Wild West Yorkshire nature diary
green alkanetgorse

The Kings Arms

Saturday 15th April 2000
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coltsfoot in flower COLTSFOOT has gone to seed and the seedheads, in this damp weather, look like little chimney sweep's brushes (although I expect most people today have never come across a chimney sweep's brush).

Dame Mary Bowles' water tower, HeathYears ago it was considered lucky to have a chimney sweep at a wedding, and, as it happens, today we're out celebrating a wedding. The reception is in the King's Arms at Heath (where you can see the old water tower, right) near Wakefield. The restaurant has been decorated in a homely English Inn fashion, which is appropriate, as the buildings date from the 17th century. Behind me is a bookshelf. As usual, I can't resist taking a look at some of the miscellaneous titles. They're not antiques, most of them date back back 40, 50 or 60 years.

But open them up and you've got a little time capsule;

  • Novels, that make me think, 'did people really read these?'
  • a jolly school story for girls, the frontispiece shows our plucky heroines playing a mean game of cricket
  • The Chrysanthemum Grower's Handbook from a time when gardening wasn't so instant, and when gardeners were expected to put in time making propogating frames and mixing their own potting compost
  • a book on the 'modern home', with a glossy fold-out at the back featuring the very latest in gas fires from 1950
  • an introduction to wild flowers with colour plates of sand dunes and heaths basking in pre-war sunshine. I would have loved to have rambled through England before the greatest period of destruction of meadows, wetland, heathland and woodland in its history (the last 50 years)
  • The Best Plays of 1935 and its companion volumes for the previous three years
Today all this information could go on one CD or be filed on a website. But the books have a certain charm in themselves, over and above the information they contain. Pick one up and you're holding a period piece. The paper, the binding, the design, the typeface, the smell and feel of the volume. This isn't just a collection of words, it was a part of someone's life, of their lifestyle and aspirations; a book that was stuffed into a rucksack, taken down to the potting shed, or was read under the bedclothes in the school dormitory. The book of plays may have been or enjoyed by gaslight, in an armchair by the coal fire, accompanied by a glass of sherry, by a reader who'd recently seen Geilgud or Flora Robson in one of those creaky West End productions (by the way, the Kings Arms is the only public house in the district that is still lit by gas mantles).

green alkanet The waitress notices my interest and brings me a copy of Thor Heyerdhal's The Kon-tiki Expedition which she says she spotted on the shelves and enjoyed reading.

Back home, down by the towpath, Green Alkanet, a garden escape, is now in flower.

reedmace The seeding heads of Reedmace can be seen growing from an old watertank, on the roof of a former scouring mill by the river. Survival expert Ray Mears recommends the rhizomes, the underwater 'roots' of the reedmace as a source of carbohydrate. Peel away the skin and, he says, you can eat it just as it is, but that it tastes better if you slice it up and cook it as part of a stew (in his recipe made from freshly caught lake trout).

So, if you do ever find yourself stuck on the roof of Horbury scouring mill, at least you won't starve.

Richard Bell
Richard Bell,
wildlife illustrator

E-mail; 'richard@daelnet.co.uk'

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