#51 Cycling and painting

My son and daughter were with me this weekend gone. We were supposed to be surfing down at Saunton Sands. The sparky woman at Walking on waves said the sea was as flat as a pancake, that she’d happily rearrange. Anytime in the future. No problem.

I put tagine in the slow cooker, made a picnic, packed water-colour materials and bikes in the car and drove over to Monkton Combe, by the Dundas Aqueduct.

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Even though they’d fought, and farted at each other while I’d sorted the parking ticket, my two were suitably impressed and calmed as we cycled beside the canal across the aqueduct. There’s a ledge beneath the balustrade that we all wanted to clamber over onto, but didn’t.

The air was soft, a light breeze scented with the sweetness of rotting leaves, the sun gradually breaking through dull clouds. Wood smoke hung in the air next to various narrow boats. The steeply banked woods on the opposite side were mostly sycamore, their outward facing leaves blushed carnelian. A drunk stumbled onto the path from the hedge. He clutched a can of Tennants’ Super-T and looked confused as we breezed past. The river ran parallel to us in the valley below, but in the other direction, south west to Bath.

My son led the way at first, his legs somehow pumping twice as fast as mine, front wheel twitching as he scanned for minor off-shoots from the main path to scramble over. My daughter followed, cautious eyes taking in all the details, cataloging, defining. We passed under a beautiful road bridge, Winsley hill road from Limpley Stoke towards Bradford on Avon.

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Just beyond, an elegant conservatory filled with geraniums looks down upon the canal path. The kids passed by oblivious. There were various hired narrow boats abroad on the water, some filled with lively chatter, some more morose. We branched off by the lane to Turleigh, down to the river, to picnic. Here, for half an hour, my children turned on each other again over their sandwiches, cookies and Doritos. While they traded tired insults, a dragonfly hovered nearby, a kingfisher shot upstream and several trains trundled along the elevated branch line at Freshford.

We ploughed back across a deeply grassed field and rejoined the canal path. Soon enough, we crossed our second aqueduct at Avoncliff. We descended the embankment and rode through the tunnel and up the path to The Cross Guns pub. I realised the last time I’d been here was 25 years ago. I’d signed up with the school cross-country team and, as a perverse end-of-term treat, our coach arranged that we would do a night-run along the path ending here. A single lemonade all round. Huzzah.

I don’t think it’s much changed. A traditional-style pub, all horse brasses and stone walls, fires roaring. There’s a large benched garden terraced down to the river. Nice enough on a hot day, maybe, but there was a shadowy, forlorn feel to the place today. The river is met by a minor brook here. The water is shallow and reedy, perfect for the ducks that my son fed most of his ice-cream to.

We cycled back up onto the aqueduct, returning the way we’d been, now actively searching for a subject to paint. My daughter chose the first boat we came upon, named Topsy. I unpacked our materials: a small A5 Winsor & Newton pad, three portable water colour kits, pencils, brushes, a rubber and sharpener.

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I filled our jars with water and we began.

My son focussed on mixing the right brown for the water, which he then flooded his page with. He painted a solid black boat which soon sank beneath more brown. Eventually, twenty minutes later, just before giving up, he painted another black boat with blue windows.

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I proceeded in the more traditional way of sketching first.

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The roof is partly fictional as I was sat down, and couldn’t really see it. I then spent about an hour adding colour and ended up with this.

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Not accurate, not awful.

My daughter took her time and steadily added layers of colour. Even though she was sat beside me, she painted a side-on view.

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I love her trees.

All together:

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The sun glowered at the far end of the tunnel of overhanging branches, the temperature had started to drop. We headed back. I pinched the drying paintings between my fingers, two in one hand, one in the other, steering the bike on the balls of my palms. Mistakenly, I pointed out a rabbit in a field that we’d already passed. My son turned to look, and plunged into brambles and nettles. Some tears. A cuddle.

A heron stood motionless a few feet from the path, not threatened by us. The drunk from earlier had made barely any progress in the three hours or so since we passed before. Again, a question seemed about to form in his eyes, then dissolved. We glided back over the first aqueduct, slowly enough to discern the mottled white and black neck of another static heron. The path fell away from Brassknocker Basin marina, down towards the car, its fan heater and home.

#29 Watercolours

Side by side, we sat and painted the view out the window.

Sunday afternoon ebbed toward evening.

Shadows that outlined the frames  shifted through aqua pura greys to Bayou waters.

We had planned to cycle down to the river to paint, light rain gave us the excuse not to.

A gentle weekend. Rapture is probably best left untranslated, but there were good things to eat:

All from the same, excellent blog. Make the Snickers.

Before breakfast on Saturday, we spirit-leveled, top-soiled and repotted my horse chestnut into its new, 230l pot. There was an established ants nest among the roots. The trunk is almost as thick as my wrist. Only one leaf fell from the entire plant.

It looks very happy SONY DSC After breakfast, we read and watched the frog-poles experiment with their new legs in the pond.

We bought some food, a sugar thermometer, then had a pint at the Jolly Sailor at Saltford. We stood with our pints on the floating jetty and watched a group of sensible-looking students muster the pluck to try the rope swing that hangs from a huge ash out over the Avon. We wanted someone to fall…

The graceful one whose slight frame flew Tinkerbell-like over the water?

The heavier-set lad whose lower torso appeared to collude with gravity?

The hesitant, beige-wearer who dithered on the bank before half-heartedly swinging back and forth?

None fell. It was disappointing.

We had the last of the mackerel from Falmouth for dinner, then made the homemade Snickers. Make it.

On Sunday, I marked exam papers while J read. Or vice versa. Then, as the weekend threatened to begin its decline, we found our paint sets and settled to an hour or so’s looking at something SONY DSC SONY DSC

There is the chestnut.

Now the week is already Tuesday, and I am alone with a day to do some writing. Before I start, I wanted to bring the things I cherish into focus,  a deep breath drawn in.

Now to begin.

#18 A stream, a painting and chicken-of-the-woods

After so much pleasure and fulfillment, a day of discovering my own company. I haven’t been out on the motorbike for almost a month and so today, despite heavy clouds and strong winds, I packed, trundled the bike from the back of my house, and went out. After passing through Clifton, Bristol to drop off a broken amp and buy a small watercolour kit and paper, I went against the current of the Avon, under the suspension bridge and left the city by the south road towards Weston-super-Mare. I followed my nose. The bike was smooth and I felt like a child again, swooping and flicking the front round pot-holes and puddles. I eventually ended up in the Mendips, south of Priddy, above Wells, on a hillside above Lower Milton. There was just room enough to park the motorbike by a stile that lead downwards. I locked the bike up and mounted the stile. Ahead of me, the hill dropped down, bordered by a line of hawthorns along the ridge, and a tunnel of hazels interspersed with tall ashes below. My eyes lifted to the horizon to see the distant Glastonbury Tor gazing back at me. blogpic

I walked down, a little awkwardly in motorcycle boots and headed for the trees at the bottom. I could see a stream flashing out from beneath the low canopy, so climbed over a fence alongside and sat against the base of one of a pair of massive ashes that stood alongside the water. This is what I saw:

2013-06-22 002I lit my smoke and opened my new watercolour kit. It is a Windsor & Newton Sketcher’s Pocket box. Inside, there was an excellent and detailed folded instruction leaflet that I read whilst I smoked, the sound of the stream and nearby sheep increasing my sense that I had found the right place.

The instructions suggested that I begin by sketching an outline. This, I did:

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I dipped the seed head of a flowering grass beside me into the stream at my side to wet the paper.

I then applied my first set of washes, left to right, as instructed:

2013-06-22 010I used moss from the tree behind me to drop water into the mixing palette:

2013-06-22 009I admit to feeling slightly smug that Nature had laid everything on for me so conveniently. When we are smiled upon, it makes sense to smile along.

I added in the next few stages of darker washes:

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2013-06-22 015The line of dark green showing the shadowed fringe beneath the canopy of the distant trees on the brow of the field beyond me.

While that deep blot of green mid-left dried, I went for a stroll.

The stream delved down into a cleft that led downhill amongst yet more hazels and ash. I had to dip and clamber through several thickets until a clear path appeared that followed the stream, only deer-prints suggesting any other visitors here. It is an enchanted place, verdant with self-seeded plants at the feet of their mother trees, ripe with the mushroom-like fragrance of ancient boughs decomposing in the cold, moist air.  I found a lurid chicken-of-the-wood mushroom to take home and cook:

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A black cat appeared from nowhere, slipped across my field of view and disappeared. For a moment, I thought I saw a deer in my periphery and my senses sharpened. They then heightened and my whole spine tingled in caution as the image resolved to this:

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A decaying chair. A sinister throne with its ghastly sitter momentarily absent. I leapt across the stream to take some other shots:

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The feeling that I got seemed to suggest that now was a good time to leave. I headed directly up the bank

2013-06-22 027and found myself in a vast field that I knew led down towards Wells:

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I walked back towards the shadow of the trees, past a rope swing, and added the finishing touches to my first ever concerted attempt at a watercolour. I used the stream to rinse out the palette,

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then added what I could to finish the painting:

2013-06-22 001I left this place, clambered up the hill and took a photo of myself because I felt happy:

2013-06-22 032I looked like Sade:

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