Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Apple Weaver

Some of you may already know I am writing a novel based on farming life in Worcestershire. As part of the process, I am producing a small, very limited edition booklet of nature/farming observations, short stories and illustrations inspired by some of my research. The ‘stories’ are more like teasers for longer pieces of writing - just like rough sketches are made before a final painting. They combine elements of natural history, farming, fictional characters, weddings, cabbages, magic and mysterious happenings in the countryside. The booklet is a mix of real life observations blending into quirky fictional writing.
If you would like a copy it is called 'The Apple Weaver' and it is an A5, 44 page professionally digitally printed and bound booklet. Pre-orders by Sunday this week, 9 December, to me. Cost is £5 a copy, payable on delivery, expected the week before Christmas.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Pallet Christmas Tree


We wanted a less tinsley, glittery Christmas this year so we gave away our 6ft inmitation Christmas tree to a local community project and decided to do something different. Instead, I made a 'tree' from old timber palettes. I found some pallets at work, broke them up, pressure washed, cut and then roughly sanded strips of wood. These were then screwed to a simple wooden frame and small shelves added. The tree was then placed on my father's old painting easel which has finally found a good use.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Urban Sketching, Bedford

Today I visited Bedford to sketch. The first two pictures are pen and ink sketches from my sketchpad and the third is an iPad illustration made whilst visiting my favourite cafe, Cafe with Art.





Thursday, 25 October 2018

Stotfold Mill Working Steam Weekend


Pen and ink sketch of a threshing machine at the Stotfold Mill Working Steam Weekend, Bedfordshire, a couple of weeks ago. I had a very enjoyable day there on a warm, sunny autumn day surrounded by lots of people and vintage machinery. The sketch below is of a man cleaning out a stationary steam engine powering a large steam saw.




Fungi on Woodchip


I was surprised to see these colourful fungi growing in the garden last weekend. Earlier in the year I obtained some woodchip from a local tree surgeon and used it to make a garden path. Now it is covered with fungi. What was interesting was that on a pile of woodchip on the front drive some ink caps grew, whereas on the path these completely different fungi appeared.

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.



Monday, 25 June 2018

Garden in June

This year is the first year that I think the garden has settled down into something more stable and productive. It has taken a large amount of micro-management and subtle adjustment to get things how I want them. Starting all seeds off under cover is the only way to guarantee moderate success. So is a willingness to move things or plants that don't work in particular locations. The garden does seem a late garden and always feels a good couple of weeks behind those I see elsewhere. Perhaps because it is shaded all winter. Since our neighbours replaced their fence there are far fewer slugs and snails wandering into the garden from outside and it feels a much easier to manage the space.

Vegetables currently attempting to grow are: lettuces, radishes, kohl rabi, courgettes (yellow), cucumbers (climbing), raspberries, strawberries, celery, leeks, chard, dwarf beans, climbing beans, runner beans, spinach, romanesco cauliflowers, purple sprouting, tomatoes and carrots. Not huge amounts of each, but a healthy variety to see what works.

I managed to obtain a 6x8ft greenhouse from a neighbour. There was a slight challenge in releasing it from the undergrowth back in the spring as the photo shows. Now it is used as a garden feature and tomato/climber support. Attempting to reglaze it was not an option as much of the glass was broken and the frame bent out of shape. I am actually very pleased with it. The wooden planter inside the greenhouse is full of carrots which seem to be thriving high up away from ground pests.

After many years, the purchase of a new wheelbarrow was a welcome treat. One of my old ones is now a garden feature and home to mint and basil.

The plant growing up the right of the photo is a hop plant. It is now in its second year and seems to be doing well. It is a dwarf variety so will only grow to about 8 feet.

What I would like to do is see how much I can grow in the area I have and to gradually introduce different and creative planting techniques, not just plonking a plant in the ground. It needs to be interesting to look at, perhaps a little quirky and all executed subtly so that my wife doesn't complain!


Thursday, 17 May 2018

Writing a Book

I have started writing my novel. It is a big project and one that I am very excited about because it brings together all the things that actually interest me: creative writing, illustration, gardening, agriculture, folklore, landscape, nature, history and much more. It is basically about Worcestershire rural life 1850s to present, apples and strange goings on in the countryside. I'm not going to go into detail here at the moment because, if ever I get famous, no doubt people might read this in the future and find out things I may not want them to know. Or I could just delete this post!

Each day I am trying to add a little more here and there. Much of the work at the moment is in planning, reseach and trying to keep track of everything; and even remembering what I wrote a few days ago. I will write more soon.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Jenny's Garden


‘How do you feel about it all?’ Jenny asked.
‘Feel?’ Tippy seemed surprised by the question. ‘I’m feeling uncertain and a tiny bit apprehensive. It is about the direction my research is going. I have a suspicion that there is something going on behind my back. It’s difficult to put my finger on what it is exactly. When I was at Applegrove Farm yesterday I was sure there was someone else there in the background watching me. I could sense eyes following my every move. I get the impression that there is more going on around there than meets the eye. I don’t think I am being told the whole story.’
‘Is there one particular occasion that springs to mind?’ Sandy looked at him expectantly.
Tippy hesitated. Could he trust Jenny? He had known her since childhood and they kept in touch by meeting up every few years. Now, sitting in her garden, with a plate of delicious homemade scones with accompanying jam and cream, a little doubt began to cross his mind. Jenny lived in a large house in Leignton about an hours drive away to the north west. He wasn’t aware of her social connections coming from anywhere near Dansford so could he risk being open and honest with her? He decided to take the risk.
‘I went to the bakers in town this morning to buy a loaf of bread when Eddie Blackthorn walked past the shop window. He was about to enter when he saw me inside, hesitated and seemed to pretend he had to go elsewhere. When I left and crossed over the road, I saw him nip out of his car which was parked just a little way up the street and sneak back into the shop. Perhaps I am just imagining things, but people are very close and friendly most of the time; and then occasionally they seem to avoid me or not tell me things.’ Tippy paused as a text message pinged onto Jenny’s phone.

‘Hmm,’ Jenny pondered as she looked down to see who had texted her. ‘Have another scone. Just got to pop inside to check something…’

Friday, 13 April 2018

Sir Kale


‘Your Majesty,’ said Sir Kale, kneeling before the large wooden throne in the castle’s great hall. All the other knights and important people of the castle were watching with great expectation.
‘Yes?’ replied the King.
‘I… I would like to go travelling.’ Sir Kale offered hesitantly.
‘What?’ exclaimed the King.
‘With your permission, Your Majesty,’ Sir Kale continued, ‘I would like to travel to the furthest edge of your kingdom to explore and discover new things.’
‘Sir Kale, you know all too well that no-one has ever gone beyond the furthest reaches of my Kingdom. Why would they do so? We have all that we need here. Food, wine, homes, jobs… We even have the best knights of armour like yourself in the whole of… well, my kingdom.’
‘I know, Your Majesty. It is just that I want to see for myself the    edge of your wonderful kingdom so that I might look back and wonder at its greatness.’
‘Very well then. I grant you leave of your duties as a King’s Knight here in the castle to undertake your quest. Is there anything I can give you to help you on your journey?’
‘Yes, Your Majesty. There is one thing I desire.’
‘Go on,’ gestured the King
‘I would like… a big ball of string.’ Sir Kale wasn’t sure how the King would respond.
‘A ball of string?’ exclaimed the King. ‘And how big a ball of string would you like?’
‘Long enough to reach the edge of your kingdom. So that I might leave a trail and be able to find my way back to the castle again.’ said Sir Kale.
The King thought for a moment, looking around him as if trying to get inspiration from the people gathered before him.
‘Very well. I will grant you your wish,’ he paused. ‘On one condition.’
‘Well, yes, Your Majesty, of course, whatever you say. What do you want me to do?’
‘I shall give you the largest ball of string this kingdom has ever  produced to enable you to journey out and find you way back here again. In return, I will expect…’ the King hesitated.
‘Yes… Your Majesty?’ Sir Kale was wondering what this was all leading up to.
‘One thing…’
‘Yes…?’
‘I want you, Sir Kale, to keep my kingdom supplied, all year round, with…’ he paused as if waiting for dramatic effect, ‘cabbages.’  The King smiled and leant back in his throne.
‘Yes… Your Majesty,’ Sir Kale bowed, his mind swirling around with the implications of what the King had just said. ‘I will be honoured to undertake such a responsibility, in return for a ball of string.’
‘In that case, you may leave and I wish you well.’ The King waved Sir Kale to go, seemingly satisfied with the deal.
So Sir Kale, with his trusty horse laden with a saddle pack full of supplies and his suit of armour lying across its back, set out one morning from the castle gate to cheers and applause from well-wishers. The ball of string he could just hold in his strong arms. It weighed nearly as much as his suit of armour and he hoped it would be long enough.

For six months the trail of string led out from the castle gates across the hay meadows and into the wild forest. Here it followed cart tracks, woodman's paths and deeper into places that few people ever went, always leading away from the castle. By now the string was showing signs of weathering and those who looked out each day for the return of Sir Kale began to grow anxious for him. Eventually, the King ordered a search party to be sent out comprising six of his best knights on horseback. For five days the knights followed the string deeper into the forest. Every so often they found makeshift campsites where Sir Kale had stopped with his horse for a rest. Then, on the sixth day, in torrential rain, they emerged out of the trees to find themselves looking at nothing but a stretch of grass and a thick bank of low cloud obscuring any view ahead they might have had. Here the string ended with no sign of Sir Kale or his horse.
On the ground, tied to the end of the string was a small tin that had once held biscuits. One of the knights picked it up, opened it and found inside a small handwritten note on a piece of parchment. He read it and then looked thoughtfully into the heavy mist.
Written on the note was this: ‘Goodbye, sorry about the cabbages. Sir Kale.’

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Black Hill, Clun


I wonder for how much longer this carpet of moss will last before the logging machines move in to remove timber and churn up the soil. I have known this particular patch of wood for possibly 10 to 15 years or more, tucked away amongst the many blocks of conifers on a high Shropshire hillside. Here, nothing but the moss can survive in the perpetual dim light that the spruces produce under their high canopy. Already, where the winds have blown down a swathe of trees at one edge - an area exposed to strong winds when another nearby area was clear felled a few years ago - grasses, ferns, spruce saplings and bilberry plants have taken advantage of the additional light and the carpet has lost its sphagnum softness. 
With an underlay of many years’ accumulations of pine needles, many different species of moss have covered the bumps and hollows that mark out the original planting lines and the stumps of where trees have previously been thinned. From this soft deep bed the last remaining trees tower up, bright pale green close to, fading to almost black in the deep, lightless inner forest. Their trunks are covered with algae like a green camouflage material covering the mottled bark with many variations of colour. In the subtle light of a cloudy afternoon they are seem to reflect so much light that their colours are quite vivid. Old cones, twigs, bark flakes and needles litter the floor beneath the dense dark green canopy about 20 metres above.
Walking along deer paths and wandering between the trees is easy; the space is quite open and spacious with several metres between each trees. Younger plantations are usually a dense impenetrable mass of branches, brambles and bracken until timber is extracted at various stages. 

For those in search of a wonderful, almost unnatural selection of greens this is a wonderful place to be.

Stone Barn

Rain encroaches along the valley. The stones from which the barn has been built turn darker as the clouds lower and the fine mist heavies itself with ever increasing raindrops. An hour ago, the steep hillsides of woodland and pasture seemed to be almost painfully quiet to those unused to rural remoteness. Now the rain drums subtly on tree, roof and road. The warmth of a sunny spring evening still seems a distant hope even at the end of March. 
The only indication that this building might hold many memories is a pre-restoration photograph on the wall and the name: The Granary.  The walls and beams, now home to central heating, a dishwasher, microwave and flat screen tv have become a holiday home. Tasteful to the modern eye but it has lost most of its agricultural identity. I must take a closer look tomorrow and see what secrets might remain to a more dedicated observer. Just what is original I wonder?

How easy it is for the memories of this place to be forgotten. Who was the farmer or farmers that have lived here, trying to make a living on these steep rock strewn hillsides? Who were their families, their way of life, customs and culture. Time erodes such things as it draws us continually to the future and memories are rarely held in the place of their formation.

Ludlow

‘We have been here for 40 years,’ says the owner of the pottery shop. ‘Your father probably helped us move into here, he may even have laid the floor’.
I pick up a few of the items and run sensing fingers over the glazes. They are too refined for my liking, a little too ornate. I like more earthy pottery, something with more character. They don’t speak to me.
I forget Minter-Kemp is a woman. The new gallery was pleasant and her large oil landscape paintings caught my eye; more so than the quirky humours cards I had known her for. Large bold brush strokes of bright colours on large canvases stood out. They were eye catching and if I had the space or the money I would get one.
Twenty Twenty now resides in place of the Silk Top Hat Gallery where Dan used to exhibit. A rather limited number of exhibits hung from the walls, I would like to have seen more, like there used to be. Perhaps it will evolve. There were some interesting linoprints which I liked but nothing I really fell in love with.
All shop keepers seem friendly and chatty, that is what I like about Ludlow. I feel as though I could know them all. 

It is a cold and wet Saturday at Easter. Heavy clouds cover the hill tops with a light drizzle dampening the cold air. I wonder if the market stall holders spend more on coffees and snacks to keep themselves warm than they make in sales. I could have bought a tin bath or a box of old teapots. I buy a tasty looking sausage roll and homemade pork pie for tea. Can’t easily get things like this at home and they usually taste good in this part of the world.

Sandwich

Waiting to order a sandwich. What shall I have today? 
‘Oh, hello. I’d like a ham and salad sandwich please. On white, please. To take away. Can I have a cappuccino as well? Thank you.’
Cough, cough. Oh dear, I need a drink.
‘Yes, a little please.’
I like this slim egg blue dress and matching cardigan. I know it is a slightly darker shade but it is soft, warm and it does go well with the dress. I think I was right to wear my heels, they are quite comfortable.
‘Regular, with sprinkles please.’
Keeping my hair long and straight was a good idea, I think my outfit looks quite good today. I seem to be appreciated and liked amongst the other course attendees. 
‘Oh, sorry, yes, sprinkles.’
Wonder if I’ve had any emails from the office?
‘Thank you. How much is that? Ok, here’s five.’
That looks a reasonably good sandwich, I’m feeling hungry.
‘Thank you.’
As business meetings go, this one is proceeding well. A new place, pleasant people, how have I come across to them I wonder? Just the afternoon to go and then the long Easter weekend will start. The dog will need a good walk in the morning. I’ll take her up onto the downs where she can run over the grassland with freedom. We could both do with some exercise.

Right where are we going to eat? Back in the conference room it seems. Must email the office with the edited text before I forget. Hopefully I will then have a few minutes to read through my presentation. 

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Trampoline Greenhouse

Here is my new greenhouse, made from a old trampoline frame. I would probably call it more of a plant shelter as its aim is to keep inclement weather off my seedlings rather than a place in which to grow mature plants. The metal framework is held together with pressure treated rough sawn timber which was the only main expense at approx. £50. The polythene (3 sheets) I had lying around and the inside table was made from some old palettes. Wood chip was used for the floor as I have quite a large pile of this to use up. The ploythene is attached to the circular frame using small lengths of black plastic pipe cut into a ‘c’ shape so they just clip over the metal work holding the sheets in place. Staples, screws and large cable ties hold everything in place. The back was left uncovered so I would get good ventilation and to ease construction, with the structure placed against a wooden fence (to which I might fix it later). The door just lifts on and off and is covered with fine netting I found and a bit of polythene. If it lasts me a few years I will be happy and if I have to rebuild it then that will keep me occupied for a few hours when necessary.


Friday, 23 March 2018

The Bicycle

A short story
© Matthew Slater 2018


He belonged in the shed - the large wooden shed that he had built four years ago whilst he could still move freely. With just a small kitchen, toilet and a joint living-bedroom area it was his home. Nearby stood the old brick barn that once served as his workshop and the derelict caravan he had lived in before it became too damp for his health. Both of which were now unused and full of dust, cobwebs and nostalgia.

His bike leant against the outside of the shed. Both tyres were flat with nettles growing through the rusty spokes and the saddle was disintegrating - worn through years of use and weathering. For over thirty years it had been in daily use. Now it lay rusting, its wheels hadn’t turned since the summer before last.

The wingback chair, with its tall straight back, had well worn upholstery and the arm rests were covered with curtain fragments to keep fraying at bay. It’s occupant, Old Jim, as he was known locally, sat watching the glow from the logs burning in the stove. With an effort he reached to a mug of tea perched precariously on a pile of books on the small table beside him. He held it in his rough wrinkled hands and took slow sips whilst looking out though the open doorway at the overgrown flower borders outside. The once well kept, productive small holding and orchard, about an acre in size, was now very unkept. A small patch of ground was still roughly cultivated with a few vegetables but most of the garden features had succumbed to nettles, brambles and bindweed. Jim picked up his faithful pipe and drew in a small mouthful of a very aromatic smoke from his own ‘tobacco’, made from a few of his ‘special’ plants. He took to it whenever he wanted to reflect on certain things, it was the special treat he allowed himself.

Among the piles of books around him on gardening, farming, and natural history were many notebooks and diaries. Jim picked one up: a small, black, well used, leather bound notebook, opening with ease at one particular page. Here a photograph of a face of a young woman was used as a bookmark. The page was covered with tight lines of handwritten notes.

Jim took another puff of the pipe and read whatever was written there for half an hour or so, frequently looking up and out to the garden as if there as something on the old worn pages that required much thought. He looked at the photograph and a tear welled in one eye.

With a grunt that revealed a body full of aches and pains, the result of many years of hard outdoor work, he pushed himself up from his chair. He grabbed the hazel walking stick he had made a few months ago and walked slowly to the door. He held onto the door frame for support as he stepped out into the September sunshine. Jim stood for few minutes looking around at the forever growing wilderness in front of him, paying particular attention to his old faithful bike.

Yes. It had to be done. He could do it.

Jim turned to step back inside the shed and reached up to a hook behind the door from where he retrieved a key. Then, with a sense of determination that had long since been absent, he walked to the barn and unlocked the padlock securing the door. He pushed open the wooden door which offered a little resistance as it scuffed the floor and he went inside to clear an area of space. A few minutes later he reappeared and walked back to the shed. He made for the bike. He had never expected to ride it again which was why it wasn’t stored in the barn. With a firm grasp, he lifted it out from the tangle of weeds and pushed it back to the barn. He was returning to his workshop for the first time since the events of last autumn.

Sunday morning, a few days later, and a light dew covered the grass, glinting in the early sunshine. Jim walked slowly between the trees he had planted sixty years ago with the help of his father. Most of them were apple trees but there were several plums and pear trees too. He touched a few of their branches as if reaching out to close friends and gathered a few choice apples which he placed in a paper bag before walking back to the barn. The shed and barn were locked up and the bike, which by now had been completely repaired, was leaning against the barn door. A pair of collared doves cooed from the roof and a robin watched with curiosity from a nearby rose bush. Jim nodded his head to them and smiling as if he knew them well, then placed the bag of apples in a basket on the back of the bike. With a pained effort he pushed it up the rough path through the orchard to the gate. He opened it, pushed the bike through and closed it carefully behind him. Now, on the road, with a bit of effort he swung his right leg over the gleaming frame, pushed off with a foot, wobbled, found his balance and was off.

By late afternoon, when the sun had moved so that the shed was in shadow, Jim would usually have lit the stove and the smell of woodsmoke would be drifting above the trees. Today though, things had changed. There was no smoke from the stove and no cup of tea waiting to be made; and nor would there be tomorrow or ever again.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Tea for Two

Just an experiment, from my imagination. I am trying to change my characters and exploring a few ideas.


Sunday, 18 March 2018

Mother’s Day

The table arrangement I set up at home for my wife on Mother’s Day.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Reflection

Walking slowly, meditatively, I follow the rain washed gravel track leading up the valley through the conifers. I listen to the song of the evening landscape with senses alert and quietest footfall. My cathedral of trees waits, only I can see it - standing in the cold conclusion of winter. 
‘Entertain my prayer,’ I syummon my energy to shout - towering pines hold the words captive within their boughs.
I am there to give thanks. Thanks for the beauty of life and the fragility of creation. For the blessing of healing and the gift of creativity. Arms held up to give and to receive. Fresh air, the breath of life, drawn deep into my lungs.
Here I am. The gift of this moment is to be treasured. I reach out with joy and peace, weary after the challenge of previous months. Yet my mind is full of movement. Movement to create. Like nature: never stopping, always growing, changing, moving, living, breathing. As I have reached out to stand by an other, so I have drawn deep into a soulful journey from which much has emerged. Yet, giving, and being driven by a wild mind that seeks constant occupation against physical barriers is tiring, I can’t do it all yet I am drawn to so much.
I am not in my cathedral. Today I can only be there in my imagination: to dance, talk, give thanks for the day and seek blessings for my nearest ones and I.


Monday, 12 March 2018

Bedford sketch

After not knowing what to do with a day’s holiday I decided to spend the day in Bedford sketching. It was drizzling with rain but not too cold and I managed to find a sheltered spot at the outdoor cafe by the church. This pen and ink sketch appeared in my A4 sketchbook.


Saturday, 10 March 2018

Gardener

I am quite enjoying illustrating this way. Some bits need tweaking and I am trying to get a consistent style working.


Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Walking in the fields

This is interesting. It started off as an experiment but quickly developed into something that worked rather well. I have always had a vague interest in folk art though never really found a comfortable way of working that way. In trying to find an illustration style to accompany my writing I immediately knew that this was a style I wanted and so have been looking around the internet for inspiration. Getting characters right will be the hardest thing as I am trying to get away from my more cartoony style to something more illustrative. This was drawn on the iPad and I would like to try and translate this to canvas and again try to get the hang of acrylic paints. 



Saturday, 3 March 2018

Debenhams Cafe

Sketch made in the cafe in Debenhams, Luton, today.


Friday, 2 March 2018

Sketches

Two sketches drawn today whilst visiting the Old Skool Pantry, Luton.



Thursday, 1 March 2018

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Dog Walking, Hitchin

Sketch made in Hitchin today of a man walking a dog. Unfortunately he walked off before I could draw his large dog so I did the buildings instead. 


Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Landscape Drawing

An illustration made whilst playing around with pencil-like brushes on the iPad - it is just an imaginary place. I have always liked the work of the Shropshire artist Brigid Wright (1939-2000) and this is influenced by her drawings. I will try and develop this style for illustrating the stories I am writing. Doing people is the difficult part!


Sunday, 18 February 2018

Cotehele, Cornwall

Two sketches made a couple of days ago at the National Trust property of Cotehele in Cornwall. The first is The Edgcumbe tea room on Cotehele Quay and the second is a view of some garden trees, crocuses and snowdrops. 



Boar's Bridge, Cotehele, Cornwall




A torrent passes of seemingly boiling water:
tumbling, bubbling and pounding;
white-peaked unstoppable turbulence
below a hovering pale steam-like mist.
Yet to touch: a sharp, penetrating cold,
beneath a crisp icy blue sky.
Clamouring over pebble and stone,
down from the rain soaked hills
through the frost encrusted valley,
alongside hibernating woodland
and through rich pastured fields.
Bankside alders, oak, sycamore
hazel: with soft lamb tails of gold,
silhouetted against the bright sun
with sparkling fingers of condensation.
Their tall shadows carve paths
in eddies of delicate swirling vapour.
Bright laser-like lines of light
burn brilliant translucent greens
on bank-side frozen brambles.

Soon, the warming spring-like sun
and encroaching hillside shadows
dissipates the etherial light show
and the magic of the morning fades.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Old Skool Pantry, Luton

Spent a couple of hours at this new local cafe/restaurant in Luton. Really like it here, food looks tasty and it is a good place for me to sit, write and draw. Owner really liked this iPad sketch.

@oldskoolpantry on Facebook.


Friday, 9 February 2018

Teapot Tales No. 9: Pibbles, Endings and Where Next?


A series of short pieces of writing forming different perspectives
around a common theme.


Teapot Tales No. 9: Pibbles


The barn echoed with the loud chirping of sparrows. For most of the day they would hop around the floor of the old barn, picking up grains of wheat and anything else vaguely edible from the dusty floor. They would frequently fly up to the wooden rafters and sit there, cheeping incessantly away.
 At one end of the barn, high up on stack of hay bales, Pibbles eyed the scene. She had long given up any attempt to chase after them and preferred to bide her time and catch the occasional one unawares. One advantage of being up here was that it was the one place she could escape to when being chased by that annoying dog.
Twice recently whilst enjoying a peaceful hunting trip in the walled garden, she had been spotted and had to make a run for it. She had to dash to the wooden gates and squeeze underneath them. Then, run up the drive, over the compost bins, past the horse yard, through a gap between two barns, over the woodpile and then leap up the hay bales to safety. The little dog would be left yapping away beneath her until it got fed up and trotted off. She would then spent the next few minutes carefully washing her fur - more than that scruffy dog could do, it would be totally covered in mud, leaves, twigs and grass.

Endings


This completes my initial foray into exploring something new. I appreciate the stories may have been a little disjointed, but that was the intention. They were just an exercise to see what would happen when I put pen to paper.

Where Next?


I have now decided to completely re-edit all the stories into a more cohesive form of text. This I hope to do in the next week or two, then I will publish the result.

After that I will move on to other writing projects. There are several I am thinking about.



Thursday, 8 February 2018

Teapot Tales No. 8: Ann




A series of short pieces of writing forming different perspectives
around a common theme.

Teapot Tales No. 8: Ann


A walking stick thrashed away at the cabbage plant.
‘Shooo, go away, you naughty butterfly.’ Ann hit out at the cabbage white. More leaves flew up in the air and a rather spindly shredded stalk was left looking rather forlorn.
‘Ah, there you are. I wondered if I might find you here.’ Peter approached Ann who was still waving her stick wildly around.
‘Why did you let the butterflies out today, Peter? I keep telling you not to let them out. They will eat all your cabbages.’
‘Yes, I…,’ started Peter.
‘I’ve made a pot of tea. Here, let me pour you a cup,’ Ann continued.
‘Thanks, but…,’ Peter tried to cut in.
‘Excellent, here you go. Milk? Good. I’m going to the seaside today, Gina says that Morris will pick me up at eleven’. Ann continued as she poured something a pale yellowish hue into a china cup from a small watering can on the garden table.
Peter took the cup of tea. It was warm but it certainly wasn’t tea. He sniffed it. He thought he knew what it was. How the hell did she find that watering can? The seaside? No, she was not going to the seaside and anyway Morris, her husband, had died eight years ago…
‘Perhaps we should go back now, Ann. Morris will be wondering where you are.’ Peter suggested gently.
As Ann began take aim at another butterfly Peter carefully caught her stick in mid swipe and held her arm to guide her back to the house.
‘Do you remember when you fell into the pond?’ Ann continued. ‘Gina had to pull you out and you were very ill. Morris wants a coffee cake for his birthday. Gina will make one. I have given her a recipe and your flies are undone.’
‘Yes, dear,’ Peter sighed.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Teapot Tales Review

I have been writing these short stories for just over a week now and have no firm idea from one to the next what is going to happen. My aim in writing has been to get some practice in preparation for a bigger project. So I set myself the challenge of creating a theme, the teapot, and then writing very short stories around that. The stories must be less that 300 words or so and all have to link together in some way. I am intrigued by how a subject or object can be viewed from so many perspectives by different people or things. I am not trying to create a single continuous narrative, rather snippets of prose that could exist at anytime in the overall context. 


Before I sit down and write I may have no idea what will appear. Usually I will pick the character and then begin writing. I may have a vague inkling of what will happen. For example, in Peter’s story I knew he was going to use the teapot as a watering can but other than that I just go with the flow of writing in the moment. 


Although I could continue writing these short pieces I may well bring them to a halt shortly and just dip in and out occasionally. I have written a few more to post, then there are other things I would like to do and I want to add variety to this site.


I would hugely appreciate any feedback on these Teapot Tales. Were they readable? Who do you think would enjoy them? Did you follow them? How could they be improved? Should I give up and stick to drawing?

Teapot Tales No. 7: Peter



A series of short pieces of writing forming different perspectives
around a common theme.

Teapot Tales No. 7: Peter

Once the washing up was put away and the kitchen tidied after the evening meal, Peter was able to spend a hour or so in the garden. Although Andy looked after all the orchard and herbaceous borders, Peter liked to do as much with the vegetables as possible. He stood in the greenhouse looking at the list of jobs Andy had written on the blackboard for him to do. 
A couple of weeks ago Peter had sown a few courgette seeds in some small pots and these had now germinated well and needed watering again. He looked round for the small watering can he usually used. It was nowhere to be seen. He suddenly had a horrible feeling that Ann might have taken it. Ann loved that watering can. Unfortunately, she would often assume it was a teapot, which made life a little interesting at times. Last week he had seen her watering the cat with it and yesterday she had filled it up with freshly picked radishes. He usually hid it well, but somehow she had an uncanny ability to find it again.
The courgettes definitely needed watering and he looked round to see what he could use. He saw Gina’s teapot. No-one would know. He couldn’t. He could. 
Peter emptied out a small amount of cold tea from the teapot and filled it from the greenhouse tap. He watered the plants and then put the pot down on the potting bench.
He stood there for a moment lost in thought. There was something bouncing around the back of his mind that he wasn’t quite sure what to do with, and was he imagining things anyway? Paula.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Dukes Coffee House, Tavistock


On of my favourite places to sketch is Dukes Coffee Shop in Tavistock, Devon. I seem to find myself there two or three times a year and there is usually somewhere to sit outside and watch people go by. This iPad drawing was done between last Christmas and New Year on a quick visit. It wasn't cold and I was able to merrily scribble away quite comfortably. At first I was unclear what direction, if any, to take the drawing but as time progressed, so gradually I kept adding detail. In the end I was unexpectedly pleased with the result.

Teapot Tales No. 6: Lord Hanley



A series of short pieces of writing forming different perspectives
around a common theme.

Teapot Tales No. 6: Lord Hanley


The long meadow grass was being scythed. Lord Hanley watched as a small gang of farm workers moved steadily across the field. A cloud of butterflies rose around them as they swung too and fro cutting the buttercup laden grasses on that hot summer’s afternoon. They were progressing well and would be rewarded with some extra cider at the end of the day.
Lord Hanley walked along a faint path through the cut grass towards a small hollow near the top of the field just below the oak wood. Here, a small spring emerged, its water held for a while by a small circular stone wall just a few inches high before trickling away down through the meadow.
Local folklore told how this used to be the centre of an ancient druid meeting place. There used to be a ring of eight chestnut trees surrounding the spring. Over the years the trees had died and the last was blown over the previous winter. A story describes how a young boy once went missing on a snowy night whilst checking some sheep. He had fallen very ill and was on the verge of death when a druid found him, took him back to the spring and miraculously cured him. Ever since then the spring had always been venerated by local people.
Lord Hanley unfolded a large sheet of paper he had been carrying under his arm. It was a map covered with ink script, notes, numbers and sketches. He held it up and looked at the landscape around him from different angles. He was happy. It would work. This spring would form the centre piece of his new walled garden.