Thursday, 26 January 2017

Baton Restored

Little did I think when I wrote ‘Making A Clean Breast Of It’, for Caught By The River in late 2015 that within the course of a year my life would become so powerfully linked to the scene of the ‘action’ -  Norton Conyers House, and to the paintings that dangle from its ancient walls.

A chance conversation between my wife. and Lady Graham (yes, we do a bit of hob-nobbing the Mrs and I) led to moving studio from above my gallery where I’ve worked for fifteen years, four miles out of town to the grandly titled ’North Pavilion’ in the late 18thC stable block of Norton Conyers. I think it was actually a grain store in former times and was pretty run down, but after a bit of a sweep out, the installation of electricity and water, a woodburner and secondary glazing, it has turned into the perfect studio with plenty of space for painting and teaching. It has meant too, a change in lifestyle from predominantly city based to a more bucolic way of living, the studio being surrounded by woodland and open countryside and the much painted (by me), river Ure flows but a dog’s flob from its door. Stout, rubber wellington boots now form an essential part of my wardrobe and I’ve even had a bash at chewing bits of straw; though I do prefer the tapas bar in town.

As resident artist, my inexpert opinion is inexplicably sought when matters pertaining to decorative design or art arise and so, on a balmy, bee-buzzy, bird-songy afternoon in late summer, I was summoned to the darkly shuttered and eerie house to witness and record a homecoming: in a strange reversal of accepted practice, one of Norton Conyers illustrious residents was carried in rather than out of the house in a wooden box.

The resident in question, a certain Humphrey Morice Bt, who in life was described as ‘sickly, high and a little touchy’, had died some 230 years previously in Naples and so far as I can tell, had never even visited Norton Conyers, much less lived here. His handsome portrait by the well regarded Italian painter Pompeo Batoni however, had been resident in the dining room for many years and would probably have remained there had it not been for the incessant noise - not, as you might imagine, the raucous shenanigans of carousing aristocracy, but rather the clamorous sexual exploits of those uninvited, and rarely welcome guests - the death watch beetle.

The arrival of Xestobium rufovillosum meant the removal of most of the house’s fixtures and fittings including the portrait of Sir Humphrey, who’s exile was to last seven years; time spent in the tender care of the National Gallery. But this was the day of his homecoming: the box, (Sir Humph) is wheeled in. As caskets go this one is impressive - 6’ high, 8’ long and 2’ wide and it is borne or rather pushed as it’s on casters, by four porters, men who spend their lives moving incredibly valuable (or as in this case, not quite so valuable) works of art around the world. Their work is carried out with a kind of deft reverence laced with darkish humour such as one might witness at an undertakers convention or at a below stairs meeting of Blandings butlers.

Once de-boxed the painting is laid on the dining table for inspection. Sir Humphrey’s stockinged and silken clad form lounges somewhat incongruously in a classical landscape, by his side an innocent gun and evidence of a jovial morning’s wildlife extermination in the form of a dead hare and a brace or two of wild partridge. At the same time and possibly hoping to avoid the same fate, a trio of nervous looking hounds fawn at his feet. I feel I should say of Sir Humphrey: he doesn’t look like a man who’s spent the past few hours crashing through the undergrowth in pursuit of his lunch; he looks more like he’d been wandering the streets of Napoli in search of silken fripperies or penning poetry to an Italian peasant boy, but whatever the case, the scene is adroitly painted and will look magnificent above the splendid marble fireplace.

The portrait had hung for many years, dirty and all but forgotten in a dark, library corridor and it was only after cleaning that its quality was recognised; it has also undergone a certain amount of restoration whilst at the National and this is examined in minute detail by Sir James, Lady Halina and indeed myself. Spotting the restoration without expert help may have taken some time as they’ve made a cracking job of it. Once scrutinised, Lady Graham indulges in a little light house work which takes the form of dusting the gilt frame with a paint brush and then all that’s left to do is the re-hanging.

I say ‘all’ but I’m glad I’m not in charge - this is a substantial painting and I’m happy to leave its elevation to others and as it turns out ‘elevation’ seems fitting as there is a Rubensian beauty to the unfolding scene which reminds me of his ‘Elevation Of The Cross’ only mercifully with more clothing. Step-ladders are erected either side of the fireplace and a good deal of time is spent measuring and marking before the drill is brought into play (screws replacing the traditional crucifixion nails) and the brackets go up. Two of the National Gallery’s finest position themselves atop the ladders, one foot on the ladder, the other balletically tip-toe’d on the mantle whilst the others gather up Sir Humph and his attendant fauna. Together they hoist the painted peer into place, forming as they do the neo-baroque (or perhaps more Stanley Spencer) tableaux. We all stand back and adopt the tics that help decide whether it’s straight or not: stroking our chins, cocking our heads on one side and puffing out our cheeks; is it straight? Of course it is - these lads know what they’re about.

Before long we’re stretching out on the lawn in the walled garden, or more properly: ‘lounging in a classical landscape’, only that’s where the comparison ends as we have a beer in our hands and the wildlife is still vigorously sentient around us. It’s tempting to make a drawing of the scene but Batoni has rather cornered the market in lounging baronets so I let it go. 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Ure to Ouse

I suppose it’s true that on this journey down the Ure I’ve avoided the messy issue of its name change, and indeed the area where the change occurs… see, for no apparent reason the river Ure changes its name to the river Ouse, and where it does this ‘one minute I’m doctor Jeckyl, the next I’m Mr Hyde’ trick was also something of a mystery. I’d asked quite a few people along the river bank and you’d expect, would you not, that people who know and love the river, would love and know the river, but I’d drawn a blank so I’d no option but to search for it myself. Well, it took a while – zipping along country lanes, asking directions, turning round in farmyards, plodding along farm tracks and across muddy fields and when eventually I found it, it seemed to throw up more questions than answers: on the bank of a perfectly straight stretch of deep, slow moving river stood a two armed finger post……or is it two fingered? Anyway, the southward pointing arm was carved with the single word ‘Ouse’ and the Northward, ‘Ure’……all very well, but why? Had someone simple got bored with the name and thought, sod it we’ll call it something else – the river Bacon say, or the Overcoat? There appeared to be no clues in the vicinity, only cows and they were mute on the subject, so I clod-hopped back to the car collecting so much oomskah on my shoes I could start my own arable farm and drove around some more in the hope of inspiration. Eventually the drive took me to a brace of very agreeable villages called Great & Little Ouseburn and there I thought (for I have a razor sharp mind), was a clue. Standing between the villages is a very smart, three arched, brick built bridge over a tiny stream, and the stream, I’m told by a local farmer, is called Ouse Gill Beck. At the delightfully named Cuddy Shaw Reach, hidden by trees and undergrowth, the beck flows into the Ure opposite the finger post I’d seen earlier but why would a river already 74 miles long and in opulent maturity, change its name to that of a mere runnel? 
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
It has been suggested that the Ouse was once known as the ‘Ure’, but there seems to be no supporting evidence for this claim. The suggestion that the name derives from the Celtic name of the Ure, assumed to be Isurā from the Roman name for Aldborough and over time evolved into Isis and finally the Saxon Ouse, would go some way to explaining how the little tributary Ouse Gill Beck usurps the name of the much larger river Ure. However the form Ouse is little changed from the eighth century.
Well that’s about as clear as the river after heavy rain. For the time-being I have given up hope of finding a definitive answer to this vexing conundrum (unless anyone out there can supply the answer?) and the River Ure Project continues its stately progress, only now, much of it is on the river Ouse (except when it’s on the Humber of course!).

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Making A Clean Breast Of It.

I don't know about you but I can get more bored, more quickly in a 'stately home' than almost anywhere else on earth - rows of marble busts of the nameless and noseless - 18th century copies of a haul 'found' in a brothel in Herculaneum, landscaped gardens - primped, straightjacketed and proudly asserted to be an exact copy of the original layout by Moulton and (Capability) Browne, and perhaps worst of all: the paintings - row upon row of second and third rate family portraits and the inevitable 'Landscape with Levitating Cows'. If you're lucky, there might be a Reynolds of the 6th Earl dressed as a Hussar (huzzah!) but since the £15 guidebook (foreword by the present Earl) doesn't come with a free stepladder and torch, it could just as easily be the picture of 'The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies' of Allo, Allo fame.
And the attendants! Solidly M&S class, Pringle jumpered, pressed chino'd and steeped in the family history of the current 'temporary guardian' - "I was telling young sir Harry only yesterday". They can be relied upon to tell you just what you don't want to know exactly when you don't want to know it. I was accosted by one last summer when we visited one of the more celebrated 'attractions':
'Magnificent isn't it', he said. 'One of a pair painted for this room it shows the Lagoon and to the right is the Doge's palace'. 
'I was looking at the Stubbs', I said.
'Of course the family were frequent visitors to Italia and this exquisite pair from Canaletto's later period were commissioned from the artist by the 7th Earl on his Grande Tour of 1742'.
'Yes but I was looking at the…..oh never mind'.
So yesterday we ended up visiting friends who's family happen to have lived at Norton Conyers House since 1642! It's a grade II listed late medieval manor house with Stuart and Georgian additions in the Ure valley just outside Ripon. Last time I visited, all of the paintings were in storage and dust sheets covered the furniture as some major restoration work was under way. This time the dust sheets are off but Lady Graham is in a bit of a tizz as she's spent the past three hours trying to eject a couple of Swallows who'd managed to get into the great hall without paying and were reluctant to leave. By the time we arrive she has somehow ejected them but they have been kind enough to sign the visitors book - well in the sense that they have guano'd down a couple of paintings. it seems that the Grahams don't have an immediate solution to this problem and time is of the essence given the acid nature of their deposit.
In no time at all I find myself precariously teetering on tip toe atop a rickety step ladder, a little plastic cup of distilled water in one hand, a cotton bud in the other, gently swabbing away at the comely breast of a 17th century Lady Jane Graham; she gazes provocatively into my eyes. She's a bit of a 'looker' is Lady J. and I can't help feeling a little impertinent as I fiddle about with her hooters. The step ladder isn't really tall enough and I'm trying to work by the fitful beam of an ancient angle poise lamp, whilst my wife and Lady G discuss flower arrangements at ground level and offer helpful comments. But an hour or more later and half a box of cotton buds (now christened 'poo sticks') down, I take my leave of the rose lipped lovely and turn my attention to the second guano'd Graham; this time it's the somewhat less alluring Sir Guy Graham, 9th Baronet and grandfather to Sir James, the present holder. He (Sir Guy) studiously ignores me as I swab away at his tunic and another arm aching, eye squinting hour passes but in the end, both illustrious ancestors are rendered dropping free and I can climb down from my lofty and perilous perch.
Later we are taken on a guided tour of the house and delightful walled gardens by Lady G. It is a lived-in house on a human scale with imperfections and anomalies and it is this, I realise that charms me about the place - that and my own interaction with it - can you imagine being asked to clean bird shit off a Bruegel in Blenheim or a Chardin at Chatsworth?
We come away with a pleasing sense of having contributed in a small way to the ongoing life of this ancient house, and with several large tupperware boxes full of soft fruits from Lady G's copious 17C freezers. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015


'Footbridge by the Ure'

The river Ure snakes through a 350ft gorge cloaked with Oak, beech, sycamore and ash; a dramatic and beautiful foreground to a view that stretches across the vale of York to the blue, distant Hambleton hills. The woodland, dotted with follies, grottos, pathways and ponds testifies to the hand of man in what otherwise might appear to be a natural landscape. It was John Aislabie, famous for his landscaping work at nearby Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, and his son William who laid out the most dramatic section as a woodland garden in the mid 18th century. Hackfall was to become one of the most important and famous managed landscapes of its kind in Britain. 

My own first venture into Hackfall was one early spring morning, hideously clad in shorts and pumps trying to keep up with my pal Alastair on a Sunday morning run. It was I remember, bitterly cold, misty, muddy and mildly humiliating given that Al is a robust 17 stone ex rugby player and I am built on considerably more svelte, and theoretically swift lines. Yet, even as I blundered along after Al, lungs bursting from my chest,  I couldn't help noticing what an extraordinarily beautiful place it is and I promised myself a return visit, this time equipped with paints and brushes. It's not as if I'd be breaking new ground though, since some 200 odd years before me, the no doubt more decorously clad Joseph Mallord William Turner found his way here and set the bar for painting it in watercolour; so once again I find myself lumbering along in the wake of a superior being!  He was on the second of two tours of Yorkshire and the north, putting together a series of studies for a book by Thomas Dunham Whitaker entitled 'A General History of the County of York'. Sadly Whitaker died before his book was completed, but on the up side the young Turner produced some cracking pictures of Hackfall that otherwise might never have been made.

I'd had a book about Turner as a kid but I'd only looked at the pictures. He turned up in art history lectures at art college but, and I hate to admit this: he'd seemed anachronistic in a world of performance art, the 'Shock of the New', Punk and my new haircut. It was only later as I worked my way through Bomberg, Auerbach and Freud that he elbowed his way into my leaden consciousness and I began to learn a little about the art and the man. Great artists of the past can seem remote and shadowy figures even to those who study them, but put a fishing rod in their hands and they take a great stride forward into the light to meet us: put Turner near a river and if he wasn't painting it, he was fishing it, he is even reputed to have had a walking stick that turned into a fishing rod! According to William Russell in his 'Eccentric Personages':

'The sole relaxation which this remarkable man (Turner) permitted himself, besides certain potations—but it was not till late in life that he at times over-indulged—was fishing. He might be seen wending his way to the river-side, dressed in the oddest fashion—a flabby hat, ill fitting green Monmouth-street coat, nankeen trousers much too short, and highlow boots, with a dilapidated cotton umbrella, and a fishing rod. From early morning till nightfall would he sit upon the river’s bank, under pelting rain, patiently, shielded by his capacious umbrella, even though he did not obtain a single nibble. He was not, however, an unskillful angler, and was very proud of a good day’s sport.'

And the Rev' S.A. Swaine averred: 

'Turner was as merciful an angler as even the pious and humane farther of the craft could have desired. He would impale the devoted worm 'as tenderly as he loved him'….. and according to a regular fishing companion, " His success as an angler was great, although with the worst of tackle in the world. Every fish he caught he showed to me, and appealed to me to decide whether the size justified him to keep it for the table, or return it to the river; his hesitation was often most touching, and he always gave the prisoner at the bar the benefit of the doubt."

so as I headed river-wards to paint I began to feel, well what? Perhaps not a presence, or an aura, but rather, a sense of time collapsing around me and that strange sensation that the past might be running parallel with the present.

Deep in the gorge and quite close to the river there is a bench marking one of the places where Turner sat to paint, but as I search for a place from which to make my own picture I find myself drawn closer and closer to the river itself and in it, about a yard from the bank, lapped by the river's ceaseless passage bulges a rock, a round, flat topped rock like a pub table. It stands a good three feet clear of the water so that when you perch on it, your feet are clear of the stream; there is room to sit and spread out watercolours and palette; it is an artist's stone and it has been warmed by the sun or possibly Turner's bum. Of course, I can't be sure that he ever painted from this rock but from here you can look straight down into the water and watch the wild Brown Trout hanging in the current, you can track the kingfisher as he kinks past at eye level, dippers bob and  the river gurgles, rushes, dazzles and glints in the sunlight. It is an artist's stone and an angler's stone and you can look downstream and get a wonderfully framed view of Mowbray Castle, the folly Turner so carefully recorded in his finished watercolour.

I work away for an your or two with pencil, watercolour and acrylic and then wander further up river where the current slows and the steep sided gorge flattens out to meadowland. In the drowsy afternoon heat, I sit watching lazy trout sipping flies from the water's surface and here I make the best picture of the day; free I suspect, of the weight of greater expectations. 

Turner may have produced the best painting of Hackfall woods but running? I'd have him, no problem!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Spurn Point

When I started the River Ure Project I had intended to work my way down river only as far as the point where it changes its name to the Ouse but this inconsequential and indeterminate dissolution had always rankled - rivers after all, flow into the sea don't they? they become part of that great cycle of sea, sky, cloud, rain and river that sustains life and here in Yorkshire anyway, gives us a regular soaking, so on a bright, breezy and thankfully dry day in April I set off to witness the transformation.

It's easy to forget just how big this county really is but if you do need reminding, take a drive to Spurn Point from ……… well, almost anywhere else in Yorkshire - it's a long way!  Once past Beverley, you soon begin to get the feeling you are approaching the edge - the landscape is prairie flat, the roads straight and the sky, huge and indefinably coloured by the sea. The fields are tramlined into yet more straight lines and turbines harvest the wind. At Easington a huge gas terminal straddles the road; double fenced and dog patrolled it lends an air of secrecy, even menace to the otherwise wide-eyed innocence of the place. 

The road narrows into single track, becomes sandier and the sun shafts onto the Humber estuary (the Ure estuary) to my right. I pull in to the small car park and as the engine dies the north-westerly rocks the car gently. Spurn Point is a narrow, three mile long blunted spike of land that curls out between the estuary and the sea carrying a road which has been so battered by the winter storms that it is now closed to vehicles and it seems unlikely that the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust who run and administer the area will reinstate it. For many years there have been attempts to stabilise this shifting landscape with concrete and steel but in the face of the sea's power they have, over time, largely failed and now it is time to allow nature to take charge once again.

Marram grass dances and sings on the dunes adding to the voices of Curlews and other wading birds on the mud flats to the west; it's what you might call 'bracing'. The delicacy of this place is immediately apparent as the sea washes over the remaining blocks of roadway and eats away at the dunes, and the groynes that once arrested longshore drift loll drunkenly in churning sea-foam. The sea is not re-claiming, but re-sculpting like a potter with a ball of clay - what once was land is becoming sea and what was sea, land. Through this process of erosion and deposition Spurn is gradually moving westwards and will soon become an island; it is one of the most dynamic and fastest moving landscapes in the country. This is a compelling place to work - it feels like painting history, such is its transience.

After a couple of hundred metres the sand dusted road is protected by dunes and I follow it along the long, curving spit; a line of telegraph poles punctuates the way and washes out to the horizon. A beached lobster pot nestles in the sand and, mouth agape, waits in vain. I make some quick drawings and colour notes and continue along the road, crossing and re-crossing old, half buried railway tracks - the remains of a line built to transport men and materials to a gun battery built during the Great War (contemporary photographs show that some of the rail vehicles were wind powered and had large sails!) After an hour or so of walking, stopping, wandering, looking, scribbling, the land that curved away ahead of me, now arcs back to the 'mainland'.  I am standing beneath the now disused, Spurn Lighthouse; its once black and white livery now flaked with a patina of mellowing age, the light itself, doused in 1985. it is locked, of course, so I wander round the outside staring dizzyingly upwards at its blank windows and a Kestrel lifts easily from the telegraph wires and perches on one of the upper window ledges and waits for my departure.

In this predominantly horizontal scape it is the verticals that clamour for attention: the lighthouse itself, the telegraph poles and most surprisingly, a bus stop, surely now redundant, informs of past outings, of wrapped sandwiches and pop and 'can we go now?'. Rust coats every metal surface, prematurely ageing so that a tractor and boat trailer have all the appearance of having been abandoned for years, though they may well have been used yesterday and the lifeboatmen's bicycles are enough to make Bradley Wiggins weep.

As I near the end of the point, marine debris litters the beach - bottles, plastic in all its hideous forms and a blue nike trainer. Brutalist concrete bunkers and gun emplacements remind me once again of the other lives once lived here and I can't help feeling there might have been a touch of the 'Dad's Army' about it - "Make us a cup 'a' Rosie Lee Charlie; we ain't gonna see the perishin' Jerry tonight'.

I watch the stately progress of enormous container ships silently entering the estuary and as I do so a large log, washed up on the beach, opens an unexpected eye and starts belly flopping towards the surf with a backward glance of heartfelt reproach: it's actually a Common Seal, one of the many marine mammals to be found in these waters but for me, a wonderful surprise and I rebuke myself for having almost blundered into the poor creature.

Time and tide as they say…….having reached the end, I turn and retrace my steps the three miles or so towards the car, and none too soon because the tide is coming in fast and the landward end of the causeway is almost under water. The air is a mist of salt water and the ground, unstable but soon I'm safely back in the deserted car park.

The car door clunks shut and suddenly all is quiet - the roar of wind and sea that have battered my senses for the past three hours are shut out; it's like stepping out of a nightclub into the early dawn. I have loved it and I'm a little drunk.

Spurn Light, Oil on canvas, 100cm x 100cm

Wensleydale Barn

Wensleydale Barn, Ink on paper

Deafened by Librarians

It is a morning of high wind and squally showers so instead of a damp day painting by the river I have decided to do some research for the river Ure project - I'm working on a painting of Fisher's Hall in Hackfall Wood, an area painted by Turner on his second tour of the North in 1816 and I'd like some background information on his trip.

Instead of a day alone at the computer screen and because I have to pop into town, I decide to head to the local library for a bit of convivial bookishness.  It is housed, as I suppose many are these days, in a modern red brick building charmingly conjoined to a cost cutter store, a bus station and the ‘attended' public toilets.  I say ‘modern’ building – modern meaning utterly devoid of any architectural merit.  There are no design features to add interest to its bleak and utilitarian façade unless you count the blue and white plastic municipal sign stuck to the wall above the automatic doors.  The now inevitable ring of hardened smokers fill the benches outside in a Bronchitic break from studying the writings of Heinz Wolff or the price of Heinz Beanz. I climb the stairs and enter through the security device which ‘tut tuts’ reminding me of the librarians of my grubby and dishevelled childhood.

I find myself in a rainbow world of primary colours reminiscent of a pre-school classroom or a fast food outlet; the lurid visual noise matched by the audial. No whispering here – it’s been banned.  The librarians declaim like opera singers attempting to extinguish a candle from the other side of the Albert Hall.  No wonder then that two thirds of the people in here are wearing hearing aids – they’ve been deafened by librarians.

One of the staff who according to his name badge (and I’ve no reason to disbelieve it) is called Mervyn, has a cold and sniffs loudly at 25 second intervals.  It’s one of those reverberating sniffs – more of a snort really –that resonates throughout the room so that it’s impossible to be certain whether it’s the gale outside causing the windows to rattle or Mervyn.  By way of an occasional counterpoint he will drag a yard or so of damp, grey cloth from his pocket and trumpet into it like a Moose calling to her young across the barren wastes of Alaska.

I spend some time perusing the cellophane covered books before realising that I am alone in this: everyone else in the room is either tapping away at computer keyboards like demented woodpeckers or joining in the North Eastern and Adjacent Areas Town Crier competition which is taking place behind the desk.  The books, I realise, have been shunned in their former stronghold in much the same way as the smokers, only without the added indignity of being relegated to the bench.  In the end I can take no more of the opera singing, librarian snorting, computer beeping cacophony and head back out into the street.

An hour later at lunch with my friend Mike, my ears still ringing with the scholastic equivalent of post gig tinnitus, he suggests that perhaps there should be a ‘quiet area’ within the library just as there are now on trains……

I thought libraries were quiet areas.

Fisher's Hall, Hackfall Wood

Early Spring River

The usual pile of bills hits the mat on this dour day of gunmetal skies, drizzle damp pavements and hissing traffic. Ok - the winter has been a good one with some proper snow and a few days so dazzlingly clear and crisp as to make the heart sing, but even so, there comes a time when you long for the sun's embracing warmth and the lengthening days of Spring, so the handwritten white envelope amongst the gloomy brown is like a snowdrop on a muddy verge. Sliding my finger under the envelope's flap I'm cautiously optimistic that its contents will be uplifting - an invitation say, or better still, a cheque. I say cautiously because my accountant has the devious habit of putting his frighteningly large bills in similarly innocent looking sleeves, thus lulling me into opening them at wholly inappropriate times, like at the weekend………. or during the week. I once opened one on the morning we were heading off to Devon for a few days break, nearly ruining the whole damned trip!  But today fate is kind, for out of the envelope flutter three unassuming rectangles of buff card - membership and guest tickets for my fly fishing club on the Ure. The sun breaks through the gloom, birds begin to sing and I am transported to a glittering riffle below Kilgram Bridge where many a wild Brown Trout has had the grace (or more likely the lack of wit) to suck down my fly; it is three weeks to the start of the season.

By mid April the relentless east wind that has battered and chilled the Dales for weeks, finally gives way to the kinder south westerlies and the temperature soars to a sweltering 12 degrees. On a sunny, blustery morning, along with paints, brushes, drawing boards and the rest of the paraphernalia I habitually cart about with me, I collect together my rods and the captivating trappings of the fly fisherman. Everything gets bundled into the back of my tatty old estate car and I head river-wards. The season seems to have changed overnight - the hedgerow shyly decked in its pale chiffon green and Celandines freckle the verges with Lemon Yellow. 

Soon I catch sight of the river: just a glimpse through the trees but it's enough to sow the seeds of doubt: is it running high?  I roll slowly over Kilgram bridge craning my neck to see over the parapet and the awful truth hits me - not only is it running high and fast but it is the colour of toffee, if it's fishable at all, I know it is way beyond my capabilities; it must have been lashing down on the pennines. Half way through April and I haven't cast a line yet!  I park at Squirrel Bank, open the boot and trying not to look at my fishing kit, gather my stuff together and wander off towards the river dreaming of what might have been, and a curlew sympathises.

Any sense of gloom though, is soon washed away by the glittering notes of the first Skylark of the season and as I wander downhill towards the river I am surrounded by the insistent life of hundreds of new lambs and their mothers. White cumulus scud across a cobalt dome of sky and the scent of the sheep and the land rise up in a heady, life affirming exhalation. This is a healing place: even on days of deepest melancholia and despondency it has the power to soothe the mind and lift the spirit.

Wandering on, a pair of Sandpipers burst from the bank at my feet and snap low over the water, a centrifuge of Sandmartins whirl overhead and somewhere distant a tractor snorts into life. I find a spot sheltered from the wind and watch the river turn from brown to flashing silver as the fresh sun jags its light between the clouds. I knock off a couple of watercolours but they don't seem to capture the flourish and dash of the day so I switch to acrylic and begin scumbling and scratching away with fingers and nails, rags and sticks. The paint is flicked, thrown and spattered, and across the river a meadow lights like a jewel; I strike in two thumb smears of heightened Emerald and watch the light spread to the budding trees. I scrape and scratch some more and let the running paint delineate trunk and branch. Almost unnoticed a picture emerges. 

sitting back with a cheese and pickle sandwich and a bottle of tap water I decide what changes to make to bring the picture to its conclusion - these are delicate moments of musings and fine tunings.  In the end as often happens, I do nothing: paintings draw to their own consummation and my role is to be astute enough to realise when this happens and not faff with the thing - a good painting being but a stroke away from a dog's dinner. 

Later, driving back over Kilgram bridge, I can see that the river level has dropped; its chocolate bubble and swirl diminished and once again my thoughts drift from palette and brush to rod and line: tomorrow is another day.

Snow Horses

Another bitter day and snow is whipping in from the east. I'm going up to Kilgram bridge to make a snowy picture of the river Ure but already as I set off, the weather is closing in. Winding up the dale the car begins to slide her back end about like a prostitute on a bar stool and much as I hate being beaten by the weather, it soon becomes obvious I'll have to turn back.

Trying not to get stuck in the  rutted gateway as I spin the car, I see a couple of disgruntled horses in the field, heads down and hunched against the driving wind and snow. They look like the unfortunate mount in Paul Delaroche's painting 'Napoleon Crossing the Alps' (not to be confused with Jacques-Louis David's hilariously over grandiose work of the same name). Slowly raising their heads, they give me a lingering and lugubrious look before turning back to their inner contemplation. In some strange fit of fellow feeling, I can't bring myself to paint them from the warm cocoon of the car so I pile on clothing and step out into the near blizzard.

Perched on the bonnet in what my Father would have called a 'lazy wind' (instead of going round, it cuts straight through you), I develop a stripe of snow down my left side making me look like a particularly disheveled bandmaster and I'm troubled with the same old problem of paint freezing in the palette, only now it's freezing on the paper too and it's like trying to paint with grains of coloured sand. A farm lad bounces past in his John Deere, eyes fixed on me, mobile clamped to his ear and I can imagine his unlikely tale of the nutter on a bonnet in a blizzard. In the end I manage some sort of picture and slither back to town, grateful to have rescued the day.

Will Loves Georgie

Leaving the car in the lane I wander off down the deserted side track. On the left, piles of steaming manure are speckled with rooks, crows and Jackdaws like currants in a giant fruitcake mix. On my approach the corvids reluctantly take wing, croaking complaint like heavy smokers forced outside for a fag. They flap lazily away over silvery plough and grey into the enfolding mist. According to my map the track peters out into a footpath, but after a couple of hundred yards it gives no sign of doing anything of the kind, so I go back for the car, stirring the cake mix once more.

The track remains wide enough for the car and eventually it double-bends into a grassy little car park where I'm surprised, given the hour and the day, to find another vehicle. Pulling in alongside I gather my painting kit and camera and amble off towards the river. The Ure divides here forming an island, allowing boats to navigate past Westwick weir via a lock which scoops them up like a proud father gently lifting his child to balance along a wall. 

The lock gates are still hoar frosted, and white woollen cobwebs drape from the paddle beams. There are no boats on this wintry day so I cross the lock onto the eyot via a little footbridge and a stout wooden gate marked 'access for anglers only'. Bone white trees shard the slate and cerulean sky and as I slither and stumble over the frozen ground the still grasping tendrils of last year's brambles clutch at my legs. 

The island is secluded, silent, secret almost. I stand for a moment absorbing the sense of aloneness and then wander on and soon the sound of the weir begins to elbow into the silence. As I progress it gets louder and more insistent and then, crashing and barking out of the undergrowth, bounds a Bull Terrier; I must have leapt a yard into the air but the dog bounces around excitedly, showing no desire to rip me limb from limb. I have a furtive look around to ensure no-one witnessed my fright-leap and I press on with my new-found friend skittering about until we come across his owner who is fiddling with a spaghetti of wires spewing out of a green metal box by the side of the weir. He turns and smiles, 'David Bamford', he says, 'Ure Salmon Trust'. We shake hands and he tells me that the green box with its attendant solar panel is a salmon counter which despite being well above the level of the river, had been water damaged during the recent flood. I try to imagine the river raging through the valley at this level; it must have been an awesome sight.

David tells me about the recent success of salmon on the Ure - how they are returning in ever increasing numbers to the spawning beds higher up and the trust's efforts to record and further improve their habitat on the river and its tributaries. Poor water quality in the tidal Ouse and Humber estuary largely due to inflow from West Yorkshire's industrially polluted rivers had meant that until recently Salmon and Sea Trout had been unable to access the Ure and numbers had declined rapidly and catastrophically in the mid 20th century. Thanks to a pollutant reduction in tributary rivers such as the Derwent and Calder and the efforts of various organisations to make changes, the future for migratory fish in the Ure for whom it is once again becoming a spawning ground, looks considerably brighter. Inevitably though, when changes occur, there will be problems to address and already, clubs who have fished this beautiful water for trout for many decades are finding their leases almost impossible to renew as riparian owners see greater profits to be made from the salmon fisherman. The impact is clear to see on the riverbanks too as trees are cut back and undergrowth cleared to accommodate the rods and many of the old, overhung trout lies have disappeared.

Leaving David and his dog I wander along beside the treacle black and silent river. Above the weir a huge orange safety boom spans from bank to bank lending colour to an otherwise muted scene and despite its plastic incongruity I rather like it, so I find a convenient fallen tree to sit on, spread out paintbox, pencils etc and make a quick picture. The evidences of man magnify the sense of isolation here and though I can no longer see where he was working I somehow know that David has gone and I have this unfamiliar and dormant little island to myself.

It is bitterly cold so I'm soon on the move again and this time to the island's upstream prow where a stand of mature Beech trees tower above me like elephant's legs. It's a place for the underage consumption of booze and fags and the hurried couplings of youth. The trees bear witness and are pock-marked and scarred with graffiti - 'Benny '75',  'Scene by AJ' and 'Will loves Georgie'.  I sit with my back to one of them and begin another picture. Once again I find myself drawn to the hand of man  - a road sign - only this is a river sign 'Danger Weir Keep Left'. It too has its splash of warning red and along with colour it lends linearity to the riverscape. Time passes unnoticed, a wood pigeon applauds itself into the sky from the trees on the opposite bank and a pair of mallards squabble up river, then all is quiet again. 

As I pack up and begin to meander home in the fading light there is a loud sploosh and the expanding rings of a rise spread out across the mirrored water towards both banks. My first thought is a large trout; but had David's newly mended salmon counter just registered another digital tick?

Ure Head

Painting outside at this time of year means you have to embrace winter, to accept the limitations it places upon you: Fingers become numb or agonisingly painful and stubbornly refuse to articulate,  When the temperature drops below freezing, paint begins to freeze in the palette as you mix it - first it starts to become granular like sand and you wonder what's going on, and then it begins to form ice plates and it's time to head back to the warmth of the car. Working fast keeps you a bit warmer and it also challenges the brain and keeps the painting's surface lively and spontaneous.

Head of the Ure

It's not that I'm completely unsociable - I can talk shite over a pint of Black Sheep as well as the next man, but when I'm working I have to give it my full attention; I'm not clever enough to do otherwise. So here we are: Rob (who's chatty),  and me (who isn't), heading up to the source of the Ure, high on the pennine watershed of England so that I can make a picture of the river's birth for the 'River Ure Project'. It feels important that I should do this early on in the project - that an understanding of its beginning will inform my impressions as it grows.  I normally do these trips alone but as Rob was at a loose end, I'd invited him along and we've not known each other long. It's not easy to be companionably silent with someone you don't know very well, but after a loquacious start during which I begin to worry that the paints will remain dry and the paper unsullied, we settle to a workable conviviality. 

The drive takes us the length of Wensleydale, following the Ure all the way, to the bustling dale-head town of Hawes, astir with wellie booted, rolling hipped farmers collecting winter provisions against the threatened snow. Hawes has a frontier town edge that I like - characterised by a cavalier attitude to parking and vehicle maintenance (battered 4 x 4s happily abandoned within hailing distance of the curb), and a friendly, yet utilitarian welcome for those engaged in 'outdoor pursuits'. It is not genteel but it is genial.

On past Hawes, we reel with the Ure, crossing and re-crossing it until we get to the Moorcock Inn where we turn right into the Eden valley; Baugh Fell and the Howgills to our left, Great Shunner Fell to the right. The valley is an ancient route: Many of the geographical features have Norse names, but it's history stretches back through the Romans, who used it to connect their forts and settlements in Wensleydale with those along what is now the A66, and beyond that, to the bronze age and the Mesolithic.

We park by the Settle - Carlisle railway line which, though we are in the valley bottom, reaches its highest point near here of nearly 1,200ft OD. Pulling on boots, waterproofs and rucksacks we set off along a gently rising gravel track which brings us to the elegantly curvaceous structure of How Beck bridge and we wonder why anyone would build with such élan in this seemingly unvisited place. Crossing the tumbling stream, the track begins to steepen and we soon come to another, much smaller footbridge; this is Green Bridge, the first structured crossing of the Ure - the first punctuation mark in its 74 mile journey and here we leave the track and begin to follow the river itself. The ground rises sharply, Our thighs protest at the incline, breathing becomes laboured, conversation intermittent and soon we are enveloped in cloud. We pick our way through the peat-boggy ground, cresting false summits, following the ever dwindling beck until finally it disappears altogether into a hummocky world of course grasses, sphagnum moss and black water. I think I'd expected a spring - the pointy end of the river spearing into the earth but it isn't like that, it is an inconsequential, undetermined discontinuance: the river smeared across the earth.

The heavy sky is one with the land. There are no edges in this abstract, Mark Rothko world. Searching for the first murmurings of the river's life I become aware that for the very briefest moment in a vast stretch of time, I have become the river's source - that the water dripping from my nose and the hood of my waterproof jacket is the embryonic Ure. There is no sound other than trickling water and the distant grroak of a wheeling raven. The overwhelming sense is of being somewhere ancient - a place where the measured and monumental passing of time saturates consciousness just as the weeping pall suffuses the bog around me. There is no discernible trace of  animal or human life here; elsewhere there are evidences of mans passage: footprints, tracks, paths. Further down the fell are the faint parallel lines pressed into the earth by the farmer's quad bike which we had used as a way-marker to avoid the boggiest areas, but here the ground is so soft, so self healing that all traces of passage have been subsumed - there is no recent past; only time's stretch.

Dropping the rucksack off my back, I open the little box of watercolours and fill a jam jar from the trickle of river, meaning that I begin painting the river with the river - a symmetry that pleases me. Rob falls silent and discreetly wanders off to leave me to it. Despite the thick surrounding clag there is muted autumnal colour everywhere and I work fast to capture as much as I can of this ever changing, ever constant place. My fingers quickly become numb with the cold and my feet sink slowly into the squelch and suck of the mire but this is the only way to paint - the only way to suffuse a picture with the true tenor of place. Slivers of residual snow cling to the hillside and lend light to the land and a small Velux of blue sky opens briefly overhead. As it does so a previously unseen panorama of distant Wild Boar Fell and the valley bottom opens up and a toy train slides silently along the line from Garsdale Head; a reminder of how industrial and populous this land once was.

The picture is finished quickly and it is spare and elemental: created in and of the environment, spattered with rain, with river; but the environment keeps working on it and it won't dry - the little  pools of watercolour continue to flow about the paper's surface, refusing to be contained. Rob and I build a rucksack tent to protect the picture from the drizzle and we each perform some freeform country dancing in order to bring circulation back into our extremities. The painting isn't dry but there's only a certain amount of time you can spend dancing around on a mountain top in the rain before the merriment wanes so we pack up and head back down.

On the way home in the car we join the river again, this time travelling with the flow. It is only a stream here, but it is no gentle lowland beck content to wander; it is made of shattered windscreen glass, of diamond light, it is eager and impatient like a cocky young fighter about to enter the ring - it'll make you see stars, punch your lights in. we pull over and I make another quick picture sitting on a low wall next to the car; It's nice to have the certainty of a refuge from the cold and it means I can blow-dry the painting in the blast from the car's heater.

Later, we approach a favourite pub by the river Cover, 'Pint?' says Rob. Now he's talking.

The Beginning

It is my definitive river, the one I grew up with, the one I understand, the one I thought I knew. I had swum in it and played by it as a child, I'd been dragged by my parents on interminable Sunday car rides along its length as a sulky teenager, I'd followed its meanders on foot with chattery girls and boastful boys and as I moved away to art college, I'd abandoned it for more 'glamorous' rivers in the south of England - the Thames, the Avon and latterly the Dart. Moving back north I'd returned to my river to fish it for wild Brown Trout and Grayling and as I reclaimed it, the Ure beguiled and mesmerised me once more.

The Ure oozes into life from a porridge of peat & sphagnum moss on Lund Fell, high above Mallerstang in the western Dales. It trickles & tumbles off the fell and turns east into Wensleydale where it is conjoined with innumerable gills, and from a rocky stream, it quickly turns into a full blown river slicing its way through a valley carved and scoured by glacial ice. The river loses height quickly over a series of waterfalls at the lower end of the dale - about 70 mtrs in the three miles between Redmire and Aysgarth alone, and soon it flows out into the plain of York, where it eventually changes its name to the Ouse.

This is the first morning working on a year long project to record my attachment to, and impressions of the river on canvas and paper, in images and words. The logical place to begin is clearly the river's source on that lofty and barren moor, so inevitably I'm thirty miles away from there in a place perhaps best described as no-where in particular. It is a cold, still morning, a weak November sun gilding the few remaining leaves and I have been sitting painting with my back to the old lichen scabbed bridge for perhaps an hour, stilled by the river's measured and determined progress. I am working in watercolour and it is cold enough to freeze the paint as I mix it in the palette. My fingers have been gnawed and bitten by the bitter chill and my top lip has the double slug trails of a contented five year old.

A pair of crows fly west over the river and an otter slips into my peripheral vision almost unnoticed, slowly rolling with the current; his presence when detected, electrifying, breathtaking. He is unaware of my existence and I sit, mesmerised; still and silent as a locked up pub. He is sleek and lustrous like burnished bronze and his every movement soundless. Given the otter's huge home range, I am fully aware that this is likely to be a fleeting encounter, so I wait for him to dive and, never for a moment taking my eyes off the river, grab for my camera. He pops up again a few yards upstream of where I last saw him and I freeze until he continues his leisurely hunt. Pulling the camera from its case I wait for him to re-surface then shoot picture after picture and even as I do so it dawns on me that the camera is set to its manual function; it's not calibrated for this light. None of the pictures come out and the otter is gone. I have a moment of disappointment and self reproach but it is only a moment and it is immediately replaced by a sense of privilege at having watched one of the river's most elusive and beautiful creatures.

Packing up my things I make the short drive home to a battered leather chair, a log fire and a glass of single malt. Boots kicked off I thaw my feet by the fire and know that whatever the river reveals to me over the next few months today has been a momentous beginning.