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.


Eiger, Mönch and Tschuggen from Männlichen

I SPENT the morning recovering from a 24 hour tummy bug. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone for the sausage and rosti on Friday! But also a feeling of exhaustion, as I guess we’ve been trying to do too much.

We sat and watched the world go by from a bench on the small grassy triangle by Wengen station. The coming and going of trains and of the tourists and the sublime view up the Lauterbrunnen Valley provided the right combination of distraction and restfulness for me.

In the afternoon we took the cable car up to Männlichen. I wasn’t up to drawing today so as we took the Panoramaweg – a footpath that runs more or less on the 2200 m contour around the summit of Tschuggen – Barbara took over the camera and photographed the Alpine flowers along the trail, for example this saxifrage. The name comes from the Latin, saxum frango, meaning ‘stone breaker’.

The battery in our camera ran out after a week but we’ve got it fully recharged now, thanks to the photo-shop in Wengen. And, thanks to our gentle walk along the Panoramaweg, I’m feeling recharged too.

The Old Furnace

 THERE’S AN inscription carved on a cornerstone dated 1682 but the notice (in German) appears to suggest that the structure, a ‘Schmelzofen’ (smelting furnace) may date from 1650 but the date 1715 is also mentioned, possibly referring to a rebuilding. The structure stands on the east bank of the river between Zweilutschinen and Lauterbrunnen.

There’s no trace of burning in the arched openings on the north-west and south-west sides but there is a crust of what appears to be lime around the base of the bee-hive-shaped central chimney.

The inscription on the cornerstone on the north-west side of the furnace.

It had started to rain but I was able to draw sitting at a picnic bench beneath a sheet-plastic awning. A large woodsman’s axe had been left by a covered pile of logs, kept under cover for use on a large barbecue. You wouldn’t leave one of those lying around in England!

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.

The Marmots of Mannlichen

As we came up above the treeline on the gondola from Grindelwald to Männlichen bahn (2225m) we saw plenty of marmot holes amongst the rough moorland but it was several minutes before Barbara spotted one walking – or waddling – over the turf, as if it was wearing incoveniently oversized pyjamas, raising its head to peer up the slope.

A few minutes later, I spotted two marmots which appeared to be smaller than the first one, scampering along to a low mound. A third marmot ran towards them and was soon involved in a fight (or a boisterous greeting) with one of the pair while the other looked on.

4 pm; At the top near the summit at the Männlichen Berggashaus, a restaurant run by the family Kaufmann, we share a slice of Studentenschnit, a traditional iced Swiss cake made with lot of ingredients and a Nussgipfel, a pastry croissant with nutty praline in it.

On the journey back down we thought that we’d passed back descended out of marmot territory when I spotted two by a stream. One flicked its tail as they encountered each other – like the other two we’d seen – and they greeted each other with a ‘hug’ – in this case it was less of a tussle.


Monday (Montag), 6 (seches) June (Juni) 2011

WE’VE GOT just one ‘big trip’ still to do during our stay here; we want to visit Jungfraujoch, the ‘Top of Europe’ but today isn’t the day to go up there as cloud is swirling around and down below us even here at Wengen. This is the view looking up Lauterbrunnen Valley from the station at 10.15 am, as we wait for the train.

We arrived in cloud on Wednesday and the next morning, when the cloud cleared partially to reveal the mountains at the head of this U-shaped valley for the first time, it was as if the curtains had been raised on a great scenic theatrical spectacle.

A man cuts back the scrub on a steep banking by Allmend station, the next on the line as we travel uphill from Wengen. Alder scrub is one of the habitats recreated at the Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte.

It looks as if the cloud will hang around for a while so we take the next train down the other side of the slope from Kleine Scheidegg to resume Saturday’s walk down to Grindelwald from Brandegg, where we finished up the other day.

A St Bernard, much larger than the Swiss Mountain Dog I drew yesterday, is one of our fellow passengers.

There’s time for a coffee break at Brandegg Restaurant before we start. I settle down to draw the musical cows in the surrounding pasture and, feeling a little more confident with my phrasebook German order:

‘Drei cafes mit milch, bitte.’

Which I think is German for ‘Two coffees with milk, please.’ It isn’t; the waitress brings three coffees! But she kind enough to take one away again, much to the amusement of the staff.

Sheep have smaller bells than the cows. A group of 9 or 20 were slowing grazing around an old barn in the flower-rich meadows above Grindelwald.