Sweet Box

‘Purple Stem’ Sweet BoxSarcococca hookeriana var. digyna*, is now tasseled with sweetly fragrant blossom on the woodland bank behind the bench by the Druid Bridge below the Cascade at Nostell Priory. Each blossom has just two styles and one central stigma; with a scent like that, who needs petals?

The generic name, Sarcococca,  is from the Greek, ‘sarc’ meaning flesh and ‘kokkos’, berry.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Joseph Hooker.

The species name honours botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) who collected this winter-flowering shrub on a plant-hunting expedition in southern China. Hooker was a friend and confidant of Charles Darwin; Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Hooker in Creation, the biographical movie about Darwin. This weekend he appears in the final episode of Sherlock, so perhaps he’ll now be able to get back to playing Victorian botanists, which he does so well. 

The newly planted Sweet Box by the bench should spread by suckers to form a thicket a metre in height.

* I guess that it’s possible that this is a garden hybrid, closely related to S. hookeriana.

After a week of wintry and sometimes very windy weather, it’s good to be walking through the parkland under blue skies with low winter sun picking out the textures on the trunks of the old beeches and oaks. It’s also picking out the bark-like layers in the sandstone of the old quarry in the Menagerie garden.

Walled Garden


Winter aconite

In the walled garden the first snowdrops have appeared and the winter aconites that we first saw opening midweek are continuing to come into flower.

In the shady shelter of the far northeast-facing wall of the garden, Timperley Early (right) is one of the few rhubarb varieties to have started sprouting leaves but Victoria is just ahead of it, with some of the leaves already opening out.

Rhubarb Tree

rhubarbI thought that we’d lost our rhubarb this year but after losing an early leaf or two in the frost, the red buds are pushing up again through the wood chip at the edge of the path at foot of the hawthorn hedge. It’s the sunny side of the garden, facing southwest. The rhubarb has grown here since we moved in over thirty years ago, sprouting every year amongst the nettle leaves and the trailing stems of periwinkle. Snowdrops have spread along the foot of the hedge nearby.

Rhubarb leaves come pre-packed in their egg-shaped buds. As they unfurl, I would describe the wavy pattern of the emerging leaf as carunculated, like an elephants skin.

blue titThe blue tit has a hurried and rather petulant song which hints at the sound of a child’s bicycle bell. It continues this in flight.

Eggs, birds singing in the trees, leaves like elephants’ ears . . . it reminds me of a playground poem, c.1960:

The elephant is a pretty bird,
It flits from bough to bough.
It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree
And whistles like a cow.

11.40 a.m.: The high pressure is holding over the weekend. It’s still with hazy sunshine. Warm enough to simply walk out of the back door into the garden and draw gloveless. For the first time this year as I set out drawing, I’m wearing jeans not insulated outdoor trousers.

A Bird in the Hand

red henDo you ever have one of those mornings when you’re sitting on the sofa relaxing with your morning cup of tea and a woman in wellies walks through the room clutching a chicken. Well, to give her her due, our neighbour Juliet did remove her wellies beforehand and had apologised in advance, explaining that the children had let the chickens out earlier and one little red hen had made its way under the hedge into our back garden and had settled by our shed and couldn’t be enticed back even with the promise of food.

ebook guideBut the odd thing is that at the moment I’m reading How to Publish Your Own eBook, which includes, on a sample page of an Apple iBooks’ publication, a photograph of someone holding a red hen under their arm. Just like Juliet as she breezed through before breakfast (we’re semi-detached so that’s the only way from back to front).

Link: MagBooks How to Publish Your Own eBook

Which was written by journalist and photographer Nik Rawlinson


I WANTED to draw something in the garden but nothing too fussy so at this time of year an obvious subject is the newly unfurled leaves of Rhubarb. Some are still looking crinkly from recently unpacking themselves from the folded-up form that emerged from the bud.

The glossy elephant’s ears leaves bring a touch of the luxuriantly exotic to the vegetable garden, flouncing around by the hedge with the kind of grand, swaggering gestures that you’d find in Baroque theatre or Elizabethan costume.

The pattern of veins with sections of puckered leaf surface between reminded me of the river valleys and hills of Europe that I’d been sketching from the plane a couple of weeks ago.

I was intending to stick purely to line and I didn’t want to add watercolour but by the time I’d finished a few leaves my drawing was looking like a map so I added cross hatching in the gaps between the leaf margins and indicated some of the shadows from the afternoon sun to give some clues to the way the leaves are arranged relative to each other in space.

Being right-handed I started in the top left corner and worked my way across. Theoretically I could have continued in this fashion, piecing my subject together from interlocking shapes like a jigsaw but my attention soon wavered and by the time I got to the large leaf in the centre of the top row I went drastically wrong in scale. I’ve left my mistake in the drawing so that you can see that at my first attempt I drew the main leaf vein about two thirds of the size it should be and 2 centimetres to the left of where it should have been on the page.

I realised that however relaxing this drawing was supposed to be I needed a strategy to tackle such a convoluted subject so I started by indicating the main veins before getting involved in the subsidiary details.

It sounds like a controlled process but the outlines and veins make what might appear to be a still life feel as if it’s animated. I felt as I imagine a novice skier must feel if they attempt to go straight from the nursery slopes onto the red routes. A feeling of controlled chaos.

The lighting was consistent and there was little breeze and little to distract me other than a sparrow chirping in the hedge above the rhubarb.

Imitate the Action of a Tiger

Thinking about the need for a degree of determination even when you’re doing something that is supposedly relaxing, after I drew this I was listening to a short talk on Radio 3 by choral music conductor Gareth Malone who said that when he had a big performance to conduct on the way to the concert hall he would read the ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends!’ speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V on his mobile phone. Not that singing is like fighting but he feels that he needs to instill in his choir some spirit and determination.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon . . .
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

I know what he means because you need something of that sense of attack when tackling a drawing. You’ve somehow got to keep that ‘stillness and humility’ but also harness the controlled energy suggested in the line about ‘greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start’. Relaxed concentration is what I usually call it, but that’s what the ‘action of the tiger’ appears to be when you see one hunting in a wildlife documentary; fluid movement and observant determination.

Drawing Pen

I used a Pilot Drawing Pen with an 08 nib for the rhubarb drawing which contains waterproof, light resistant brown DR pigment ink. When drawing botanical details I’d normally go for the finer 01 size nib but I wanted a more expressive and relaxed line here.

For me this 08 nib might be the nearest that I’ll get to the feel of a fountain pen when using a fibre tip. I tend to wear down the fibre tips before the ink in the pen runs out, perhaps because I’m using too much pressure or because I’m drawing on slightly toothed acid free cartridge paper. I soon find that I have to hold the pen vertically to get a consistent line out of it. I’m hoping that the larger tip size will enable me to draw at an angle for longer. Perhaps a proportionally larger tip in relation to the size of the ink reservoir helps give a smoother flow.

Links Gareth Malone, Pilot Drawing Pen


I have been drawing recently but you wouldn’t know it from my sketchbook; these are all I have to show for the last week or two. I’ve been drawing the maps for Walks Around Ossett in the odd hours I’ve had between family matters and parcelling up my books. Parcelling up books and shipping them out to customers never seems like real work – it’s therapeutic but hardly taxing – but it is, after all, the way I make my living, so I shouldn’t grumble!

I think that I can see a patch of calm, clear water ahead but at the moment I really feel as if I’m swimming against a backwash and getting nowhere and that is reflected in this handful of sketches:

  • a couple of people at the Wakefield Naturalists’ meeting on Tuesday
  • a newspaper drawn when I waited to have my hair cut last week
  • two chair backs

The chairs are entirely typical of my unsettled life at present; I started drawing one chair then got moved on after I’d drawn two lines then – at my next port of call – I’d no sooner started drawing a second chair when someone came along and moved it!

Rhubarb Rootstock

Finally, this afternoon, after a morning painting scenery and an afternoon at a farm shop event, I got the best part of an hour to sketch. As it was a Rhubarb Festival event the most appealing subject to hand was a basket of forced rhubarb and an example of the rootstock from which the shoots are grown, at this time of year, in total darkness to ensure an early crop, at a time of year when there is a break in the supply of soft fruits.