Monday, 13th December 2004
Wild West Yorkshire nature diary

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oxbow, StoneycliffeI've drawn this meander in my diary before. It's a perfect ox-bow in Coxley Beck. The loudest sound here in the wood on this dull December afternoon is the trickle of water.

I stopped on a bench a few yards away when I set out on my three day Mist over Langsett walk just over a year ago. The sketch I drew from the bench became the first drawing in my Sushi series of sketchbooks.

I'd like to set off and walk again. I've an idea for doing a drawing project closer to home in the valley but I have mixed feelings about it.

Today I just feel 100% that I would like to walk and walk and walk. I guess I have a deep need to get away from the developer's theme park that Wakefield has become. Would a subject that has hurt me so much give a raw edge to my work? Stop me being too complacent and comfortable in my drawing? Would those feelings add a layer of meaning to the drawing or would they stop me seeing properly? I don't feel it's fair to burden a drawing with a political or campaigning message - that seems to belittling whatever it is that I'm looking for in my drawing - but I wouldn't want to dodge it either.

Or should I go with the feeling that's drawing me on this afternoon and accept how little I can achieve in trying to conserve what's left the countryside I love and just wander, on and on, amongst the moors of the Pennines and Peak District, where there are still wide spaces with a quality of wildness about them?

On the Langsett walk I stopped here for my regulation 20 minute drink of water (some good advice I'd read about walking) at 7.50 a.m.. It's 3.10 p.m. now. I take an drink and, not having a water brush with me, blot the drawing with my fingers.

birchBirch Elbow

Stoneycliffe Wood, 3.25 p.m., 4°C

Part of this looks like a horse's head, part like an elbow carrying a tray of drinks. The birch was probably bent by snow as a sapling. It's over 30 feet tall.


sorrel leaves3.35 p.m.

Amongst fallen birch leaves by steps in the top wood, these wood sorrel leaves make me think of shamrock and of spring, when their white flowers appear.

Grazing and Grockling

rabbitsheepA rabbit dashes off across the field as I get to the foot of the inclined plane (a former mining wagonway) near New Hall. A couple of miles from home I feel as if I'm on the edge of another world: the sheep grazing remind me of our leisurely 82 walk through the Dales last April.

The sheep are bleating reassuringly, the pheasants grockling in croctchety alarm.

Those dark firs on a ridge that the pheasants are in remind me of the wilds of Northumbria. As I set off striding out again the sheep suddenly notice me and they run off to join the rest of the flock.

stable The Light from the Stable

As I get to New Hall Farm the cattle are lowing, ducks are quacking, geese are grazing, the farmer is loading huge rolls of straw onto a trailer and there's a soft warm light over the bullocks in the barn which are feeding on hay from a manger.

Perfect for Advent.


Coxley4.10 p.m.

This dip reminds me of my travels when I was working on my Britain sketchbook for Collins (1981). I remember working long days in quiet rolling landscapes - for instance around Watership Down - then walking miles to get back to my bed and breakfast but this quiet rolling landscape is just 15 or 20 minutes walk from home.

Mistiness blots out Netherton on top of the the far ridge, except for the sparkle of a few street lights. An old forked, ivy-covered ash by a gate behind me begs to be drawn. Perhaps another day. It reminds me of what we've lost.

Coxley valley

4.30 p.m.

It might be 15 minutes to get home, if I wasn't tempted to stop and draw this view looking back up the valley after I'd dipped down between the cottages of Toad Hole and gone past the pheasant pens, lonely except for the angrily pitiful barking of a dog that's been left in charge there for the night.

By now I've found my water brush, amongst the pens in a back pocket of my art bag, which makes converting my art pen drawing into a quick pen and wash sketch a whole lot easier.

I was thinking how quiet it was half an hour ago. Now that darkness has cloaked the wood and copses, it's far from quiet. As a man with a dog and a mobile phone comes towards me a wave of pheasants bursts into grockling alarm, filling the air with a noise that sounds a bit like someone trying to start a car with the choke pulled out but also something like corks popping. But it's so loud that it seems as if the pheasants are using the sound system from a rock concert to broadcast their improvisations. I don't see them flying, which adds to the eeriness of the cacophony.

There's a possible owl - a call that is more of a wail and I wonder if I've heard the call of a fox.

While the pheasants do their best to dispel any sense of peace, the landscape itself appears more harmonious, now every drop of colour has gone from it and tangly masses of bare branches become simplified into looming bulks of tone - like sleeping whales.

It really is getting too dark to draw, or even to see properly and I've got some of the muddiest paths to negotiate as I come back past Coxley Dam. Is this another man on a mobile phone ahead? No it's an isolated thorn tree.

All alone, and feeling blue

As I pass the house at the end of the lane a security spotlight bursts into life. It's a welcome help to guide me alongside the muddy ruts and I become aware of my shadow, 30 yards ahead of me on the track that rises gently along the foot of Sun Wood. My woolly-hatted shadow is swinging his arms and striding along like me but he doesn't seem to be getting far. I wonder if I'll catch him up. Yes, he seems to be stuck at the edge of the lane by the fence and I get nearer and nearer to him until he's nothing but oblique hints of movement on the rails of the fence.

And then he's gone.

I know how he feels.

Twilight World

As a wildlife illustrator I always timed my trips into the wood to make the most of the day's light but if you see the wood only by day you're missing a lot of its atmosphere. As I struggle along a narrow bridleway with a trenchlike rut worn by horses and subsequent erosion I'm using my imagination and memory to pick my way along in the gloom.

By the time I'm back at the lower end of the wood the main light is the fuzzy halo of yellowish sodium streetlighting seen between dark bare branches of the trees. A stretch of the stream, dammed by a fallen willow log, reflects the glow, opening up an unfamiliar space below me as I walk on the steep bank alongside.

Compared with the warm light in the stable, this is more like Celtic twilight; it reminds me of the way our ancestors saw certain pools as a way into another world.

This frisson of other worldliness is soon dispelled when I emerge from the bottom end of the wood onto our lane. Twinkling lights drip from gutters, a giant red-nosed Santa's head smiles from a garage door and Philippa's new inflatable snowman on her front lawn isn't quite fully inflated yet. He's slumped slightly forward, his long carrot nose protruding from under the brim of his hat and I could swear, from his woozy swaying that, although it isn't five o'clock yet, he's already had a bit too much to drink. Next Page

Richard Bell,

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