7th September, 10.50 a.m.: Two buzzards land on the grassy embankment of Whitley Reservoir. A smaller bird – it looks like a kestrel – swoops down on them and they fly off after a minute or so.
11th September: The view changes every few minutes as grey curtains of rain sweep down from the hills across the Calder valley.
18th September: Just one more drawing of the view from Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour at Whitley, a regular date to meet up for a coffee with Barbara’s brother.
28th September: But we do visit other cafes: here’s the view from the Seed Room Coffee Shop and Bistro in Overton, looking across the Smithy Brook valley to Thornhill Edge.
14th September: And we do get even further afield, I made a quick sketch of the old lime kilns at Rheged visitor centre, Penrith, on a brief visit to the Lake District. Two grey wagtails flitted about on the rocks by the nearby pond.
Rheged was a good stop for us: after an hour driving through the Dales and along the M6, it gave us an opportunity for a short walk around the centre and along the adjacent country lane. You can’t do that at some motorway services.
8.00 a.m.: A sparrowhawk flies over the rooftops followed by a loose flock of smaller birds, which appear to be mobbing it. The sparrowhawk swoops down on one of them, but misses out on its breakfast.
On the sunflower heart feeders, a pair of bullfinches are joined by a siskin.
8.45 a.m.: A buzzard circles over farmland beyond the houses. Buzzards are such regulars now but because I first got familiar with them in the Lake District and on Speyside, at a time when they were far less common than they are today, they still conjure up a feeling of wild places for me. It’s great to be able to sit on the sofa with a mug of tea after breakfast and see one soaring in the distance.
We had a single clump of frogspawn in the pond yesterday; today there are thirteen.
On the lane between Notton and Woolley, a kestrel sits, hunched and huddled, in a roadside tree.
At Woolley Edge, there’s a flash of colour as a jay gets up from a roadside verge. Oak trees grow along the sandstone ridge here, so perhaps it was burying, or retrieving, an acorn.
As we reach the open higher ground at Bretton roundabout, we pass a buzzard sitting on a fence-post at the edge of the road.
As we get nearer to Flockton, we see a second kestrel, hovering over the field by the road.
Notton in the 1800s
Looking at our route on the original Ordnance Survey map from the 1800s, I’m surprised to see what a busy landscape this was, with its sandstone quarries,gravel pits and a brick kiln where George Lane meets the Wakefield to Barnsley road.
Just north of the gravel pit there are kennels and, more exotically, three-quarters of a mile to the northeast, there’s a Menagerie, which was part of the Chevet Hall estate.
An osier bed, near the top right corner of my map, would have produced the flexible whips of willow needed for basketmaking.
Nethergill Farm, 1.10 p.m.: Cumulus clouds are towering over Langstrothdale and the thunderstorms that the forecast suggested were a possibility would now be welcome as even here in the shade of the old barn the temperature is climbing into the high seventies Fahrenheit, 25 C.
A cuckoo is calling on the far side of the valley. Meadow pipits are the birds we see most often on the road across the moor to Hawes, so it will have plenty of nesting pairs in its territory.
The farm’s resident blackbird sings from the ash tree, which is covered in sprays of blossom, which is now going over, and freshly sprouted bright green fronds of leaves.
Goldfinches chatter excitedly in its canopy. A gentle breeze sighs as it passes across the valley ahead of the gathering cloud but does nothing to freshen the atmosphere.
A pheasant explodes in a brief grockle of indignation, flies murmur, a cockerel crows: a strangulated wail. The hens here at Nethergill farm ‘are still learning’ so Fiona added an extra egg to the small but deep yellow yoked half dozen that she gave us in our welcome pack for our self-catering apartment, the Hay Mew. Also included, slices of her homemade flapjack which has been enticing Dales Way walkers to take a break here for the last five years.
2.45 p.m., Bilberry Wood, Langstrothdale: We could hear a buzzard mewing but couldn’t spot one circling or perching in the pines on the far side of the beck; it was on the moorland edge on the slope beyond, perching on a fence-post. It was still there and still calling when we walked back, half an hour later.
3 p.m.: Starlings nest beneath the roof tiles at Swarthghyll Farm, Langstrothdale. House martin and swallow fly in at the barn window below.
3.20 p.m.: A green-veined white is sunning itself on a bank by the track across the moor, after a brief chase with a rival. It has fine dark veins on its upper wings but lacks the spots and borders that you see on many white butterflies (including most green-veined whites). A brief glimpse of the veins of its underwing helps confirm that it really is a green-veined.
5 p.m. riverside hide, Nethergill Farm: A pied wagtail feeds amongst the rocks on the beck, which is running low. It flies vertically to snap an insect in mid-air, then switches its attention to the beck-side pasture, darting to pick up insects from the clumps of rushes.
We glimpse a large brownish bird swooping up into the branches at the edge of a small wood in the Smithy Brook valley. It can’t be a grey partridge as they wouldn’t perch so high in a tree and it wasn’t small enough to be a mistle thrush. As we walk on there’s a commotion; a buzzard is circling, gaining height and it’s in dispute with two much smaller birds of prey. They both look like sparrowhawks. One flies off down the valley the other returns to the wood while the buzzard heads off up the valley, presumably happy that it has shown them who is boss.
A buzzard circles above the wood then heads over the meadow and garden towards the house. Looking up through my sloping roof-light window I can see it almost vertically overhead as it passes over my studio, the pancake patterns beneath its wing picked out by the afternoon sun.
However many times I see it fly over, I don’t think that I’ll ever get over the excitement that I feel when I see a buzzard. Even when it’s flying over our suburban street, that circling silhouette conjures up wild places for me.
I saw my first buzzard in the Lake District, aged nine, on Wednesday 31 August 1960. I know the date because I still have the I-Spy Birds booklet that I started on that holiday.
Birds of prey in general made a big impression on me, so much so that I chose them as the subject for a school project.
Aged of nine or ten I already had big ideas about the kind of books that I’d like to write and illustrate. The gold label and ambitious title suggest that I was aiming for something authoritative.
I was struggling to work out how to produce the stand-out illustrations that I saw in books and on the Brooke Bond tea cards that I collected. Using large hogs-hair brushes and school powder paints wasn’t going to help.
The method used for teaching joined-up writing or ‘real writing’ at my junior school was to keep the pen in contact with the paper throughout the word then go back to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. By the age of nine I’d already given up this method for my personal projects, preferring more compact block capitals which allowed me to fit my text in amongst my drawings. I treasured a copy of The Observer’s Book of British Birds which I kept in my gabardine pocket, even though it was unlikely that I’d spot a Montagu’s harrier or a Dartford warbler in the school playground.
Unfortunately I found myself unable to emulate Archibald Thorburn’s elegant illustrations in the wax crayons available to me in Mr Lindley’s class. But I’ve added my own touch with the background; the Lakeland hills and crag where I’d recently seen that first buzzard.
7.15 a.m.; AS I OPENED the blind on the window in the studio I was puzzled by a shape like a Grecian urn reflected in the pond. It was only after I’d seen the reflection that I realised that there was a juvenile Grey Heron standing behind the pond. It flew off towards the wood. As far as I remember, this is the first time in over 25 years that we have seen a Heron by the pond, although we’ve had them in the garden before.
It’s a reminder to me that I need to continue adding marginal, emergent and floating water plants to the pond to give the frogs and newts some cover.
Yesterday morning and again this morning we heard the high-pitched ‘mewing’ of a bird of prey. When I heard it yesterday, all that I could see in the air were a couple of crows. Today we saw a Buzzard soaring over the wood and I wonder if it has been perching somewhere down at this end of the valley, causing commotion amongst the local crows.
I’ve been working down by the compost bins. I opened the lid of one of the bins to add more compost and there, sitting at the top of the pile was a small Toad. It’s rare for me to do much work on a compost heap without coming across one.
Moriarty in Colour
With all the clearing up I had to do in the garden there’s not much time to immerse myself in the world of Sherlock Holmes today but I did have time to add a spot of colour to Moriarty. There’s a black and white engraving by Paget that I’d also like to draw from. It has the caption ‘He turned his rounded back on me’. In it Moriarty looks like a cross between a black beetle and a Marabou Stork. A colourful character even in black and white.