Kleine Scheidegg

THIS MORNING, for the first time, we’ve taken the uphill train from Wengen to the terminus at Kleine Scheideggat the top of the pass, a station that reminds me of the Tintin stories, with mountain railway trains, some of them charmingly vintage, arriving from three directions and a constantly changing cosmopolitan throng of people embarking and disembarking, some of whom I could imagine having walk-on parts in Hergé’s comic-strip adventures of the globe-trotting Belgian boy-detective. The absent-minded Professor Calculus and the comically but heroic Captain Haddock might appear at any moment. The dapper ticket inspector shepherding passengers onto the ‘Top of Europe’ train would be perfect in a cameo role and these Alpine horn players might add a touch of local colour.

They set up their 3 or 4 metre long instruments on the hillock behind a large tepee which serves as a beer tent. The calm, mellow notes of the horns carry well in this mountainside setting. There’s a subtle play of harmonies when you hear two horns together. It’s a reflective, nostalgic kind of sound, with a hint of sadness about it to my ears; not the audacious bull-roar that you might expect from such a monster of an instrument.

Alpine Chough

If this was one of Hergé’s stories, by now Snowy (or Milou, as he’s called in the original Belgian version), Tintin’s dog, would have slipped away from the performance to team up with a St Bernard in the beer-tent to drink the contents of its brandy barrel. Thieving magpies feature in one of the Tintin stories but in this mountain setting their place is taken by streetwise Alpine Choughs, one of which surprises Barbara as she’s sitting writing her journal by flying down to the table, right beside her, to check for scraps.

Alpiglen

We walk down from Kleine Scheidegg towards Grindelwald, the holiday village in the valley below the Eiger, photographing wild flowers as we go. Alpiglen, halfway down, is perfectly placed for our lunch stop (Goulash Soup, right).

Through the window, beyond the window box filled with geraniums, there’s a view of the lower slopes of the Eiger. The peak itself towers way out of sight above the window and, this afternoon, is lost in the clouds.

Most of the roofs in the small hamlet of Alpiglen, and many elsewhere in the area, are clad with wooden shingles, often with a metal ridge along the apex.

Fieldfare and Swallowtail

This thrush-sized bird has us puzzled. In my notes, I record it at 2.20 pm by broad-leaved woodland edge (we’re well down the mountainside now) by a meadow with Globeflower, mallow and trefoil. We’ve seen it several times but it wouldn’t be until after our holiday, when I looked it up in the bird book at home, that we realised that it’s a Fieldfare. I assume that when I noted that its breast was ‘white’ I was getting a partial view as the breast of a Fieldfare is spotted. In Britain Fieldfares are winter visitors, in the Alps they can be seen throughout the year.

The swallowtail butterflies are easier to recognise.

Apple Fritters at Brandegg

Our final stop before getting on the train for the rest of the journey is at Brandegg, where the restaurant makes a speciality of apple fritters. We sit outside and I draw this view looking north across the valley towards the hamlet of Bussalp, perched amongst the high meadows above those limestone cliffs.

A Buzzard circles high above the valley to the west, descending into the forest. A Redstart, with a breast the colour of ‘rust washed with saffron’ according to my note (I’ve been adding the colour later to these bird note sketches), sings from the gutter at the corner of the restaurant. Cow bells ring like a laid-back gamelan ensemble in the surrounding meadow.

As we walked down the track between Alpiglen and Brandegg we heard a noise as if a train was coming towards us along the nearby track. It built to something more like thunder or distant gunfire. We looked up to the north face of the Eiger to see an avalanche coming down, funneled into gullies on its way so that you might mistake it for a waterfall but it was more like the sand in an egg-timer. As it came down from one terrace it built up a pile – as an egg-timer does – below. When this became unstable the avalanche continued down to the next level, sometimes forking to descend down two gullies.

Climbers on the Eiger prefer to set up camp and take a break during the afternoons to avoid the avalanches that are then likely to start.

This long-horned beetle flew onto the fence between our table and the meadow. It was about 2 inches long including the antennae.

Jungfrau

This is the view of the Jungfrau (4158 m., 13642 ft) from our balcony at the Bernerhof Hotel, Wengen. Most evenings it was partially, or entirely, lost in cloud.

Alpine Garden

FOR THE FIRST TIME since we arrived, we can see all the surrounding peaks as we set off for the Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte to get familiar with the local wildflowers.

As the train goes through a tunnel on the steep ascent, I get – for an instant – my first view of the Eiger, framed by a narrow shaft.

I draw Globeflower, Alpine Snowbell and a white anemone in the garden. A useful guide in English explains that the aim of the garden is to recreate the main Alpine meadow habitats you might find in the area. There’s an ‘ideal’ Alpine meadow, rich in species, the kind of thing that might result from years of controlled grazing and gradual recycling of nutrients but also examples of the changes that can take place through the addition of too much fertiliser or the effects of too much trampling, whether that’s by cows or skiers.

The Alpine meadow is a dynamic habitat, or perhaps that should be a habitat in dynamic balance. It’s possible that very similiar types of grassland, wild versions of the present-day cow pasture and hay meadows, existed even before the introduction of agriculture.

Trummelbach Falls

WE WERE heading elsewhere but the view of the Lauterbrunnen valley – the valley of 72 waterfalls – as we descend on the funicular railway proves irresistible. After so much travelling yesterday, we’re ready to leave the station behind us and stroll in the sun towards the head of the valley.

It’s an easy walk, mainly along quiet lanes, from Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg and the Trummelbach Falls make a spectacular break along the way. Not that there’s much to see of the Falls from the Trummelbach hotel where I made the drawing above, looking towards the top of the valley. A glacier-fed torrent from the Jungfrau and its surroundings has tunnelled its way down through the limestone, so you need to ascend by lift and hundreds of steps into the cliff to see – and hear – the spectacle.

I’d forgotten my watercolours, so my drawings today, including this one (above) from a shady bench across the valley from Trummelback, are in pen and ink. The jagged line at the bottom is the channel the Falls take, fed by the hanging valley as a gutter feeds a drain-pipe. Above the cliff-top line of trees in the distance there’s an ice-fall, or perhaps I should describe it as a small glacier. The summit of the Jungfrau is lost in cloud.

Mürren

We take a lunch stop at a kiosk cafe near the Stechelberg cable car station at the top of valley, sharing a local dish; Chäschüechi, a kind of mildly cheesy quiche with a pastry base and a light egg and cheese topping, seasoned with nutmeg.

We take the cable-car up to Mürren then the railway back to Grütschalp to descend via another cable-car to Lauterbrunnen. There’s a steady flow of people leaping from the tops of these cliffs and either making their way down gradually via parachute or, alarmingly, leaving it until the last possible moment to pull the chord, giving them just enough time to slow down before they reach the fields below.

Red deer antlers in the dining room at the Bernerhof Hotel.

Switzerland

6.30 am, Dewsbury station; WE’RE OFF on our travels again but this time heading west through the Pennines via Marsden Tunnel on the train to Manchester airport. I’m aware that our familiar moors aren’t going to compare in scale or variety with the scenery that we’ll encounter in Switzerland.We set off from Manchester airport at 10.50 am.

By 11.30 we’re reaching the coast of France at a height of 35,000 feet.

The fields in the this part of France are longer and narrower than most you’d see in England and, in this area at least, there’s more woodland than you’d see in most parts of our country.

Getting into holiday mood, I go for a Merlot from the Pays d’Oc and an Easy Jet in-flight snack-pack which consists of Belgian Ardennes paté, a triangle of Vache qui Rit spready cheese from France, not to mention biscuits from various corners of Britain; water biscuits from Carlisle, Hula Hoops from Ashby de la Zouch and Scottish shortbread from Aberlour on Spey, plus a packet of olives from somewhere in the Med.

12.10 BST and we’re descending between two layers of stratus to Zurich airport.

The first bird that we spot is a Heron flying over the river at Zurich HB station. The river is muddy – there was heavy rain this morning.

Raclette

I could get used to this kind of life. We even paid a modest premium to travel in the extra space and comfort of first class for our tranfer via Swiss railways, changing at Bern and Spiez, travelling most of the way on the upper deck of a double-decker carriage with panoramic windows.

No first class on the final stage of the journey via a funicular railway climbing 1500 feet out of the deep U-shaped valley at Lauterbrunnen to the little town of Wengen, which will be our base for the next two weeks.

Still in holiday mood, I opt for one of the Swiss speciality raclette. You scrape the raclette cheese as it melts from the top of the block of cheese onto your new potatoes, pickled onions and gherkins.

Odd Sketches

ARE YOU sitting comfortably? After cats and views from trains, just to round off the selection from my sketchbook for May, here are some of the other subjects that I drew in odd moments.

The retro chair was in Caffe Italiano in the Ridings Centre, Wakefield, back in mid-May, the chair back and chair legs are probably from one of the waiting rooms that I’ve spent time in.

I think of these chair sketches as being rather poor as I draw them, because they’re always fitted in as I’m waiting for someone and, more often than not, there isn’t the chance to finish them but when I look back at them they don’t look so bad and, for someone who wants to improve their drawing, like me, it’s better than just sitting there staring into space.

Favour or Forfiet

We were in London for an old friend’s wedding, held in the grounds of Ham House, down by the River Thames below Richmond Hill. I’d got the idea that I could be the wedding artist, as opposed to the wedding photographer, but the trouble with weddings is that there are people you haven’t seen for years . . . and food, and drink and dancing and you don’t get the chance to sit and sketch. This wedding also included, uniquely in my experience, a game of pass the parcel, including favours and forfiets in alternate layers. Luckily I avoided a forfiet and ended up with a lei, so I didn’t have to receit Shakespeare or tell a joke or sing a song. Phew!

Jamie’s Italian

The next day we walked alongisde the river from Teddington Lock to Kingston-on-Thames, stopping for lunch at Jamie’s Italian (which I liked, must try and get to the one in Leeds), before continuing to Hampton Court.

The Fastest Milkman in the West

It’s interesting to walk along with a couple of locals – Barbara’s nephew Simon and his partner – and hear stories about the area; Benny Hill was a local a celebrity and you can’t help thinking that it might be true that his ghost still occasionally pops in to the old Thames Television studio at Teddington Lock.

‘Fairy Dairy Land’ was a quote recently used by David Cameron at Primeminister’s question time. It’s from Benny Hill’s hit record Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, which also includes a character ‘two ton Ted from Teddington’ who ‘drove the baker’s van’. The spirit of Benny Hill still roams these mean streets. Simon lives opposite the depot where the milk floats, and formerly the horses that pulled the milk floats, were kept in Hounslow, but the dairy closed a few years ago . . . gone to ‘Fairy Dairy Land’ like so many others.

I’ll finish this odd-and-ends posting from my sketchbook for May with Simon’s sofa.

Trackside Landscapes

I DREW Xander the black and white cat in colour this weekend and I felt that my usual rapid sketches drawn as the train headed for London should have colour added to them too.

Instead of drawing individual trees, hedges and buildings as they flash by, I try to link them into a landscape composed of bits and pieces that may have been drawn miles – ten miles or more in some cases – apart.

By my first sketch I’ve written ‘Doncaster to Grantham’, while the second was drawn between Stevenage and Potters Bar.

Midland Landscapes

On the return journey there’s a section where the line follows an attractive lowland river for a while.

After that the landscape features rolling hills, farms and stumpy church towers with small spires. My sketch also includes a couple of sheep, a crow and a cutting through Jurassic limestone. These features were scattered across miles of trackside landscape in the Grantham area.

Finally, as we neared Doncaster, here’s a landscape of more church towers, cows and distant hills that I didn’t quite get finished. I got as far as dabbing in a grey and pale green wash. It was a dull, overcast afternoon.

A Sketchbook Underground

Until you leave the central zone, there isn’t much to see through the windows of a London Underground train. A fearless drawing journaller like Dan Price might have sketched fellow passengers in the busy train but I settled down to drawn my left hand. Again, as this is unfinished, you can see how I start off with a pale wash of grey before adding yellow ochre, sometimes with a dash of permanent magenta.

Permanent magenta is the cool red that I’ve used to replace alizarin crimson, or permanent rose or whatever else I was using in my pocket watercolour box. The thinking behind this is that magenta will be more useful for mixing the colours of wildflowers, so many of which are variations on magenta. Neutral tint recently replaced the rather acid, greeny blue version of Paynes grey that I’ve used for a decades as the grey in my watercolour box. So far neutral tint seems to work well for the natural subjects I’m keen to draw.

Finally, here are hand studies, and a handful of details drawn as they flashed by through the window, drawn between Kings Cross St Pancras and Hunslow East on the Piccadilly Line.

More of Xander

I’D FORGOTTEN just how many sketches I’d made of Xander when I added my last post but you can’t have too many sketches of this relaxed and comfortable individual, he’s such pleasure to draw, so here are the rest of them, from four pages in my A5 sketchbook. Even though he’s a black and white cat, I feel that colour adds a lot of life and information to a drawing, so I added watercolour to my pen and ink whenever he gave me long enough.

Sometimes I had time only for the basics before he turned his head, often to see what Alfie was up to on his brief visits via the back-door cat-flap. As I mentioned, Alfie isn’t as comfortable about having visitors like ourselves in his house.

Grooming

The grooming routine goes by rapidly but I manage a quick sketch – what I’ve heard a called a ‘gestural sketch’ by tutors taking life classes – of the stage where his back leg goes into the air, as if he’s playing a cello.

Next a whole sketchbook page. I feel that for animals you’re usually best with a bigger spread, so that you can keep going on to the next pose without turning the page. There’s also the chance, a slim one admittedly with Xander, that you could come back to a previous pose if he happened to go back to that position.

Cat Naps

But it’s when Xander at last settles down to sleep that you finally get the chance to add texture and colour. Of course he might decide to go to sleep somewhere where you can only see his back legs. Never mind – I need practice on back legs too!

Or he might stop only long enough to access the chances of moving in to take some of Alfie’s food. I think you can see that thought process of Xander looking at the food bowl and thinking ‘you’re mine – all mine!’, even in my crude, quick sketch. He didn’t get away with this; Alfie’s food gets cling-filmed as soon as Alfie pops out through the cat-flap. Even Xander hasn’t worked out how to remove the cling-film.

Paws for Food

Cats that are allowed outside tend to eat more than those who are restricted to living indoors. When Alfie and Xander were younger, they were kept in the house and they ate just as much as they needed, when they needed it; the food was always there for them.

Now, when they can come and go with a degree of freedom, they tend to go straight for the food bowl when they come in (I know that feeling of coming in, ravenous) but they also like to have a feed before they set out on their adventures again, on the grounds that you never know where your next meal is coming from.

Xander

XANDER is the friendliest of the two tom cats in the house in Hounslow where we’ve been staying with relatives this weekend. Xander is the black and white cat who appears in all but one of my sketches. Alfie, the tabby, is more wary of visitors and settled with us only briefly, while Xander soon accepted us, treating us as part of the furniture.

They’re both large cats, despite the careful control their owners take to ensure they don’t eat too much, however neighbours report that both Xander and Alfie have been known to go visiting and, while they’re there, eat the rations left for other cats.

In my childhood we always had a cat, occsaionally two, in the house. I could get used to it again. I’d never be short of a subject to draw and it’s comforting to have one sitting on your lap or settling down next to you on the sofa. but I like the freedom that comes with not having to make arrangements for their care if we suddenly decide to set off somewhere for a day or two.

The House at Hoylandswaine

I FOUND this drawing pasted inside the front cover of a secondhand book. You wouldn’t have got that if you’d been downloading an e-book. It’s dated 8 May 1922, a Monday, and it’s apparently by a C A Clifford. The postman must have knocked on the door of this house on that Monday morning as Clifford records that he (possibly she?) received the book by post from publishers and that he paid 8 shillings and sixpence (42.5 pence but equivalent to about £9 in value today).

He left his mark on the book, stamping and writing his name and address in it seven times, in the front, back and middle. He gives his address as ‘Hoylandswaine, Nr. Penistone, Nr Sheffield’. I’d like to go there to see if I can identify the house.

I can tell you a little more about Hoylandswaine as the book is Place-Names of South-West Yorkshire, by Armitage Goodall, M.A., late scholar of Queens’ College, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1914.

Place-names aren’t always what they seem, he tells us, for instance, you might guess that Armitage Bridge near Huddersfield gets its name from one of the author’s namesakes, the Armitage family who have long been associated with the area. In fact the family probably owe their name to the place; there was a Hermitage here. In a charter of 1212, the Normans refer to it as ‘Heremitagie que jacet juxta Caldwenedene brook’, the hermitage which lies beside the Caldwenedene brook’. The local people soon dropped the ‘h’ from this Old French word, and it appears as ‘ermitage’ in a deed of 1352.

Hoylandswaine was, he suggests, the Viking Sveinn’s  piece of ‘high land’. It is recorded as Holande in the Domesday Book, which in the local dialect soon became Hoyland.

I find these place-names fascinating as I can often relate them to a landscape I know. It’s as if our Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Celtic and Roman predecessors are still there, evoked in the names we use every day.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

This feeling of a historical presence in the landscape is a feature of M R James’s short stories, published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. In The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral the spirits dwell in ancient timbers, in Whistle and I’ll Come to You it’s a bone flute that triggers the supernatural events. One of my favourites involves a curious etching of an ancient house that alarmingly shows signs of life. In fact, can’t you see a face at the gable end window of The House at Hoylandswaine?! Those lace curtains were closed a moment ago . . . weren’t they?

It doesn’t surprise me that the leading member of the Editorial Committee of the Cambridge Archaeological and Ethnological Series, who published this Place-Names book, dealing as it does with a species of ‘ghost’ in the landscape, was M R James himself, Litt.D., F.B.A. and Provost of King’s College.

 

Meadow Buttercup

THIS Meadow Buttercup, Ranunculus acris, has grown to about a foot tall with flowers three-quarters of inch across in the week or two since we last mowed the lawn. Ranunculus, the Latin name for the buttercup, comes from the Latin Rana, for frog, as this genus of plants grows in damp places.

In preparation for planting our tomatoes, I’ve been spring-cleaning the greenhouse. Below the staging, behind the plastic bags of compost and grit, as I swept up the winter’s debris, I disturbed the greenhouse’s resident Common Frog, Rana temporaria, which hopped off to find a damp crevice behind the water butt.

Nearby, in crevices in the concrete footings of the greenhouse, a couple of Smooth Newts, Triturus vulgaris, hunted invertebrates (the larger had some kind of invertebrate prey in its mouth – a small spider?) in a macro-habitat of moss plants that resembled a miniaturised version of the Giant Club Moss forests that its giant amphibian ancestors had swum and slithered through right here, 300 million years ago. I say ‘right here’ but at that time our part of the Earth’s crust lay near the equator. True flowering plants, such as buttercups, had yet to evolve.