Friday, 14 July 2017

Drawn Chorus - an alphabet of birds

The new book is done! I was up in Bristol yesterday and today, helping out at Minuteman, the friendly printers, such was my keenness to get it done as soon as possible. Here's the scene this morning, as they went through the stapling and folding machine, the penultimate stage of the transformation of blank paper into a real life book (the final stage is trimming the edge opposite the crease, as you may have surmised). This machine is great fun, and reminds me a bit of the old Bamfords baler that we used for haymaking back at Hafod Fach, with its assortment of  kerchunks and ticks and low dronings, though without that majestic WHUMP that accompanies the compressing of a bale of hay. Hey, though, can't have everything.

It is rather wonderful, that last bit where all the loose paper suddenly becomes a real book. 

...and now I'm back on the boat (in Devizes, at the mo) treading that fine line between thinking it's not bad really and not wanting to SHOUT ABOUT IT UNTIL EVERYONE'S SICK OF IT.

So. I done a book. You can get it here, on Gert Macky. But, gentle reader, I'll still like you if you don't. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

little bobbing humbugs

Moving ever eastwards, we are now near Wootton Rivers, a fine spot with a good deep mooring - in the last couple of miles before the village we tried mooring a few times and couldn't get near the bank without running horribly aground on mud.

We're sheltered by ash and beech trees, which made the recent hot spell far more comfortable; living in a big steel box can get a bit difficult when the sun beats down on it. Along the side of the towpath is a ditch with a stream trickling along it; this is the Hampshire Avon in its early career. Down in  Pewsey you can stand on the bridge and look down into the clear water and see brown trout keeping station against the gentle current.

A pair of spotted flycatchers are nesting in an ivy-covered tree just opposite the boat. I watch then dart around the glade that is their hunting ground, then perch and wait for their next victim; they're very hard to catch on camera, but exciting to see; I've only ever seen them fleetingly in the past. They're quite distinctive with their upright posture and their big eyes.

And cuckoos! Never heard so many cuckoos. I'm trying to learn how to make that ocarina noise with my hands so that I can call them to me. No joy yet. "I'm learning a new life skill," I told Boat Teenager the other day when we Facetimed... it's never too late, after all.

Next weekend I'll be exhibiting at the house of my friend, artist and poet Hazel Hammond's house on the Easton Arts Trail in Bristol; Rebecca Swindells will be there too; there'll be my pics and Marietta's Wardrobe, a mixed media project about clothes, grief and loss, and poetry.

Jinny Peberday described ducklings as humbugs. Seemed a good description.

Saturday, 20 May 2017


I'm concentrating on finishing my bird alphabet now; each letter gets a poem and a picture. The poem always comes first, so I can plan ahead with how to fit the text onto the picture. The sparrowhawk poem was written after I saw one flashing through woods and disappearing so abruptly that I came up with the idea that, the less sure you are that you saw anything at all, let alone a sparrowhawk, the more likely it is that a sparrowhawk just went by.

Here's the untweaked painting; I first illustrated beech leaves like this for another picture of Leigh Woods at bluebell time, but I prefer the feel of the newer picture; it seems to work better as a picture and as a watercolour. Though the leaves are a bit too spiky for beech. Damn.

buzzard in the woods

Friday, 19 May 2017

when a tree falls on the towpath and you don't hear it, it's still there

It's no great inconvenience that you live out of earshot of most human activity and amenities, if you've got everything you need right there with you.

So when it poured and poured down on Wednesday, I philosophically commuted the ten paces from my bed to my desk, by way of the bathroom and the galley, and spent the day painting pictures and writing. 

It was a good day, and I was happy with the work. That night I slept the sound sleep of one who knows that they've done their best and it was fairly OK.

The morning started with a robin singing at 0415, followed rapidly by the blackbirds and song thrushes. The song thrushes here would give the heftiest coloratura opera diva in all of Milan a very serious run for her money.

It is really all very nice. 

So I got up and brewed some strong tea and finished the fiddly last bits of the painting.
And looked up to see the sun rising. As you see from the photo. 

After a shower and putting on city togs I was ready to go to Bristol to pick up some prints. But Chris from the boat next door called me out.

"Dru! Have you seen this?"

At abut nine o' clock last night, a very large tree had fallen over the towpath and into to canal. I'd heard something, but just assumed it was the Pongoes playing wargames over on Salisbury Plain. Chris and Jinny my neighbours had heard it and investigated. It had narrowly missed a hireboat, whose occupants had phoned the Canal and River Trust to inform them. 

Here it is look.

So I changed into my CHAINSAW TROUSERS, the wearing of which is like one of those dreams where you absolutely must escape from something but can hardly move. But it's probably better than accidentally cutting your own leg off. And we all got to work, cutting and splitting and carrying away. Because the towpath needed to be unblocked, and if you get a pile of firewood as a byproduct, then why ever not? This is enlightened self interest at work here.

This is a very quiet section of canal, but we were interrupted twice by local folk demanding to get by; one was a dog emptier (you can easily distinguish them from the similar dog walker by the way they are so anxious to precede their dogs on their walkies. In this manner, they can be unaware that their dog has a bowel that it is quite happy to void on the towpath, and preferably right outside your boat, on your mooring pins for maximum points. It's a neat trick if you're into that sort of thing, allowing you to be at once oblivious, supercilious and Always In The Right).

They squeezed by in the slowly widening gap.

The middle of the trunk was a rotted hollow, with a huge ants' nest and signs of several types of beetle, including what looked very much like lesser stag beetle burrowings, though we found no living ones. Out of season, probably.

Here's Chris, looking as cheerful as we all were. What better way to work up an appetite for breakfast?

Monday, 15 May 2017

rescuing a flooded boat

Little things like LED lights, mobile phones and internet are a hugely useful part of boaters' lives; plenty of folk are enabled to run international businesses while being in a lot of other ways off grid (the last book I published was put together on board and sent off as a print-ready file from a bale of straw in the Vale of Pewsey...) - and our very long, very thin village is its own information superhighway.

On Saturday, I was idly drawing cormorants, as you do, when I noticed a post from Penny on the canal Facebook group. Her boat was filling with water; she'd got out of bed to find herself standing in water. Not a good feeling, when it's your home. She had done what any sensible person would do, and made a slice of toast while considering the next move.

People swung into action; I have a handy little submersible water pump (rescued from the bins at Dundas, and repaired) which I bunged into the back of the car along with a big bag of tools, and set off.

By the time I got there, things were looking less alarming; Penny and Sherry Jim, who was moored just down the way, had got a fair bit of water out using a bilge pump and aquavac, and she'd identified a leak from the gurgling of incoming water. There was a small hole in the bottom of the hull. Because the boat had been lifted onto the ledge (fairly gravelly here) by the passage of a speeding boat, the water was not actually rushing in, though lifting it off the ledge would increase the flow substantially.

As we pondered, more helpers were appearing along the towpath; at one point there was a small procession of folk carrying pumps and assorted Useful Things, trailing down from the swingbridge. There was no shortage of ideas for How To Fix It. We started by sealing the hole temporarily on the outside; as you see in the picture, Kev went in with a piece of rubber matting, which he slipped under the hull as other folk put their weight on the outboard side to lift it off.

Then we dried out the flooded section, and plonked a patch slathered in mastic onto the hole, wedged down with a bit of timber. It was kind of like this

...though obviously more pikey boater.

Meanwhile, a catsitter and cat basket appeared to take away the Boat Cat, and a welder and emergency dry dock arranged in Bradford on Avon. And there was cider and pizza too.

And away went Penny. Sorry, should have taken more photos.

Back to the cormorants for me. They're for my bird alphabet.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

K&A Floating Market, Bradford on Avon, June 29-30 2017

What it is
For the second year running, there'll be a floating market on the Kennet and Avon Canal at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire. Artists, craftspeople and traders who live and work on the canal will have their stuff on display and for sale by their boats. There will also be stalls for other traders. And music and stuff.

Where it is

Bradford on Avon is in the valley of the Avon south of Bath. Lots of it is too steep and inaccessible for cars, so it's good for walking around. Check out the medieval tithe barn, the saxon church, the maze of twisty little passages (all different), the ancient packhorse bridge over the Avon. But better still,  it's also the hub of the Kennet and Avon Canal's West End, and there's a lock, a basin and boatyard, and lots of boating action. And pubs and cafes too, right by the towpath.

Here's the canal on Google Maps Streetview. Get here and you'll have no problem locating the market; it's on the wharf below the bridge towards the tithe barn. Follow the noise!

How to get there

The railway station is close to the canal; if you're driving, there are car parks down by station and the river Avon; and another car park right by the canal, off Moulton Drive.

Some of the attractions

It's on the weekend of the 29th-30th July. As last year, there will be art from me, fine leather work and art from Skyravenwolf, silverwork from Anna Berthon, body art from Hannah Southfield, Laura on the fender boat doing ropework, Olivia Hicks art, Kytecrafts, and much more stuff too. Also music and (quite possibly) poetry. 

I'll add further details as I get them, so this page will be useful as a source of info.

my new version of the canal map, which will be on sale
some work by Chris and Jinny of Skyravenwolf
Hannah Southfield's work!

Nicola Penney's Floating Salon (Facebook page here)

Venryr's Floating Arts Workshop
stoves by Kev Kyte!
Shine On The Water -brasswork and jewellery

Monday, 1 May 2017

meeting badgers

Sailing ever eastward, we fell off the edge of our map somewhere beyond Pewsey. A nearby track ascends to an old bridge, then drops down to the young Hampshire Avon, a clear chalk stream flowing through boggy woodland. Over the bridge, the track becomes a sunken lane, and then a regular holloway as it approaches the back of the town. 

By the bridge where the discreet badger ways intersect is one of their latrines, and a decent distance down the track is their sett, piles of old bedding heaped outside.

In the night I'd listened to the rain on the roof and huddled under the duvet. Waking at half light, all I could hear was blackbird song; so I dressed hurriedly and got out into the May morning. I'd hoped to catch the badgers still out and about, but the sett was all quiet. I dropped down the hill, treading softly. Coming down the track on the other side of the stream came two badgers; an adult, dragging a large cub along by the scruff of the neck. I slowly crouched and waited. What were they doing? Was the cub being dragged home against its will, after going out partying with the other young wild things? ...they got within a few paces before noticing me, then rearranged themselves in the other direction and retraced their steps across the bridge and off into the woods.
are we nearly there yet?

it's not fair

we'll go this way instead

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


“He tried to get the moorings there removed” said Julian off Bimble.
Julian cuts the grass for Wiltshire Council, shifts the roadkill;
“mostly you can chuck it through the hedge, but cats and dogs
get taken in, whatever state they’re in, and logged;
someone might be missing them.”

He sails the pounds
from Hungerford to Horton, more or less, stays round
the Vale of Pewsey where he works. 

We met at dawn.
A kingfisher bashed a minnow on the branch, then darted on,
a quick blue spark against Widewater’s reeds.
“Spent thousands on the legal fees, for all the good it did.
Still, he keeps the gate locked at the top of the track;
can’t keep folk out, there’s been a path since back
before King Alfred came and met his thanes,
there on the tump. They went and beat the Danes,
way up there on the Downs. See the lane?
The winter the canal froze hard,
they had to carry coal and water down from the end.”

A buzzard circled Pickle Hill; the stockman on his quad
moved the electric fence across the field a little way,
called out in Polish for the herd to graze.

We brushed the dew off meadowsweet
and butterbur, grown shoulder high,
through which the ways to moorings had been bashed
for boats at least half hidden from the track;
Eve, Netty, Bimble, Jessie, Arran; making home
here for a few more days, then moving on.

Below the big ash, where the ground is clear,
around last night’s fire circle lay empty cans of beer 
and smoke-blacked cooking pots on half a scaffold plank.
A small child’s bicycle leaned on the bank.

Across the bridge we passed the big new house
in whose walled gravel courtyard sat a Jag.
Along the drive’s wide closely-tended verge,
rebellious moles had tumped the smooth mown grass,
and grey hairs on a strand of wire showed how
the badger made its customary way
into the pasture where, above the grazing Jacobs flock,
the tilting billboard claimed ‘we want our country back’.

I began this poem last summer, shortly after the Brexit vote. We were moored in a part of Wiltshire that is pretty much the epicentre of the places namechecked in Edward Thomas' poem Lob, one of my absolute favourite poems both of his and indeed anyone's. I've changed the name of the character in the poem to Ed as a nod in that direction, as I'm not sure whether the original chap approves of finding himself in someone else's poetry. (postscript: Julian is perfectly OK with being named, so I've changed his and his boat's names back to the proper ones!)

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

sun pillar and swallows

Here's a sun pillar, at dawn over the Kennet and Avon Canal at Sells Green in Wiltshire. It's caused by the sunlight being reflected by falling ice crystals. We were moored here for a week or so, and ticked off the waypoints of the spring as they passed us; the first willow warbler a few days ago; yesterday the first sedge warbler. And two swallows which flitted past, heading north. They are evidently making a summer somewhere else, because we've seen no more, yet.

While we're thinking of odd and beautiful things in the sky, here's a circumzenithal arc, or possibly a parahelion, caused by the light refracting through a horizontal layer of ice crystals. This was at Avoncliff on May Day last year.

...and here's a pair of sundogs, either side of the setting sun, near Lympley Stoke last winter. You can see the flooded Avon down there in the valley.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

watching stone curlews

I drove to Pewsey to pick up some prints from the gallery; it's closing down, sadly. I commiserated with Sandra and Heloise; it had been a nice gallery, and they had been very generous with their showcasing of stuff.

Returning along the Vale of Pewsey, the tops of the downs were in cloud. Near Alton Barnes a great flock of birds circled above a ploughed field. They reminded me of the great peewit flocks we got in Lancashire in my youth, though these were not peewits. I didn't recognise them, so pulled over and took some photos on maximum zoom, as they didn't show any inclination either to land or to come closer.

Stone curlews, Peter Munt says, and how could I argue? 

As I looked through the books in the Devizes Oxfam shop, the two volunteers behind the counter discussed the signing of Article 50, which would be happening at about that time. "I gave my vote to my granddaughter" said one; "she's too young to vote, but it'll affect her for a lot longer than me." Granddaughter, 13 years old, is pro-european; so her grandma voted against her own preference. I congratulated her. 

Passing the estimable Devizes Bookshop while looking for a 12V socket (as you do) I was hailed by Jo, who's just been reading a proof copy of Richard Beard's new book and is very impressed. I said I was too (just finished reading it myself, and when I get a moment, I'll be writing a review). 

Back on the boat, I was just in tine to tune in to BBC Wiltshire to hear Richard not quite manage to plug his book. Still, he does good radio.

Back to the drawing board. This little picture at the top of the page is going to be a badge; I've just got a fresh batch of 'put the bunting out' ones done, and thought it'd be nice to have a new design.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Wiltshire wildlife

This is my weekend picture; some of the flowers and beasts around Caen Hill. In the top right corner, you can see some of the locks on the Caen Flight, the staircase of locks that takes the Kennet and Avon Canal up from the Avon valley to Devizes and the Vale of Pewsey. In the distance is Roundway Hill. Creatures included are grass snake, slow worm. wood mouse, hedgehog, badger, fox, roe deer, tawny owl, pipistrelle bat. The flowers are primrose, wild garlic, bluebell, thyme, lemon balm, and foxglove.

 Now it's done, I'm having a beer and contemplating a fry-up. 

It's three years now since I committed to buying my boat, and move onto the canal. Crikey! Now, excuse me, I've got BEER to drink. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Idle Women

Some of the women on the Kennet and Avon canal, for International Women's Day. Because they do stuff for themselves. And they rock. (if you click on the pic it'll probably get larger. Sorry)

Sunday, 5 March 2017

not seeing goldcrests

The longer hours of daylight are making a big difference to life on the canal. I look up from my desk after a quick bout of painting, and see that it's already dawn, and the tea isn't even finished brewing.

The blackbirds and thrushes are singing away in the rain, just as they were doing in yesterday's misty start. I was out looking for bullfinches and goldcrests.

It sort of goes against my ideal of birdwatching, accepting gratefully any bird that comes along, but not actively seeking them out. But it is so nice to see these birds. Particularly goldcrests. Until recently I'd only knowingly seen one once before, when it stopped to perch on the railing next to me on the Pride of Bilbao off Ushant. 

Then six weeks ago I watched a little bird flit across the canal up into an elder tree; I casually assumed it was a wren and wondered why it was behaving slightly differently to the usual wrens, who mostly stay low. So I watched and watched, and realised what it was.

And now I know to look for them, I do keep seeing them. One regularly visits the elder tree by my boat, hunting up and down it for insects; there were two together the other morning, piping and (I guess) canoodling. It's a useful reminder that even if I think I'm walking around with my eyes wide open, I'm still missing what's right there in front of me.

The day warmed up and the sun shone bright as you like, burning off the last of the mist in the valley. The crocuses growing by my mooring rope opened out wide. Cheerful walkers lugged their rucsacs along, and hireboaters chugged by in a leisurely way, on the beer already.

Then the wind got up enough to make a swell along the canal, all of an inch high, and the tarpaulin over the front of the boat flailed as though we were rounding the Horn, and a ferociously cold rain pelted us all.

But there was a rainbow afterwards.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

making cocoa for Saint David

When David lived in Ewyas, in a hut at Llanthony,
He’d sometimes pop to Partrishow for tea with Issui.
They’d sandwiches with watercress, and water for a brew,
and they’d discuss the sainthood lark for half the afternoon.
But with such steep tracks to walk before the setting of the sun,
They’d say their fond farewells and Dave would set off down the cwm;
And Issui said ruefully, “I’m a martyr to these hills, me”
and David held his hand a while and said “you certainly will be”.

Saint David lived for a while at Llanthony (Llandewi Nant Honddu). Issui, or Ishow, had his cell by a well above the Grwyne valley, at what is now called Partrishow. He was murdered there by a traveller, and his shrine in the church that was built there became a place of pilgrimage.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

on the various usefulnesses of trees

Come, carpenter, and make for me
A fine thing from an English tree;
A coffin from the wych elm, or
A rolling pin from sycamore,
Or blocks and stamps for butter patting;
Lime for blocks for felted hatting.

From conker trees, whose wood is white
A milk pail would be thought just right;
But from the ash (so profligate
its uses are) I’ve time to state
Just Morris Travellers, aeroplanes,
Policemen’s truncheons, hop field frames,
Hockey sticks and lifeboat oars,
And fork handles (not candles four).

The willow gives us cricket bats
And elevates the bearskin hat;
Alder for your piles and clogs;
Walnut branch for beating dogs.
Don’t dance around the maple tree
but steal its syrup stealthily.

And if this list’s too much for you
get MDF from B&Q

this is a found poem, in the sense that I found it when I was tidying up the not-yet-finished ones on my computer. I'd completely forgotten it. So here it is. I got the uses of the trees from my SR Badmin Puffin book of trees, which id put a picture of too. If I could find it.

Kev at work

Thursday, 16 February 2017

happy outcomes

another day at the office
As a fully paid up member of the all powerful Trans Cabal, I rarely trouble myself with the outraged squeakings of the oppressed and marginalised hacks who bravely fly the flag for the anti-trans resistance in such dark and unfrequented corners of the digital world as the pages of the Daily Mail. Take, for instance, Belinda Brown, author of 'The Private Revolution' and a number of well-cited academic papers. More recently, she has started writing and blogging for The Daily Mail and The Conservative Woman. She has a particular interest in men's issues and the damage caused by feminism. Her appearance in the magazine Student Voices ("independent journalism, news and comment from students on politics and more") may provoke surprise, but the sad, tired tropes will not, in a piece entitled "We Need to Talk About the Transgender Movement."

Hey where are all the social justice, no platforming, snowflakes I imagine I am arguing against?! she asks. Getting on with their lives, probably, Belinda. When you encounter a shouty drunk in a bus station, you just keep walking, after all.

Let's unpick one small item from this piece, though; for many children, Brown claims, gender confusion is a condition which resolves. And for those who go so far as to opt for surgery the outcomes are surprisingly poor. She is vague about the numbers here, and rightly so, because there are few quantitative studies - few reputable ones anyway - and those that exist run counter to this assertion. It is true that some children explore their gender identities and either revert to or continue to identify as that assigned them. Which is all fine and dandy; as are the cases of those who identify as the gender opposite that assigned them, and continue to do so, and those who just want to play fast and loose with the whole gender thang. But let's look at 'those who go so far as to opt for surgery'. How do we quantify that 'surprisingly poor' outcome? It is as woolly as fellow Daily Mail writer Julie Bindel's assertion that 'a number of transsexuals are beginning to admit that opting for surgery ruined their lives'. 

It is a regularly iterated claim, though, that there is a large and growing number of 'sex change survivors'. This claim has no basis in fact. Dr Stuart Lorimer recently took to Twitter to put some numbers out. In 15 years, he says, he has personally seen over 4000 gender dysphoric people; and he's personally seen 10-15 'regretters'. His colleagues report similar figures. As he points out, this is not a formal study, but these are far more reliable figures than any on offer elsewhere. (Further myths about transition regrets are debunked in this article by Brynn Tannehill). The clear inference being that medical intervention in cases of transsexuality is overwhelmingly successful.

It is unfortunate that these myths are trotted out in some feminist circles too, either by people with an anti-trans agenda, or by 'useful idiots' who take the words on trust because they come from Big Names. We all tend towards confirmation bias, I know, but laziness of thinking and a lack of intellectual curiosity can be damaging and discreditable. We should be on the same side, surely. 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

bog eyed fox

A fortnight on, and the ice is long gone from the canal. In the mornings, the valley is full of the sound of mistle thrushes singing. Over the last few days, the chaffinches have been warming up their songs, with a few faltering starts, and then finally the full repertoire, which is admittedly not a very large one in the case of chaffinches; still, it's their song, and good for them.

Boat Teenager came over for my birthday, and we popped over to Melksham to check out the charity shops. A junk shop had heaps of old galvanised iron farm gear out at the front. We went in for a look around. The shopkeeper told us that she gets her stuff from France, where they don't value old stuff like we do. I remembered a time in the Correze, when I was working for an architect feller on one of his houses there. We were there with his scouse building team, who were always good for a laugh, and always out of their depth in rural places; huddling together in one room to sleep, worried about cries in the night- "What the FUCCHHH was that!" "A fox, Jimmy, don't worry"

mind you, if it'd been this fox I'd've been startled too.
This was in the shop in Melksham
...on this farm in Correze they came scampering out of a cellar as fast as their little legs could carry them, having found a monster. I investigated; it was a salamander, and v striking its colours were too.
Anyway, we went to the farm next door where they were demolishing a 16th century cottage to make room for an extension to the cattle shed. We enthusiastically pulled antique stuff from the wreckage. The farmer thought we were potty, and he may well have been right.

Back then to Melksham. I bought an enamelled tin candle holder because I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

Back on the canal, a call went out on the Facebook grapevine; a boat moored down on the river Avon in Bath had lost a couple of lines in the recent floods, and was in peril. So I cycled down to help out, stopping to photograph the Cormorant Tree near Bathampton. Where do they nest, I wonder?

Adrian was there on the same mission; we lassooed the tiller and hauled it over so that the boat came alongside the wall, and he went down the ladder and added some ropes.

Then Wes, whose boat it is, turned up and went down to bale out the water.... while we watched, a kingfisher flew across and landed right below us. 

...and flew away again in a bright blue flash, far too quickly for me to take a photo. But another one stopped for me as I cycled home.