It was a perfect sunny winter's day today, just wonderful for going out and getting to know the landscape around Beecraigs a little better.
First stop was Cairnpapple Hill, so steeped in significance since prehistoric times - not surprising since it has such a fantastic view from all angles, to the Pentlands, the Ochils, across the water to Fife and further out to Berwick Law, the Perthshire and Lomond mountains and even Arran on the best days.
I'd spotted a row of beeches on satellite photos on the northern boundary of the hill, so went to investigate, finding a sheltered little valley with some small, hardy oaks along with the boundary beeches.
After a good walk round Cairnpapple I headed towards Witch Craig Wood and the Korean War Memorial, where I've been told I'd find an unusual bit of graffiti. After a little hunting I found not one but two carved horses on trees by side of the road.
One looks like a knight of some sort with a sword, perhaps some reference to the Hospitallers of Torphichen? The other is clearly a Clydesdale horse, standing proudly in the carving by B.R. in '78. I wonder what their stories are...
For an artist looking for characterful old trees this doesn't look very promising does it? Clearfelled plantation is in itself a dramatic kind of landscape, but not what I'm hunting for. Gladly we have wonders of the internet like National Library of Scotland's online historical maps and satellite imaging (I've recently discovered that Bing maps are a far better tool than Google) so I had an idea that there might be living remnants of the previous landscape somewhere here at Beecraigs Country Park.
Surrounded by the plantation trees and densely shaded, I found a few old beeches just clinging on along old boundary ditches.
They show up on satellite images as bright green shapes against the dark uniformity of the conifers and checking the shape's location against old maps confirms that they are on a pre-existing boundary.
I tested out my new water soluble graphite sticks while drawing in the rain/sleet - well it is February!
A second visit on a much sunnier day revealed a wonderful line of wiggly beeches along a south facing bank.
This cluster was a real surprise - mountain bikers clearly use this extensively as it's all lumps and bumps, being a former quarry area.
So I found my characters after all, which means I not only have the satisfaction of a successful forage, but so many new trees to get to know through my drawing - expect to meet some of them at Howden Park Centre later this year...
Having had a illness last year which incapacitated me for about 6 months (which I'm working up to blogging about sometime), I'm so happy to be able to get back to the woods this winter. So I started the year by making some plans to explore new locations through a series of mini-residencies - a sort of self-directed intense period of study, learning about the history of the landscape, making links with locally knowledgeable people and making as many on site drawings as I can.
Since I have an exhibition at the Howden Park Centre in Livingston scheduled for the end of the year, it seemed natural to start in West Lothian. While the recent storms have been blowing outside, I've been indoors poring over old maps and current satellite images, looking for clues to more ancient landscapes and some likely places to look for old trees. I thought I knew West Lothian pretty well, having worked there on and off for the last 20 years, but Calder Wood is an exciting new discovery for me.
It's a plateau of ancient woodland bounded by the Murieston Water and the Linhouse Water, which both join the river Almond at Almondell. The river banks are steep and the trees mostly hide the surrounding housing, making it feel much more remote than it actually is.
These are a few photos of the wonderful trees I found - impressive old beeches, gnarly sycamore, elderly birches, hazel coppice, twisty decaying sweet chestnut.
I'm starting to learn my way around the woodland now, working out how all the little tracks fit together, where the clusters of old trees are and which are the best candidates for more prolonged sketching.
Maps are marvellous for getting the structure of a new place into my head, but now I realise I need to start creating my own mental maps - these are the first of many days in Calder Wood...