Sun on the Strands


Frost whitened rushes,
dark iced water,
isolated in the mist
in warm winter sun
the Strands looked at its best

Calder Valley, Addingford, 26 January 1997

Twenty-two years ago this weekend, in 1997, I was busy painting the scenery for the Pageant Players’ production of Dick Whittington at Horbury School but, instead of driving there, I put on my wellies and walked through a pristinely frosted Calder Valley, following first the canal, then the river.

In my a new page-a-day diary I’d decided a that I was going to try, every day, to make a note of the wildlife I’d seen and to add quick sketches in colour. In the following year this diary became the basis of my online Wild West Yorkshire nature diary, which was originally intended to be just one strand of a more ambitious website, which would include sections on geology, history and villages.

Comet, 28 April, 1997.

I was keen to immerse myself in natural history because for the previous seven years I’d been working pretty intensively on geological projects. I was just finishing my illustrations for Steve Cribb’s Whisky on the Rocks and I’d also made a start on an educational publication, What is Coal? for the National Museum of Coal Mining but I was starting to get further afield as I set about planning and testing out the routes my first walks book, Village Walks in West Yorkshire.

First e-mail

A couple of weeks later, I sold my first computer, an Amstrad 386, to friends and upgraded to what then seemed like a suitably powerful PC but my self-publishing business, Willow Island Editions, didn’t get going until after I’d invested in my first scanner, a Umax Astra 1200-S. I remember that it cost hundreds of pounds, £350 I think, but included in the package was a full version of Adobe Photoshop 4.0, so it proved to be brilliant value.

It’s strange to look back and read a note that I received my first e-mail, from a birdwatcher friend in Plymouth, on the second of April, 1997. However did we manage before that?!

The Wood in Winter

Coxley Wood

The day started with a frost but by lunchtime that had melted away as a warm front came through, although it didn’t turn mild enough to melt the ice on the pond.

As a change from the iPad, I’ve gone back to a real sketchbook, a Pink Pig with their own brand of 270 gsm watercolour paper, Ameleie. Also as a change, I’ve gone for a fibre tip, a 0.1 Pilot Drawing Pen in brown, and my larger studio set of Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolours.

There’s been a good variety of birds coming to the feeders this afternoon including long-tailed tits, nuthatch and two pairs of blue tits which seem ready to start falling out over the nestbox. We recently replaced the old blue tit nesting box with a sparrow nestbox, which is designed for three pairs to nest in. I can’t see the blue tits ever settling down in adjacent nestboxes, so my guess is that eventually the house sparrows will take an interest and move in.

January Sketches

Looking towards the M62 motorway junction from the Showcase Cinema, Birstall.

Here are a few quick sketches from my A6-size pocket sketchbook. Barbara was asking me which I preferred, drawing on an iPad or drawing in pen and watercolour. For pleasure, pen and watercolour are what I feel most at home with, but I always like learning something new. I think of iPad drawing as being something akin to printmaking, it’s undeniably drawing but with technical considerations which might be considered limitations but which can also contribute to the character of the artwork.

Old scouring mill


The original of this sketch of the old scouring mill at Horbury Bridge is just two inches, five centimetres across. Seen in close-up, the unpredictable effects of real ink and real watercolour on the slightly textured surface cartridge paper are, I feel, more convincingly organic than anything that I could have concocted on the iPad.

All these sketches were drawn as we paused for a coffee. When no view was available, when we sat in the corner at the Filmore & Union in the Redbrick Mill, Batley, last week, I attempted to draw a chair.

Beams at Blacker Hall
Silver birch, the Red Kite, Calder Park, Wakefield.

Inspired by a video I’d been watching of a virtuoso South Korean comic artist, I attempted to increase my speed when I drew the timber framework of the barn at Blacker Hall Cafe this morning. I’d normally try to keep my trembling hands under close control but it’s good to try and let myself go occasionally.

Dog Lichen

Dog Lichen

Dog Lichen, Peltigera sp., grows in damp, badly drained habitats such as mossy logs and rocks but it can also get established on garden lawns. Its leafy lobes have white dog-tooth-shaped root-like rhizines on their undersurface, loosely connecting them to the substrate.

There are several similar species, so I’ve posted my original photograph on iSpot Nature,, to get a second opinion on the specie: perhaps it’s P. membranacea, rather than P. canina itself? It was taken last April in the marshy woodland beyond Friar’s Crag, Derwent Water.

With those dog-like ‘teeth’ it was once used in an attempt to treat rabies.

Cuckoo’s Nest Halt

Blacker Wood

Last April, after a winter that had lingered on and on, we were keen to get out as soon as the spring blossom started to appear. A friend, Philippa Coultish, was taking us around her local patch: the valley of Park Gate Dike, northeast of Skelmanthorpe. Because of the ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorms, we were a bit early for the flowers we’d planned to see in Blacker Wood.

Denby Dale Walks

On our way back towards the town, we walked parallel with the Kirklees Light Railway and watched one of the narrow gauge steam trains make a stop up at Cuckoo’s Nest Halt. I’ve yet to take a trip on the railway but hope we can return to walk from station to station alongside the line, then get the train back.

There’s an excellent pack of leaflets, Walking in and around Denby Dale with fourteen walks, centred on Denby Dale, Skelmanthorpe, Clayton West and Emley.


Denby Dale Walkers are Welcome leaflets, available as PDFs.


Drawn from a photograph taken by the Middle Lake, Nostell Priory, April 2018

If Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was asked to design an aquatic insect, this is what he might come up with. The smoke-tinted wings of the alderfly are folded like a roof and supported by a tracery of veins, in the style of a Tiffany lamp. Despite these stylish wings they don’t venture far from the water’s edge.

The alderfly larva is a predator, using powerful pincer-like jaws to to prey on aquatic insects such as caddis and mayfly larvae.

Evernia Lichen

This tuft of Evernia prunastri, a common grey-green foliose (leaf-like) lichen was growing on a twig at the edge of the copse alongside the Balk at Netherton. Its branching pattern, always dividing into two, reminds me of fronds of seaweed. Evernia means ‘branched’.

The fronds (the branches of thallus, or body of the lichen) are strap-shaped (not cylindrical, as in a similar-looking lichen, Ramalina), usually paler underneath. You’re probably thinking that if this is a lichen where are the spore-producing bodies? They’re rarely seen and reproduction is often via those granules – the soredia – dotted all over the surface, which can eventually break off to form new lichens.

From Twig to Wig

In Lichens, an Illustrated Guide, Frank S Dobson lists the numerous uses that this lichen has been put to: as wadding for shotguns and as powder for wigs; as a flavouring in bread in the Middle East; as a fixative for perfume; and as an antibiotic, although Dobson adds that it has been known to trigger an allergy in woodcutters. Long-tailed tits use it to camouflage their nests.

It is distributed throughout Britain and is very common on twigs, rocks, fences and even on consolidated sand dunes and it can cope with a moderate amount of pollution.

The Stile at Coxley Dam

stile at Coxley Dam
The stile today.

In the spring of 1996, I took my easel to the car park at the bottom of Coxley Lane and painted, in acrylics, a small canvas of this stile. I like the informal way the stile invites you to step over and explore.

As a subject, the variety of simple shapes is appealing to draw. Unlike the more user-friendly metal kissing gate fifty yards along the path that goes up to the right, this homemade stile is something that has grown from the landscape with those two blocks of local sandstone and the self-sown ash tree.

Coxley stile

The ash saplings appear to have grown from the stump of a tree which has been felled. The one in the foreground has grown over the past twenty-two years to engulf a third sandstone block, clearly visible on the right in the original painting.

The Coxley Stile canvas is now in the private collection of an astute and discerning couple (have to say that as they read this blog) in Cumbria.

New Bench

Larch bench

There’s a new bench at Newmillerdam Country Park by the bridge at the top end of the lake.

“Is it home grown?”, I ask the men who’ve assembled it.
“Yes, it was grown here.”
“What sort of timber did you go for?”
“It’s larch: larch lasts longer.”

Newmillerdam, 1973.
Causeway and top end of lake, Newmillerdam, September 1973, Agfacolor slide taken by Richard Brook. The lake is now entirely surrounded by woodland.

The conifers here were planted for use as pit props. Who would have thought at the time they were planted in the 1970s that, by the time they were mature, deep mining and opencast mining would have disappeared from the Wakefield area.

White Shorthorn

White Shorthorn bull

As happens to me with so many farm animals, as soon as I tried to photograph him in a relaxed, natural pose, this White Shorthorn bull immediately stopped what he was doing – grazing – and looked straight at the camera with a suspicious ‘what are you doing?’ expression.

White Shorthorns are a rare breed, well adapted to being out in all weathers and here at Nethergill Farm in Langstrothdale they’re free to roam, either in the fields around the farm or on the open hillside beyond Oughtershaw Beck. They tend to have a daily routine, making their way down from their preferred overnight quarters towards the beck during the morning.

White Shorthorn Bull

Along with some light grazing by a limited number of sheep, the White Shorthorns act as landscape managers here, rather like the Longhorns on the Knepp Wildland Project in West Sussex.

Wildlife projects at Nethergill include managing the meadows to encourage wild flowers, the woodland to encourage red squirrels and the beck for fish, insects, birds and the occasional visit by an otter.


Chris & Fiona Clark run the award-winning Eco-Farm at Nethergill but the bull belongs to a farmer friend of theirs in Cumbria – Gordon
“Gordon takes our calves when old enough,” Fiona tells me, “and we use his mature bulls to cosy up with our girls. 
‘Trump’ is the new kid on the block, 2 years old. Probably weighs 700kg approx. 
The ladies rule at Nethergill he sidles up to each female over several weeks. 
His technique obviously worked as all bar 1 are in calf due this Summer.” 


Nethergill Eco-Farm and Self Catering Accommodation in the Yorkshire Dales

Knepp Wildlife Project