Greenhouse Mural Sketch

I WAS LOOKING through my 1972 student diary recently (see Student Days) and was reminded that on 4 October that year, at the start of my first full month at college I drew:

‘ . . . a sketch from imagination of the proposed identification chart which I thought that I might do as a large painting – in emulsion of course!’

This ‘identification chart’, which grew into an 8ft x 4ft acrylic on chipboard mural, absorbed a lot of my time for the next three years and I was still adding details to it – I think the last thing that I painted was a leopard frog in the foreground – on the eve of the degree show.

To demonstrate the process that I’d gone through, I included the original sketch in my show but I was surprised when a fellow student – a young man from the jewellery department who would go on to make a name for himself as a goldsmith – asked if it was for sale.

Detail from the finished acrylic on chipboard painting

I was taken aback by this and explained that, as a working drawing, it was never intended to be for sale. It’s on the cheap smooth offset paper that they sold at the college shop, folded down the middle and on the back there are streaks where I’ve cleaned my brush, ring-marks from a coffee cup but at one end there are some delightful sketches of frogs in ballpoint pen, drawn by my tutor John Norris Wood when he was advising me to add some reptiles and amphibians to the painting.

I’ve just come across the sketch in a drawer in the plan chest and I can now see why my college friend was attracted to it. It’s rough and splodgy but there’s spontaneity about it that is inevitably missing in the laboriously crafted finished product.

Raspberry and Peach

THE AUTUMN Raspberries, variety Joan J, are beginning to ripen faster than we can eat them, so this morning we decided to make some jam. Yesterday Paul the gardener presented us with a bag-full of fully ripe peaches (which he grows in a greenhouse) so we decided put the two fruits together.

Once prepared we had just a fraction under two pounds of fruit so we added the same amount of granulated sugar, the best part of a bag. We suspected that peaches might be short in pectin so I added the juice from one large lemon.

The Three-drop Method

A professional jam-maker once told me that the way he gauged when a pan of jam was reaching its setting point was when he held the spoon and three drops dripped from it. We never seemed to get to this stage, it seemed more like syrupy fruit juice every time I tried it, so, after about half an hour, we checked using the cold saucer method. After two minutes in the fridge it was obvious that the jam was ready; it had skinned over and started to set.

You can hold a jar of the finished jam upside down and it won’t flow out but luckily it’s still easy to spread. And delicious. I can’t claim that I can taste the peaches – for me the raspberry dominates – but they do add something to the mix. There’s the difference in texture; how can I put it – a bit floury? A fruit element in addition to the berries.


If trying to describe a fruity flavour is difficult for me, imagine how difficult it would be for Alex, the African Grey, described as the world’s cleverest parrot. He had already learned the words for ‘banana’ and ‘cherry’ so when he was presented with an apple he improvised a new word for it; ‘banberry’, a combination of the two.

Alex might describe our jam as ‘peaberry’.

These watercolour and gouache raspberries were illustrations I drew for a Marks and Spencer range of bisuits back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. At that time I worked through an illustration agency, Bernard Thornton Artists.

Onions and Bonfires

IT’S THAT time of year again when the garden is at its most productive. We’ve just cleared the broad beans but the runners are still at their best. We had the first tomatoes this week – two small sweet ones from the yellow variety we planted. The courgettes are doing well and we’re just about winning the battle to cut them before they turn into marrows.

We’ve had some decent rain this week, which was welcome but it did mean that we needed to lift the onions and spread them over the staging in the greenhouse to dry out gradually. The necks would have started to rot if we’d left them where they were in the bed. I’m always impressed by how many onions we harvest from an area no bigger than a hearth-rug.

Paul the gardener came today and we cut back the Canary ivy which was killed by frost last winter.

As it was a dull, overcast morning none of our neighbours had any washing out, so, as the woody stems were too large to add to the compost bin and I’ve got plenty of habitat piles already, we decided to dispose of the large pile of clippings by lighting a bonfire. Despite the recent rain the mass of stems were dry enough to burn but, as usual, in the minutes it took to get the fire started a column of white smoke drifted sideways and, although there wasn’t a breath of wind, it managed to find some low level turbulence and started heading straight up the garden path, over the hedge and up towards the one bedroom window that our neighbour had left open. You’d almost think that smoke had some kind of homing instinct that enabled it to find the nearest open window.

Rye Bread

WE SOON got used to homemade bread when we bought our first breadmaker about 15 years ago. Ever since we have rarely bought a loaf. It’s great to wake up in the morning to the smell of fresh-baked bread. Last autumn we bought a new food mixer and I decided to try it out on different recipes. There didn’t seem to be much advantage to mixing scones in it – they only need roughly mixing by hand – but it consistently produced a good bread dough.

We use Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s basic recipe for white bread from his River Cottage Family Cookbook but we find that with the mixer we can dispense with the stage where you ‘knock it back’ – fun though that is! We always get a consistent texture.

In place of the 500 grams of white flour that he suggests, we invariably use a mixture of strong white and wholemeal and recently we’ve also been adding a proportion of rye flour. 100 grams – one fifth of the flour mix – is enough to give it some flavour without loosing any of the rise.

I made this loaf in less than 20 minutes (which was the time it took me to cook some homemade oven chips using our Kestrel and Desiree potatoes). After measuring the five ingredients; flour, easy-blend yeast, salt (we use just a pinch), honey and warm water from the tap (you can also add caraway or mixed seeds); it needs just 2 minutes of mixing with the dough-hook on setting one and a further 10 minutes on setting two. While it’s doing that there’s time to clear up and grease the loaf tin before the dough is ready for shaping to rise in the tin, covered by a tea towel. I score three diagonal lines across it, to give it that artisan look.

It usually takes no more than half an hour for it to double in size then it has another 25 minutes in the oven, turning it upside down in the tin for the last 5 minutes. That’s somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes from weighing out the ingredients to the finished loaf. The quickest loaf in the breadmaker takes 4 hours. With our breadmaker we always get a hole where the paddle has been and, as the non-stick coating is now wearing off the paddle, this can mean that a quarter of the middle slice is a gaping hole. You don’t get that using the food mixer and our old breadmaker now hardly ever gets used; in fact we recently consigned it to the attic.

Greek Basil

GREEK BASIL, also known as Bush BasilOcimum minimum, has smaller leaves than the more familiar kitchen herb Sweet Basil, Ocimum basilicum. We’re looking after a little Grecian urn of Bush Basil for a neighbour, which has started to flower (left).

Ocimum is from the Greek okimom meaning ‘aromatic herb’. Basils are members of the Labiate family; relatives of mint, thyme, woundwort and dead-nettle.

Writing about Sweet Basil Culpeper says;

‘This is the herb which all authors are together by the ears about, and rail at one another, like lawyers. Galen and Dioscorides hold it not fitting to be taken inwardly, and Chrysippus rails at it with downright Billingsgate rhetoric : Pliny and the Arabian Physicians defend it.’

From this, I guess that Culpeper had some first-hand experience of lawyers and of Billingsgate fishmongers. Basil is such an integral part of the healthy Mediterranean cuisine that today it seems inconceivable that it was ever regarded with such suspicion:

‘Mizaldus affirms, that being laid to rot in horse-dung, it will breed venomous beasts. Hilarius, a French physician, affirms upon his own knowledge, that an acquaintance of his, by common smelling of it, had a scorpion bred in his brain. . .

‘I dare write no more of it.’

A Walk to Denby Dale

THORNHILL EDGE is only a mile or two from home but until today I’d never walked the full length of the footpath that runs along the top of the ridge, overlooking the Smithy Brook Valley. This morning I’m following the Kirklees Way, from Thornhill to Denby Dale.

After writing half a dozen walks booklets, it’s a change to follow someone else’s route. The Kirklees Way is a 72 mile circular walk around Huddersfield, so it curves away through the countryside along paths that it would never occur to me to follow, even though they’re so close to home.

Small Copper butterflies are perfect miniatures. I count 5 of them on the sunny south-facing fault scarp of Thornhill Edge. That’s probably more Small Coppers than I’ve seen over the past two or three years.

Grange Wood

After the pastures of Lower Dimpledale (what a wonderful name), a tributary valley of Smithy Brook, I enjoy the shade of Grange Wood (above).

Warter Wold

It’s clear day with row after row of fair weather cumulus lined up across a blue sky. When I get up to The Rough, 195 metres (640 ft) above sea level, on the watershed between Smithy Brook (which flows into the Calder) and Mill Beck (which flows into the Dearne) I can see not only the cooling towers of Ferrybridge, Drax and Eggborough, but also hills beyond. By putting a ruler on the map to trace my line of sight, I can tell that the distant blue hills in my photograph (above), way beyond the flats and cathedral spire of Wakefield, are the Yorkshire Wolds.

The highest point to the left of the spire must be Warter Wold , 44 miles to the north-east, which rises to about 194 m (636 ft). There were more hills beyond the blocks of flats of Seacroft, on the east side of Leeds and these must have been the North Yorks Moors, also 40-odd miles away. I even suspected that I could see a white spot; the White Horse of Kilburn?


Medieval bell-pits in the Tankersley Ironstone, Emley Woodhouse.

I thought that I’d be in Denby Dale in time for lunch but it was 3 p.m. before I reached the Denby Dale Pie Hall. I didn’t stop to draw on this walk so it gives me a chance to work out my average walking speed; 2.6 miles per hour, including a few short breaks. But fourteen miles in one go was quite enough for me! So why walk to Dimpledale when I’ve got the the woods of Coxley Valley in my backyard; why swelter all that way to sample the delights of Denby Dale when I could have strolled up the hill to Horbury?

One reason is that I find that walking can be an alternative to drawing; I can follow a line and explore the world around me. It gives me a sense of freedom and puts things in perspective. There’s so much countryside out there beyond my home patch.

Walking is recognised as being good physical exercise but there is new evidence that exploring a variety of environments is as good for your brain as it is for your body. Professor Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in San Diego has observed that laboratory mice kept in stimulating environments show a 15% increase in brain activity compared with genetically identical mice kept in run-of-the-mill cages.

My generation was brought up with the ‘truism’ that from the age of about 20 your brain cells start to gradually die off. Gage’s study showed that the mice in stimulating environments were generating new brain cells in the hippocampus. It seems like a big leap to extrapolate from laboratory mice to humans but similar brain activity – an increased blood flow in that part of the brain – has been observed. It’s said that London taxi drivers who learn ‘the knowledge’ – acquiring a detailed mental map of the streets of the metropolis – develop an enlarged hippocampus.

If this is true – and it seems quite likely to me – then my 14 mile slog today will have been better exercise for my brain than walking the same distance on a treadmill in a health and fitness club. Who’d want to be indoors on a day like today anyway?

Gull Feather CSI

I PICKED up this feather, a primary from the gull’s right wing,  on the pavement in front of the Bingley Arms, an old pub that stands on a narrow strip of land between the river and the canal at Horbury Bridge. Having a feather as a temporary bookmark in my sketchbook proved handy when I found myself sitting in a waiting room with nothing else available to draw.

The underside is a shade lighter. There’s a scallop-shaped indentation at the tip of the feather. Was this the result of the gull preening; tugging out an old feather that was past its best?

Under the microscope, half way down the unfeathered end of quill, you can see this scratch. Is the ‘V’-shaped impression on the underside of the quill an impression left by gull’s bill when it was preening?

Scratches like these around the base of a feather can be a sign that a sparrowhawk has gripped and twisted with its beak as it plucks feathers from it’s prey. Could this be evidence that the gull was taken by a sparrowhawk?

Smoking Shelter

A few yards from my suspected avian crime scene, down the side of the Bingley Arms, there’s a smoking shelter, one of the most picturesque I’ve seen, with petunias, geraniums and garden mint in pots and runner beans and sweet peas growing up the trellis.

If I was visiting a pub on a summer’s day, I’d find this more tempting than sitting in the public bar. But I’m still not tempted to take up smoking.

Flowers at Walton Colliery Country Park

Purple loosestrife

THE LAST of the Wakefield Naturalists’ summer field meetings; this morning we take a leisurely stroll around Walton Colliery Country Park, an area which is as botanically rich as any that I know in the area. There’s waterside, remnants of waste-ground and heathy slopes which will become woodland before too long unless they’re managed to keep their open aspect.

I’m not going to have the time to draw so I take the camera and the copy of the Collins Gem Guide to Wild Flowers which we keep in the glove box of the car. I found myself influenced by my 1972 diary illustrations in this dip pen and watercolour sketch.

When the group comes across a tricky flower half a dozen of us compare descriptions in our different field guides.

Melilot and Memory

For example we have to decide between two tall yellow members of the Peaflower Family; Ribbed Melilot and Tall Melilot. The Gem Guide points out that Ribbed has ‘hairless brown seed-pods’ while Tall has ‘downy black seed-pods’. I take a small piece home – it’s a common plant here – and photograph it under the microscope.

There are a few sparse microscopic hairs on the seed-pods but I’d hardly call these downy, so I’m plumping for Ribbed Melilot, Melilotus officinalis.

‘Officinalis’ means that this species was reputed to have a medicinal use; Culpeper tells us that ‘A plaster made of this herb boiled in mutton-suet, wax and rosin, is drawing, and good for green wounds’. He also recommends it for inflammation, tumours and as an eye drop ‘to take away the film that dims the sight’. Washing the head in distilled water of the herb will ‘strengthen the memory’.

Red Bartsia

Members of the Peaflower Family have nodules on their roots containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Accessing extra nutrients seems to be a theme of the plants on the grassy trackside; Red Bartsia, Odontites verna, a member of the Figwort Family, goes for a more direct approach in grabbing nutrients; it is semi-parasitic, tapping into the roots of other plants.


You can probably guess the use that Culpeper suggests for Common Fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, a plant of damp, grassy places: ‘The smell of this . . . is supposed delightful to insects, and the juice destructive to them, for they never leave it till the season of their deaths.’

Broad-leaved Helleborine

I last recorded Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine, in my diary for 10 August 2000 on the nature trail at Collier Wood, the now defunct and much-missed picnic site in County Durham. None of our group remembers having seen it here at Walton Colliery Country Park before but it seems to be establishing itself as we see a second small colony of it later on our walk on a semi-shady woodland edge.

Helleborines are members of the Orchid Family.

Wild Carrot

It’s useful to go on a wild flower walk with a group because other people will point out details that you might miss. I don’t recall having noticed that some of the white umbels of Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, have a few red flowers at the centre.

Branched Bur-Reed

Branched Bur-reed, Sparganium erectum, has flower-heads that resemble a spiked medieval weapon. It’s an aquatic plant, growing in a water-filled ditch at the park amongst reedmace, Purple Loosestrife and Yellow-flag Iris (see top picture).

Autumn Berries

I WAS SURPRISED to see the first red Hawthorn berries this week, just odd ones, not a whole bunch as in my drawing. Most haws are still green but a few have ripened on a south-facing bush on the top of an embankment overhanging a pavement, so they’d had more warmth than most. I’ve also tasted my first Blackberry of the season and in the garden the autumn Raspberries in our garden.

On the black railings of Addingford Steps there were dozens of ladybirdsso many in one place that I had the impression that they might have recently emerged from pupae, but perhaps it was the warmth of the metal that attracted them.

 Clearing Willows

There’s a patch of devastation on the marshy field known as The Strands between the river and the canal downstream from Horbury Bridge. My vague memories of this area of willows is that it started as a few willows next to a water-filled hollow and over the years grew to become a dense circular thicket. It has evidently taken a great deal of effort to clear it.

Equine Delinquents

EARLIER THIS week at 6.30 in the morning we heard galloping hooves going down the lane and thought someone had got up early for a ride. At breakfast-time we saw that it was the three ponies from the field behind us that had escaped. They were escorted back up the lane with a police video van bringing up the rear.

The owners soon identified the weak point in the fence; a small gate to a service area. They sat on guard there drinking cups of coffee until repairs could be made. Later I could see from the hoof prints that the ponies got at least as far as the main road, making their way along the pavement and into the ends of driveways as they went.

Next door’s Sumac is now in flower and attracting hoverflies and bees. It’s a tree that doesn’t seem quite in step with the seasons.

Frog Trap

This morning I was upset to be unable to save a frog. It had become trapped in a drain at the edge of the road in front of Barbara’s mum’s house (which is currently up for sale). I found a pair of rubber gloves and a small bucket. Not ideal for the job, but what completely stumped me was that, without a crowbar to hand, I couldn’t use the lever point to flip open the grating. By then the frog had disappeared into the opaque black water in the sump.

Inky Feet

After drawing my slippers yesterday I thought I should try drawing my feet but I think I prefer drawing hands. The proportions are more familiar.