the pond but today there are 32 gliding around on the surface.

The pond reflects the changing sky and reacts to every movement of frogs hopping in and out or birds coming to drink. It’s a shame to have had to ruthlessly cleared out so many plants but the pond is now more of a centrepiece for the garden than it was when it blended in with all the surrounding vegetation and it looked like a thicket of flag irises.

Four Feathers

I PICKED up these crow feathers in a pasture as we walked from Hope to Castleton on Wednesday. I’ve drawn them in dip pen using Winsor and Newton black Indian ink but the wash is dilute Chung Hwa Chinese Ink (see Dark Materials, 11 March 2006) which I keep ready-mixed in four different strengths from pale to dark. I’ve used the two palest shades here. I used these pre-mixed washes regularly when working on my black and white sketchbook published as High Peak Drifter (Willow Island Editions, 2006).

For this gull feather, which I picked up when I drew at the pond at Dewsbury hospital on Tuesday, I used Winsor and Newton Peat Brown ink with pen and wash.

I find feathers quite a challenge to draw because of the gentle curves of the outline and quill and all the curving parallel lines of the barbs. I admit to putting this feather on my desk with the quill curving up in the middle because I thought I’d find it more difficult to draw it the other way up, against the natural curve that a pen makes as you rotate your hand at the wrist.

It would be good practice for me to keep picking up feathers and drawing them until I get a feel for them.

Absent Feathered Friends

‘. . . its flesh is good and wholesome eating. It is a silly simple bird, as may very well be supposed from its figure, and is very easily taken. Three or four dodos are enough to dine a hundred men.’

‘The Auk, which breeds on the islands of St Kilda, chiefly differs from the penguin in size and colour : it is smaller than a duck ; and the whole of the breast and belly, as far as the middle of the throat, is white’

Oliver Goldsmith, History of the Earth, 1774

In his footnotes for the 1832 edition Captain Thomas Brown describes the dodo as extinct but says of the Great Auk that it ‘inhabits Europe and America ; is three feet in length ; is very timid ; it has not the power of flying ; its food is chiefly fishes.’

The last Great Auk was killed in June 1844 on Eldey Island, Iceland.

Mystery Bird

Engraving by R. Scott, 1832.

Reading the chapter on Penguins in Goldsmith, it’s surprising that they have escaped extinction: ‘Our sailors . . . give these birds the very homely, but expressive, name of arse-feet.

‘ . . . They have stood to be shot at in flocks, without offering to move, in silent wonder, till every one of their number has been destroyed.’

But what’s that bird standing between the Rockhopper and the Patagonian Penguin? Is that another extinct sea-bird? The down-curved bill is curious, more like a curlew’s, and, in the context of penguins and guillemots, the lack of webbing between the toes looks distinctly odd.

I think that what has happened here is that the artist has been given a cabinet skin of a kiwiApteryx, which wouldn’t give a true impression of the shape of the bird and he’s found it appropriate to depict it amongst the southern hemisphere penguins. I’ve yet to find Goldsmith’s description of the bird because neither ‘kiwi’ or ‘Apteryx’ appear in the index of History of the Earth.

Mam Tor

3 p.m.; Mam Tor, drawn in my A6 notebook. I’m travelling light this afternoon.

WE’D FINISHED a morning of errands and stopped for a coffee and bagel and it was then that we realised that we had a free afternoon. Ninety minutes and 33 miles later, we arrived at Hope in the Peak District and took the easy walk alongside the river to Castleton.

A Dipper stood ankle-deep in the water by a gravelly island on a bend in the river, pecking amongst the pebbles. The last time I saw a Dipper was 5 weeks ago today when I spotted one flying along just above a river on our return train journey from Wengen, Switzerland.

Sitting with a pot of tea in the back garden at the Castle Inn with Mam Tor, the Shivering Mountain, as a backdrop isn’t quite as spectacular as sitting outside a mountain restaurant at the foot of the north face of the Eiger but it’s equally charming and far more accessible for us. Here Jackdaws replace the Alpine Choughs that came down to the cafe tables at Kleine Schiedegg.

One of the Jackdaws lacks a black cap; a youngster. It begs for food from both parents without success before one picks up a scrap of food from the turf and feeds it.

Ducklings

11 a.m.: MALLARD DUCKLINGS are dabbling and snapping at flying insects or stretching up to peck resting insects from the tall leaves of reedmace in the pond by the occupational therapy unit of Dewsbury hospital. The feathers on their backs look soft and downy but they’re completely waterproof; droplets are repelled ‘like water off a duck’s back’.

Every waiting room should have an adjacent pond: this makes a change from drawing a chair, as I did yesterday morning as I waited for my mum at the doctor’s. And think what all those little ponds would do for our country’s commitments to increasing biodiversity!

It might make us healthier too. I’ve got only 10 or 15 minutes to sit on a rock at the water’s edge but, during those minutes I soon find myself drawn into a timeless world. I’m sure if the medics here hooked me up to one of their monitors they’d find my blood pressure and my pulse-rate going down, my muscles relaxing.

When you climb over the broken wall and walk past the scatter of drinks cans into this little park you enter another world. The watery jungle of reedmace stems is the nearest you’re going to find to a mangrove swamp in Dewsbury. The chicks swimming to and fro are behaving much as the chicks of Hesperornis might have 70 million years ago.

For that matter, the birds are probably behaving much as their dinosaur ancestors might have done down by the waterhole. A Moorhen chases a Mallard duck across the grass. The duck is larger but the Moorhen is more than a match for it.

Perhaps it’s so aggressive because it has young nearby. A couple of small fluffy black chicks paddle across the khaki-coloured waters of the pond towards the reedmace.

It might be protecting young, but on the other hand it might simply be expressing its crotchety character as a Moorhen. Moorhens don’t seem to need any excuse to act aggressively. Whether they’re protecting young, nest building or involved in courtship, they’ll take any opportunity to pick a fight.

Goldsmith on the Water-hen

Where the stream is selvaged with sedges, or the pond edged with shrubby trees, the water-hen is generally a resident there : she seeks her food along the grassy banks, and often along the surface of the water. With Shakespeare’s Edgar, she drinks the green mantle of the standing pool ; or, at least seems to prefer those places where it is seen.

History of the Earth, 1774

 

Animated Nature

I WAS given these volumes of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature by my dad’s shooting and fishing friend Mr Chalkley when I was seven years old. I was already hooked on nature, enthusiastically drawing local wildlife and writing up my observations in a red exercise book. Here I am doing the same kind of thing over half a century later.

I was thrilled to be presented with such an impressive set of volumes; they have such an air of antiquity about them. It has 108 plates, signed ‘R.Scott’ and ‘Published by Blackie Fullerton & Co. Glasgow’ of animals, birds, shells and fossils, printed in a fine stippled technique – lithography? Unfortunately the text (and the footnotes which can go on for several pages) are in such small print that you can’t read the book for pleasure. It’s one to be dipped into.

The first edition of Goldsmith’s History of the Earth appeared in 1774 but the title page of this edition, published by A. Fullarton and Co, is dated MDCCCXXXII. That’s a year that crops up again and again in research for my various projects: 1832. At the weekend this was the date that Waldemar Januszczak chose to start his television history of Impressionism as this was when Camille Pisarro was born in St Thomas in the West Indies (some sources day 1830). Manet was born in the same year.

I drew the books in pen and black Winsor and Newton ink but had to stop adding dilute peat brown ink as a colour wash as it was soaking through the paper in my sketchbook and staining the drawing on the other side of page.

I started drawing this chair when I took my mum for an appointment this morning.

Tilly

Tilly is the new border collie at the bookshop where my wife Barbara works. Sadly Sox, who I drew on numerous occasions died aged 16 a month ago. It was only yesterday that Richard and Carol collected Tilly from the rescue centre but already it’s obvious how well she will fit in on her regular visits to the shop. She’s smaller than Sox and, as she’s a newcomer, there’s a tendency to think of her as a puppy but at 18 months this is as far as she’ll grow. She’s slim (there’s a contrast with Sox) and long-legged. Tilly’s ‘socks’, on her two front feet, are white with brown dots.

She’s shy but friendly and, unlike Sox, she’s pleased to meet other dogs. Perfect for the bookshop. I look forward to drawing her when she becomes more relaxed as she gets used to her new life.

Fatsia (right), drawn in the courtyard of the Beverley Hotel during a break between papers at the Robin Hood conference.

 

 

Brockadale

AFTER SO many Robin Hood talks during the past two days we’re here on a Wakefield Naturalists’ Society field meeting at a place which has long been associated with the outlaw. At the start of The Little Gest Robin Hood stands leaning against a tree in Barnsdale Forest. The forest was extensive and stretched northwards from the borders of Sherwood, so which part of Barnsdale did the ballad writers have in mind?

As at the start of the story Robin tells Little John, William Scarlock and Much to ‘go up to Sayles’ to scan the Great North Road for a ‘dinner guest’ (one who will subsequently be asked to pay!) they must be down here in Brockadale. Sayles is an outcrop overlooking the valley, now marked on the map as Sayles Plantation. Going back as far as 1841, iron age earthworks at Sayles were shown on the Ordnance Survey map as ‘Castle Hills’. Castle Hill is surrounded by several tower-like crags so it could have served as a look-out post and a defensible position for a band of archers.

Castle Hill was excavated a few years ago prior to an extension of quarrying operations. If the archaeologists discovered Robin’s hidden booty, they kept quiet about it.

Now managed, in part, as a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve, Brockadale straddles the borders of North and West Yorkshire.

Damsons

Chapel Lane, Little Smeaton, 10 a.m.

JULY IS the middle of our summer but in the hedgerows there’s a feeling that autumn isn’t too far away. Hawthorn berries are beginning to appear – still green at the moment – but these damsons by the lay-by are well on their way to being ripe.

I’d always assumed that the ‘brock’ in Brockadale referred to the badger but apparently it means ‘broken dale’; the slopes are broken by craggy outcrops of magnesian limestone. The name might refer to quarrying on the valley slopes.

Perforate St John’s Wort (note the little ‘perforations’ when you hold a leaf up to the light, left) was used to treat wounds in Robin Hood’s day by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who had a preceptory at Newland, near Wakefield, and were Robert Hode’s close neighbours in the town on Warrengate, where Robin and the Hospitallers both held property.

The chalky soil that makes the limestone meadows so refreshingly different to the buttercup meadows that I’m so familiar with elsewhere on the coal measures and gritstone country of West Yorkshire.

Burnet Moths

This morning there are hundreds of 6-spot burnet moths about, some of them basking or feeding on the flowers of scabious and clustered bellflower.

Marbled White

There are also a few marbled white butterflies around today, mainly basking on a plant by the outcrop (top picture).

Sheep and cattle graze in the field below. Grazing is an essential part of the management of the grasslands, helping prevent bushes taking over and shading out the limestone meadow flowers.

Britain Revisited

Most of these drawings were made in Brockadale in July 2009. I was revisiting the east of England locations that I first drawn in July 1979 while working on my Richard Bell’s Britain sketchbook for Collins. There were so many places to revisit during July that I had to find some way of dealing with the rain. I took a pop-up shelter that I’d bought at Netto and set it up overlooking Brockadale (top picture).

I got some funny looks from passing dog walkers but at least I was able to work on my drawings most of the time except when the wind blew the rain straight down the valley and into my tent. I then zipped up the opening of the shelter and ate my picnic lunch snug in my shelter perched on the outcrop, as the rain battered against the canvas.

King Edward and his Merry Men

In my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire I follow the career of 14th century Robert Hode of Wakefield so Prince John and Richard the Lionheart are long gone but Edward II and his rival Earls (and rival lords of the manor of Wakefield) John de Warenne and Thomas of Lancaster provide a suitably dramatic and violent context. Their rivalry culminated in the Battle of Boroughbridge after which many men were declared outlaws.

I enjoyed illustrating the knockabout Little Gest of Robin Hood but I felt quite emotional when it came to the humiliation, mock-trial and execution of Thomas of Lancaster at his own castle at Pontefract. Here I was trying to imaginatively recreate real events which happened to a real, not a semi-mythical, person in a local town that I’ve long been familiar with.

Whatever his faults Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. No wonder he was soon hailed as a saint!

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.