Matchbox Models

Actual size of drawing, 5×3 cm.

There’s a scene in Joby, Stan Barstow’s novel of childhood in a small Yorkshire town, where Joby has to decide which of his small collection of model cars he’s going to take with him when he has to leave home because of some family trauma. The boy lines them up to assess the personality of each car and eventually goes for the one that seems mundane but dependable, rather than the flashy and spectacular.

Sand and gravel steam wagon, one of Lesney’s Matchbox Models of Yesteryear.

I must have gone through a similar process with this Dinky Toys die-cast van (above). At a time when we wanted to buy an Emgee Memo Stamp (a kind of hand-held duplicator) to print a little club magazine, my brother Bill and I sold most of our childhood toys to Steele’s Surplus, the secondhand shop in the wooden hut down the road (now a beauty and tanning salon), but I decided that I couldn’t part with this van which, even in the 1960s, seemed to have the dependable and practical look and feel of a bygone age.

I kept this Matchbox Austin A50 because it reminded me of our family car in the mid-1950s, an Austin A40.

It originally came to us secondhand, with a box of cast-off toys that had belonged to Mick, the son of our butchers, Mr and Mrs Thompson. I notice that I’d replaced the nearside front tyre with a slightly larger spare, which you could buy in a pack from the newsagents. It’s now the van’s only tyre with legal treads the other’s are bald.

The Bedford Removals Van (below) was a smaller scale Lesney Matchbox model. This was a gift and I went to bed clutching it in my sweaty hand during our annual seaside holiday at Filey on the Yorkshire coast. In the morning the transfer on the side of it – ‘MATCHBOX REMOVALS SERVICE’ – had been rearranged like an anagram in a crossword.

I was so taken with the model and the concept of removal vans in general that when we moved from Wrenthorpe to Horbury, my sister Linda and I persuaded our parents, and the removal men, who should have known better, to allow us to travel in the back of the van. I imagined a great adventure that consisted of sitting in comfort in an armchair on the journey but by the time that we got to the end of our road, my sister and I were convinced that a large piece of furniture lurching and rattling over our heads was going to come crashing down on us.

As we slowed down at a junction in the centre of Wakefield, passers by might have heard the muffled sound of two young children shouting ” Help! HELP!”

Watering Cans

I bought this two gallon (10 litre) galvanised watering can at the closing down sale of a hardware store on Wood Street, Wakefield, c. 1983. It’s a traditional design, the sort that my dad used.

It’s the easiest of all my cans to fill, just leave it under the tap of the water butt. But don’t forget about it and leave it overnight as I did recently, draining what was left in the butt.

This green plastic Ward’s watering can is my current favourite; it’s well-balanced to carry down the garden and free-flowing but easy to control when you’re watering. Not the finest of sprays from the rose, but I don’t have delicate seedlings to water these days, so that”s not a problem.

This 5 litre Haw’s watering can would be the best choice for the gentle watering of seedlings and, with it’s long spout, you’d be able to reach a tray at the back of the bench.

I first become aware of Haw’s watering cans at Kew Gardens in the winter of 1976-77, when I set off to draw tree ferns for a coal forests illustration (detail above).  I’d been looking forward to drawing in tropical warmth but the greenhouses were closed for maintenance, so I stood outside in freezing conditions, drawing the tropical scene.I noticed that the all watering cans dotted about the greenhouse were Haw’s, so I decided that, if they were good enough for Kew, that would be the one that I’d go for.

I bought one in the sale at the hardware store. In those days Haw’s watering cans were metal and this one had been hanging on the display so long that the joint between spout and can had opened enough to allow water to seep out but I filled it with plastic padding and used the can for years. It appears in a sample illustration (left) which I painted when I did some work on Dr Hessayon’s bestselling Garden Expert Guides.

We bought this as a spare can, a bargain from a DIY store or garden centre but it works well: the wavy handle is well-balanced for carrying and for watering.

From a garden gift hamper, this cream-coloured retro metal can is intended to be decorative rather than practical. The rose is soldered to the spout but it works well, giving the plant a gentle dousing.

Finally, we bought this one litre Haw’s plastic watering can for plants on the kitchen windowsill. With that long spout, it’s a slow but precise pourer. The brass and plastic rose produces a gentle spray.

Garden Hand Tools

I’ve just sent my latest article off to the Dalesman, so I decided that I could allow myself to do a drawing just for the fun of it. I love working with these hand tools which I carry around the garden in this plastic bin (a container from a live Christmas tree from about twenty-five years ago).

The last essential that I need to complete my set is a hand potato harvester, which would save me the inevitable speared potato when I use a fork; how have I managed without one all these years? Besides, it would give me another tempting subject to draw. Perhaps for next year, as we’ve already started this year’s potato harvest: the first of our Vivaldi second earlies were lovely; not huge quantities of them, but what there were were delicious.

The washing up bowl is full of gardening gloves.


A couple of stems of chicory escaped when I mowed the meadow area, but I might as well enjoy drawing them while they’re still here. They’re going to go as I need to keep it under control to give some of the other wild flowers, such as bird’s-foot trefoil, red campion and red clover, a chance to thrive.

Perhaps I should start eating it: buds and leaves are edible and the roots have been baked, ground and roasted as a substitute for coffee. I can’t see me giving up my Fairtrade, rain-forest friendly latte.

Banded Demoiselle

A pair mute swans on the canal have reared four cygnets; we’re told that they started with five, but rearing four out of five is pretty good going.

As they sit together on the bank preening, they’re all making elegant swan-neck movements, like the warm-up for a ballet rehearsal; the two principle dancers flanking the corps de ballet.

A male banded demoiselle flies alongside the canal. In contrast to other damselflies, this one is so dark that it reminds us of the chimney sweep moths that we saw flying amongst grasses in the Dales a couple of weeks ago. It’s the first that I can remember seeing in the valley.

It’s a while since we saw a gatekeeper; a male comes to rest on a bramble leaf amongst the grasses by the towpath. The diagonal streaks on the forewings of the male are scent glands. Males have a habit of patrolling a small territory , typically on the edge of a woodland ride.

Ringlets are the butterflies that we’re seeing most frequently at the moment, mainly alongside hedgerows, especially where bramble is in blossom but even more popular with them is a patch of creeping thistle which is currently dotted with purple flower-heads.

Herons, Storks and Spoonbills

little egret wades through the weedy waters of a pool between the river and canal, occasionally stabbing at some prey in the water a foot or two ahead of it. A pigtail of a plume hangs down behind its head. ‘Little’ is an appropriate description: it looks petite compared with plump moorhen standing nearby at the water’s edge.

A juvenile grey heron touches down by the pool and steadily ambles along the bank towards the egret, which continues its progress towards the heron. I’m expecting the larger heron to see off the egret, but there’s no interaction between them.

Next to the pool is a nesting platform fixed on top of a tall pole. It was erected when a pair of wild white storks attempted to nest here in April 2004: the first nesting attempt in Britain for six hundred years. Storks like to nest near human habitation but it probably didn’t help that hundreds of birdwatchers flocked to the spot and stood on the towpath under the pole. The pair deserted.

But the good news is that it’s just been announced by the RSPB that spoonbills have nested at their Fairburn Ings nature reserve. They haven’t nested in Yorkshire since the 1700s. Unlike the storks, they were able to nest in peace as they wisely chose the cover of a stand of trees in one of the quieter corners of the reserve and the RSPB didn’t go public with the news until the three young had successfully fledged.

Buzzard and Sparrowhawk

As we walk down the Balk into the Calder Valley, a buzzard flies across in front of us, far enough down the slope that we’re getting an eye-level view of it. It’s surprising how different those long, broad wings look when seen from this unfamiliar angle.

Later a female sparrowhawk circles over the marshy field known as the Strands. At first, against the sky with nothing to judge its scale by, I’m wondering if it could be some larger bird of prey, but it soon flies right over our heads, so that we’re able to see the barring on its plumage and get a better idea of its size.

Magic Painting

Scanned larger than my sketch which is 6cm x 6cm.

I’m fascinated to see how creative a two-year old can be with a magic painting colouring book, starting by experimenting with dragging, blending and pooling but then opting for a more meticulous approach. This is the Fairy Gardens Magic Painting Book, currently on sale at the National Trust shop.

She’s so absorbed that she completes the book at one sitting. She assigns identities to four fairies winging their way through the herbage:

‘Mummy . . . Daddy . . . Granny and Grandpa’. She adds a beard to Grandpa. I think that purple tutu will really suit him.

Le Yogurt Pot

Scanned larger than the original: actual size, 2.5 x 1.5 inches.

There are eight pots and tins of pens on the end of the bookshelves by my desk; this one brings back memories of travelling to Cologne via Eurostar a couple of years ago: the yogurt we bought for lunch came in glass pots which were too good to put in the recycling.

Wood Mouse

We had a shrew and later a hedgehog foraging under the bird feeders yesterday and this afternoon – on a day when it never stopped raining – a wood mouse was feeding on the spilt sunflower seeds and the crumbs of fat ball.

It ran off and vanished down a hole in the middle of the lawn. There must be hidden world beneath the turf; yesterday a shrew popped underground via another hole in its restless search for food.

Fledgling Bullfinch

We’ve guessed during the last month or two that a pair of bullfinches must have a nest nearby. We used to see them sitting opposite each other on the sunflower hearts feeder and I suspected that they were gathering seed to feed their young. Bullfinches feed their young on regurgitated seeds which they store in the bullfinch equivalent of a hamster’s cheek pouches.

Today a bullfinch fledgling was sitting on the washing line, begging for food. The adult male, on a perch on the feeder, appeared to be de-husking sunflower hearts and storing them in his pouches. He then flew over to the washing line and fed them to the fledgling.

The fledgling looked rather dull, perhaps a little duller than the female but it lacked her dark cap.


8.35 a.m.: A dunnock chases a shrew across the lawn but the shrew ignores it and continues its zig-zag pattern of foraging. It disappears into a small hole for a minute then pops up again in the same place and continues its investigations, pushing its nose amongst the grass stems.

It has lighter-coloured ears; it is whitish beneath and it has a stiffish looking tail which to me looks wider in proportion to its body than I’d expect. It has velvety light brown-grey fur. I’ve shown it too brownish here.

Shrew v. Blackbird

A male blackbird paces along a few inches from it, following its progress, but it seems too diffident to peck at it.

10.40 a.m.; Not so the female blackbird, which pecks at the shrew which is now foraging at the foot of the bird-feeding pole; she pecks at it several times and it scuttles off to take cover in the nearby flower border.

6.30 p.m.; The shrew is still around, busily investigating the turf by the edge of the lawn.

8.30 p.m.;hedgehog snuffles about beneath the bird feeders.


Sad to report, the following day, following non-stop rain, the bedraggled shrew had expired and was lying on the lawn. Its body measured 5.2 cm, its tail about 4 cm.