Monday, 15 October 2018

Man with Dog

This sketch appeared at lunchtime whilst I was wondering whether to write or draw people and I wasn't expecting a picture to appear. I am trying to make some of my characters more contemporary looking for when I go out sketching in towns. I was going to post some sketches this evening I scanned from my sketchbook. Unfortunately I deleted the files off my memeory stick so will try again another night.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Wrest Park

A convenient local walk takes me through the fields and woods surrounding Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. This morning it took me an hour and a half to complete the circuit. It was cloudy and pleasantly warm with the touch of a cool breeze. Many of my long walks this year have been up in Worcestershire exploring a particular landscape for my book. Today, as I set out, I found myself looking at all the trees and plants in a similar vain and had to rein myself back from needing to look at everything and take notes. For my book I need to look for things, to know what is growing where, to identify plants and build up a knowledge base of how the landscape works. Unfortunately, I keep thinking of things I wish I had looked for when I was up there. However, I can’t be there all the time so I will have to see how the writing progresses and answer any left over questions next year.
So this morning it was good to just get get out and just walk without having the need to stop every few steps to make notes or photograph something.

Nature is different in both of these places. The geology, climate and farming environments are both very different. My place in Worcestershire feels so much more alive with a greater variety of plants and bird life than around here. It is more of an immersive experience rather than a superficial glance.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Ampthill Sketch

A quick pen and ink sketch made in Ampthill a week or so ago. A slightly inaccurate view from the church as the house in the background went a little wrong with the windows. I hate windows.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Hop Picking and other things

The hop harvest has got underway in the Teme Valley in Worcestershire and I have just visited a friend’s farm to watch the hop bines being brought from the hop yards to the picking shed. The long hop bines, laden with a healthy crop of cones, have come from fertile land by the river where they have not been adversely affected by the summer’s drought. A new drying system has been installed this year to replace the traditional hop kilns and I watched whilst the 50 year old Bruff hop picking machine thundered it way through the afternoon like a huge monster eager to devour anything fed to it.
Then there was the sheer physical nature of working there. People moving urgently about unloading trailers, untangling the long bines, attaching them to the trackway, clearing blockages, keeping conveyor belts moving smoothly…. for about eight hours a day for the next three weeks. The noise was loud and you had to shout to be heard - it was like being in a tin shack during a very heavy hailstorm! The side of the machine shed resembled a large workshop implying that keeping the whole setup running was a challenge in itself. Actually, the new drying system seemed to be having more teething problems than the vintage picking machine. Once the day’s work had finished and all the floors swept clean of hops, the mechanical leviathan was shut down and everyone, including me, went for a drink at the bar. This had been built in one of the two long brick arched cellars beneath the house and these opened out onto a newly built patio/function area overlooking the river. A cool refreshing pint of draught cider was most welcome. If I could I’d easily give up sitting in front of a computer for a month to help out here. 
Once the hop harvest is finished there won’t be much time before the cider apple harvest begins. Farming is not a job here, it is a way of life and a very physically demanding one at that.
Around Hanley Childe the corn harvest has just finished and the fields are dotted with round bales awaiting collection. Several distant combines could be heard and I walked through one field of spring barley still to be harvested. A tractor and a huge trailed muck spreader were seen at work on one of the fields.
Fruit trees abound everywhere here though not all the fruit is edible. Many of the tress are very ancient and haven’t been managed to produce edible fruit for decades. Pear, apple and damson trees pop up everywhere in fields, hedgerows and woodland. Several very fruitful damson trees were relieved of their heavy burden. I haven’t had damson fool since I was a child and it was a joy to go home, cook the fruit, sieve the pulp and add cream. Absolutely delicious.
Slightly surprisingly, so I thought, I have only found one place where a wild hop was growing. It had climbed a good 12 feet or so up into a heavily berried hawthorn hedge beside an old orchard. 
The neatly mown cider orchards are laden with fruit from many different varieties. As cider apples are small and not really edible I wasn’t sure if the drought had affected them. The trees looked quite heavily laden and will be mechanically harvested later in the autumn.
Berries in hedgerows: rose-hips, blackberries, bryony, hawthorn, elder, some wild arum, sloe and a few others to be identified.
Most wild flowers have gone over, but a few surprises were found like water mint on an old ford and a single purple violet in some woodland. Was it late or early?
Butterflies: whites, red admiral, blue, skipper, speckled wood, meadow brown, small copper.
Dragonflies common, frequently seen anywhere.
Birds: birdsong quiet or non-existent compared to earlier in the year: buzzard, green woodpecker, wren, heron, magpie, jay, pigeon, pheasant, small tweeting things, heron and various other unidentifiables.
Animals: sheep, cow, horse, squirrel, muntjac deer, rabbit, mouse, no hares this time.
Most of the hedgerow verge plants have died or are on their way out: nettles, docks, grasses, hogweed, greater willowherb, goosegrass, woundwort. Bryony berries are spectacular with their trails of brightly coloured berries and leaves adorning hedges and blackberries in abundance in places.
No sign of ash die back disease here, ash trees are everywhere and fully laden with bunches of keys. Found a few limes and a few other interesting trees such as maple and sweet chestnut.There always seems to be something of interest to discover. I did find a few fungi though I think it was a little too early in the year to have a successful fungal foray.
I might as well be doing a complete ecological survey of the area. Whilst waiting the water to boil on my gas stove for a cup of coffee I found two new trees I needed to identify near to where I had parked. Not sure if all this detail will be relevant for my book, I am just trying to get to know the area so that at least I can write about it with some background knowledge.
Only a few trees are showing any immediate sign of turning colour. Most are still a deep summer green. It is the fruits, seeds and berries that give the hint that autumn is close. The brown, dry pastures have recovered significantly from the drought with most grassland turning back to green. The soil feels moist though it will take time for the cracks in the clay to disappear.
It is 8.34pm, very nearly dark and a farmer is still muck spreading  - he started late afternoon. Wonder what he did the rest of the day and why this job is so important now? Perhaps he needs to sow another crop and working with tractors on the clay soil now is easier than if it rains. Moving over the fields with heavy equipment will not be possible then. On second thoughts it may well be a contractor at work, or a farmer doing contract work for a neighbour. The countryside is full of busy people at this time of the year and I didn’t really want to interrupt their work by asking questions.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Writing and Drawing

So far, the writing for my book has progressed very slowly, yet constructively. The main challenge I face is one of project management: juggling all the elements and ideas into a cohesive act that works. One of the most helpful things has been to use a mind mapping app which allows me to build a flexible framework of key ideas and link them all in a chronological form.

Rather than write from beginning to end, I am dipping into writing small scenes randomly. This helps me to solve problems I would otherwise spend hours of thumb-twiddling trying to solve. For example, I realised I needed a vicar. I knew who I wanted, where they lived and the type of character they would present. As soon as I began placing them into a scene, they immediately didn't feel right. My whole vision then evolved into something quite different and much more in keeping with the vicarage and parish in which I imagined they would live.

Although I am not planning to illustrate the book, I have been scribbling in my lunch breaks this week and creating a couple of concept scenes. They are only rough and only meant for a bit of fun. The first picture is the kitchen of the vicarage mentioned above. It is a very unmodernised victorian kitchen, very rough around the edges and full of books, kitchen utensils, and other quirky things. There is a large range along one wall which will be an interesting thing to try and incorporate into the story.

The second picture captures the work of an elderly herbalist. I don't think I am calling her a witch even though she is surrounded by piles of what you might consider to be appropriate paraphernalia and cats. I haven't written about her yet so her character and setting haven't been thought about in detail. Originally there was only one cat. I drew it, didn't like it so then drew the others as an experiment and they seemed to fit.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Hitchin Sketch

Pen and ink sketch from my sketchbook drawn in Hitchin yesterday. Have been rather engrossed with thinking about my boook recently and have hardly done any drawing for the past month or two. It was a hot and sunny morning and I had loads of time to spare to work deeply into something.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Worcestershire Evening

I am sitting on a hillside in deepest Worcestershire hoping for a quiet evening after a busy day researching my book. The sheep in the fields around me have other thoughts and are ‘baaing’ everywhere. This hasn’t been helped by a farmer arriving to inspect his flock and, as a result, they all seem agitated. In the stillness of the air their calls are echoing around the small valley with quite an intense volume. Gradually they seem to be settling down and getting back to their grazing. Not that there is much to eat. The field that I am in was knee high with grass back in the spring and now it is a pale yellow-green; very dry with deep wide cracks in the drought affected clay soil. This particular field is too undulating to be cut for hay so the grass must have been filling sheep stomachs over the past few months. It is almost becoming hard to tell from a distance which fields are corn and which are grass as everywhere is so yellow. Potato and maize crops still look as though they are able to draw upon enough deeply buried water to maintain their foliage looking still quite healthy.
The nearby cider orchards in which I am camping for a couple of nights feel a different world. The deep pink/terracotta clay soil is still cracked dry, but the rows of trees and grass in look surprisingly luscious. I took a barefoot walk earlier between the trees and it was like walking on a soft cool carpet. The grass had not been mown for a while and wasn’t dry as elsewhere. The trees looked green and healthy too with a reasonable crop of apples forming. There must be more dampness deep down in the earth here with the trees helping to shade the soil. Nevertheless, they must still be drawing up a lot of water for fruit formation.
The two lines of poplars my father planted seem incongruous in the landscape. Two long rows of maybe fifty trees each are a deep dark green against the yellow pasture. Their job was to shelter the apple trees which were erased from the landscape long ago are now only a distant memory for certain people.


I’m back in the car now, refreshed after a cup of coffee and a few chocolate biscuits. I had to have quite a few because they had all stuck together in the heat of the sun on the car. The sun is setting over the hills directly in front of me and there is a clump of midges flying nearby. Apart from the sheep there is total quiet. Oh, there might be an occasional distant dog, pigeon cooing, tractor, bird… otherwise nothing.

Had a good walk, here are some highlights:
 * Found myself explaining why I was walking right past someone’s house not knowing that the footpath had been closed. Had friendly chat with owner
* Following a footpath sign that led right into an eight foot high impenetrable hedge.
* Discovering an enormous tree in the middle of nowhere which at first I though was a mature oak. Then I saw fruit growing on it. No idea what it was. Possibly a pear
* Walking barefoot in the apple orchards
* Walking though a field of 6ft tall thistles
* Noting down all the wild flowers, butterflies and birds I saw
* Finding several intriguing natural things that would be useful inspiration for my book
* Seeing dragonflies in the orchards
* Crossing a rather unstable wooden bridge with a 12ft drop below
* Wondering why a farmer had ploughed along the edge of a field of oats in, what seemed to me, to be an unusual way. Why go down one way, the come back the other so as to form a ridge of soil?
* Seeing what looked like two peregrine falcons
* Walking through a old unimproved pasture on the side of a hill, too steep to cultivate, and admiring the wealth of grasses, flowers, butterflies and grasshoppers.

 The sun has set, beautiful salmon coloured clouds. A breeze has got up. Will not sleep on grass tonight, will stay in shelter of car. A hare has just walked across the grass in front of me.