Saturday, 12 October 2019

the querulous tawny owl

Off along the Vale of Pewsey to drop off some of the new white horse maps at the Barge Inn at Honey Street, as they're pretty much at the epicentre of Wiltshire white horse country and you can see the Alton Barnes horse from the canal side there. It's also crop circle central, and has a terrific painting on the ceiling. If you haven't been there, get on down!

It's nice to see the place busy and welcoming again, after the recent change of ownership. Peter on Grey Hare had just arrived and found a mooring bang outside the pub, after setting off from where he'd been moored next to me at Bishops Cannings that morning. It was a wild and wet day, and just the moment to have a glass of something to ward off the chill.

Peter in happier weather, carving a walking stick

Back to the boat; I parked up in the village and transferred a bag of coal to my bike trailer. The gale peppered me with rain as I crossed the big open field to the canal. Blooming rain's relentless. As I type this in the before-dawn dark, it's spattering down on the roof above me as it has been all night, and all around the boat right now there are tawny owls quavering to each other; "How long? How bloody long?" It must be hard times for owls; I know that barn owls at least suffer in the rain because their feathers aren't water-resistant like most birds, because they're designed to fluff out and deaden sound. So sometimes in rainy weather, you'll see barn owls hunting in daylight in between showers.

the barn owl at Diggers, near the Dundas Aqueduct

Friday, 11 October 2019

hare's ears and horses

A busy day in Bristol yesterday, which meant an early departure from the Vale of Pewsey to get there before the main morning traffic started. Fortunately, my sleeping pattern is all gone to pot at the moment, falling asleep with the dusk and getting up long before dawn. So I was bundling my stuff onto the bicycle in the dark at 4:30 or so, and pushing it along the very wet and muddy and slippery towpath. But the sky was clear, and the view to the south unimpeded and free of lights of any sort. So there was a clear view of Lepus, the hare, there below Orion. It wasn't quite one of those nights where the air is clear as crystal, the Milky Way glowing and the stars sparkling bright; but the hare's ears, not the brightest of the stars in the constellation, were clear to be seen and you can see why it got its name.

And so I was parked up in Bristol before 6 o'clock, and tucked myself up in a very warm and bulky parka, and went to sleep for a while, waking again for a breakfast of croissants from Asda and coffee from Macdonalds, enjoyed sitting in my safely parked car while watching the traffic jam that stretched out of sight in all directions. 

I picked up the new Wiltshire white horse maps from Minuteman Press in Bedminster, and jolly nice they are too. You'll find them in my Etsy shop should you want one.

Monday, 7 October 2019

the White Horses of Wiltshire

This is my new map of Wiltshire's white horses (and of course Uffington, which is in Oxfordshire but I could hardly leave it out now, could I?). It's available from my Etsy shop in various sizes; here's the link to the big version (it comes in A3, A4 and postcard)

 I've taken some liberties with perspective, distance and orientation, because some of the slopes upon which the horses are found are north-facing, and some (well, the Devizes one at least) are so shallow that the horse is considerably foreshortened. Do you draw them as seen from below? From some distance away? From above? It all depends. So it goes. 

My friends made some useful and helpful suggestions for Things To Put On The Map. Without Deborah Harvey's compendious knowledge of West Country history, I'd never have known about the Salisbury Hob-Nob, a hobby horse with hobnails for teeth and a nasty bite. And although to my knowledge the RAF never dropped horses by parachute, only mules by glider, and then only in the Far East in the Burmese jungle, Richard Jones pointed out that one of the most useful gliders in that war was the Airspeed Horsa, many of which took off from Wiltshire airfields on D Day. Which is enough to get it onto the map; I do like drawing aeroplanes. Ditto the Westland Dragonfly up at the top there, suggested by Christine Beckett. There is an obscure horse reference there, and if you can identify it you will win a round of applause. 

There's a couple of artefacts from the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. I went there to find the Romano-British horse and rider brooch found at Cold Kitchen Hill ('thought possibly to have a religious significance', which an archaeologist friend says is what they say when they haven't a clue), but also found the Marlborough Bucket, which was worth the entry fee alone. It's decorated with heads and horses, and is reckoned to be Gaulish work. The Celts apparently used their buckets to binge from (they'd have fitted well into canal society, particularly the society of Sherry Jim, I reckon); and the decorative metalwork would have enclosed the wooden staves of the bucket, which was left as grave goods in a burial near Marlborough. Anyway, the representation of the horse is interesting to compare with that of Uffington, although Uffington predates the Marlborough Bucket by a considerable time. Probably.

There's Wayland the Smith, outside his smithy, which is a long barrow on top of the North Downs near Uffington. If you leave your horse there with some money, the elusive Wayland will shoe it for you. Best not get on the wrong side of him, though, he might make a drinking vessel out of your skull like he did with Niðhad's sons, though admittedly Niðhad had hamstrung Wayland. The story of Wayland was brought over by the Saxons, so I've given him yellow hair. He features in the Anglo Saxon poem Deor, by the way, each verse of which features someone having a truly horrid time, and then ends with the refrain Þæs ofereode,  þisses swa mæg - 'that came to an end, this may well do so too.' A bleak sort of comfort, but one that I've recited to myself fairly often in hard times. (If you want to recite it too, then þ is runic 'thorn' and pronounced 'th', and all letters are sounded; thus 'ofereode' is 'over-eh-odour')

Some horses had makeovers; so there's been a horse at Westbury for longer than the present one may suggest, with its Stubbs-ish appearance dating from 1778. And some are relocated; so the Devizes white horse is on a hill around the corner from the earlier one which had a far more imposing position on Roundway Hill, from where it would have been visible for miles across the vale of the Wiltshire Avon. The Alton Barnes horse was inspired by envy of that at Cherhill to the north, and its construction was complicated by the chap employed to do it scarpering with the money. 

Coincidentally, the white horse at Alton Barnes, which is less than five miles from where I'm moored right now, is in the news this morning after an Extinction Rebellion logo appeared on it. Apparently it's being removed even as I write. 

Anyway, there we go. I think I'm going to have to scan the picture again, there's a line across it where there's a dead spot on the scanner. This picture is five scans stitched together, and it's a damn nuisance when something slips through like that. And it's pouring down now, and to get the computer up and running I need to stick the generator out on the back deck, and then put a brolly over it. And that can wait till daylight, and as there's a neighbouring boat I can't run the genny before 8 o'clock anyway. 

And then I can send it off to the printers. And tidy up the damn boat. Honestly, it goes to pot when I'm working on a picture.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

failing to identify birds

After a few days alongside in Devizes I headed out into the wild Wiltshire wolds. The weather's turned cold and damp, which is just right for skulking inside the boat and getting on with drawing. I'm working on a map of the Wiltshire white horses, and hope to finish it today. So more of that later...

There are still swallows around; it comes as a slight surprise to see them, now that I've got used to it being fairly seriously autumn. And passing the big field where the wheat is grown, the one with the kestrels' oak in it, it is now ploughed and harrowed, and there was a flock of small birds that I wasn't able to idnetify. So I went back with the binoculars and camera, and ...they weren't there any more. So I'll say they were bramblings, because why not?

Cycling is a challenge up here on the long pound when the ground isn't dry. Even with the big knobbly tyres on my Overbury bicycle I managed to fall off right outside Nipper's boat; then on the way back again I did the same thing in exactly the same place. He found it highly amusing, anyway.

Friday, 27 September 2019

stand by engines

Journey's end for today, and the flight ahead for tomorrow
It was time to head up the locks to Devizes. And it was about time I did a thorough check of the propulsion system anyway. So I started by checking the oil and coolant levels in the engine. I'm lucky that I've got a dedicated engine room, which makes working on it relatively easy, and it's safe out of the weather; many boats have their engines under deck boards at the back, and they can get all manky and rusty with rainwater dribbling on them.

Back, then, to the boatman's cabin (the small space between the engine room and the afterdeck) and remove the steps to access the weedhatch. First, turn the prop shaft and make sure it's free turning and with no fore-and-aft play. 

Now, wriggle under the afterdeck into the back of the hull. The weedhatch seals in the inspection chamber at the bottom of which is the propeller. You need to be able to get at it to clear the propeller of debris; without the hatch you'd have to go underwater yourself to get at it.

Here's the hatch removed, with the cavitation plate at the bottom (or the top, in this picture). The cavitation plate keeps a smooth profile on the underside of the hull so that the propeller doesn't turbulate, or at least no more than can be helped.

You can now see down to the propeller. Or at least, you could if the water weren't so murky. Nothing for it but to roll up the sleeves and get your arm down there.

There was a big piece of plastic wrapped around the propeller shaft; that would explain the vibration I was getting last time I moved the boat. While I was down there, I turned the prop and examined it for dents.

And finally a turn on the stern gland greaser. This lubricates the packing that stops water coming in where the prop shaft runs out of the boat into the water.

And now it's time to fire up the engine!

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

lots of horses in Devizes

Being as how it was pelting it down yesterday, I took the brolly and went into Devizles to hunt down horses in the Museum. I found that they're making a Big Thing of Eric Ravilious, now that they've got his rough draft of a Puffin book he was working on before his sudden death in an aircraft in Iceland. There's a book out, an imagining of how it would have been, with some of his pictures in it. It's a well done book, but at £15 I shall have to think about it.

They're planning a Rav exhibition too, and fundraising for the £5000 that they apparently need...
I mentioned that I was working on my own white horses map, and the nice woman at the desk waved over at the tea towel one that they already have, and one of which I already have. I showed her my canal maps. "Oh, they're for CHILDREN!" she said, unenthusiastically. 

Hey ho.

I found the horse and rider brooch I'd seen online, and another almost identical, which was nice.

And this odd bird grabbing a... rabbit? -which reminded me a bit of the spoonbill with a frog, at Wells.

the spoonbill and frog at Wells

And the exciting Marlborough Bucket, with some sinuous gee-gees on it, probably Gaulish apparently, and sinister as you like. And photographing them through curved glass meant the photos were rubbish. I may have to go back with the sketchbook. After all, I qualify for entry concessions, as I am now ANCIENT.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

hunting the starlingerie

As I was a-walking one fine autumn morning,
I heard the reeds crackle with the starlings at play,
And I goofed with the camera and missed their departure, 
as they rose in one body and all flew away.

Then a fox in the field was a-leaping for mouses, 
and frisking its tail in the meadowsweet's dew
And what with the faffing and pressing wrong buttons, 
I succeeded in failing to film the fox too.

So here's my boat, and the silent reed beds, and a culvert fox-red with rust because there's iron in the hill.

There was an ironworks here once; and John Aubrey investigated the water and reckoned it was as mineral-rich as Bath and proposed a spa; there is a wellhouse somewhere in the village, which I must search out one day, but Seend never quite took off as a resort.

Shame about the missed shots; the starlings were very nice to hear and watch. There's a small but respectable crowd here, enough for a bit of a murmuration. They fly in and gather on the power lines on the hill, then do a quick airshow, and dive abruptly into the reeds. And in the morning, I was stood on the other bank listening to the starlingerie fizzing and crackling away, and tried and failed to film the sudden burst when they all rose up. Maybe I should have just enjoyed the moment.

I was singing Game of Cards as I was walking; you'll find it here, sung by June Tabor and Maddy Prior. The verse I wrote here fits the tune...