It felt like summer had arrived as I headed out on my first trip for the Wildlife Trusts Living Landscape panoramic photography project. The trees looked like they had gone from bare to even green, young birds were shouting noisily to be fed, and the sun shone every day.
I took the train down to Hull on my first day. I had planned to travel with my Birdy folding bike carrying four panniers and a rucsac, and on previous trips this had been OK. But as I left home, it all just felt wrong, the bike felt taut, overloaded. Maybe the gear for two weeks was a bit too heavy. Cycling gear, camping gear, photography gear, audio equipment, it all adds up. I put it down to nerves and persevered for another seven miles till I hit a dirt cycle track I knew well. I know how all my bikes feel, I ride them so much, and this one simply felt wrong. I turned round and made a mad dash for home, I was already going to miss the train I was meant to be on, but I needed my gear to be right, with everything else to think about I didn’t need any more worries. A quick trip into my bike shed resurrected my trusty heavy duty bike trailer and TNF duffel bag before grabbing the next bus into town to the station. Not a great start, but it was the right choice, I felt calmer, my Birdy bike felt better.
I cycled out to Spurn Point lighthouse from Hull (Hull being one of the most cycle friendly cities I have even been too with copious cycle lanes and considerate drivers), delighting in the flat countryside and a slight tailwind that pushed me on, hitting my first meeting exactly on time, despite the earlier gear craziness. The local ranger, Andy Gibson, gave me a whirlwind tour of Spurn Point, pointing out all the natural and unnatural changes to the spit, and making sure I understood that coastal change was normal, a natural process, not something to be feared or excessively managed. And then he really made me smile – “here are some keys to the lighthouse, I’ll get them back tomorrow.” Fantastic, my own lighthouse. I got a guided tour and the obligatory H&S talk, but after that I was left to my own devices with a panoramic camera, a lighthouse with a fantastic view and some very good light.
I find 360×180 panoramic photography a delight, the ability to capture all that I see and then to project that out onto flat planes really pleases me, but with 45 RAW photographs making up each panorama it is easy to get carried away and burn through many memory cards. Which I did. I had budgeted for about four panoramas per location, I made about eleven at Spurn! Luckily, and kindly, Andy had organised overnight accommodation for me at a local bunkhouse, so when I got back there at about 11pm after making some night photographs in the lighthouse, I could plug in my laptop and do a bit of image editing.
I spend the next day at Spurn making more photographs and a video interview of Andy (rudely interrupted by a pair of bee eaters giving us a fly by as they arrived from their winter hols, and then my mallard duck ringtone phone ringing at the top of the lighthouse, much to Andy’s confusion), before packing up my trailer and cycling the fifty miles up to Driffield north of Hull. Luckily, the wind had changed direction so I got a nice push north.
The phone didn’t stop that afternoon. The Guardian wanted to run a piece on the project on their website, and some technical intervention was required to get one of the early VR tours of Druridge Bay onto their site. So much for escaping into the wilds, but they gave us a good write up about the Living Landscape project.
Arriving just as it started to get dark I had a hurried hunt for a wild campsite which resulted in a lovely secluded spot under a willow tree on the bank of the River Hull. It was a lovely spot, further enhanced as the River Hull is a chalk-stream, so the bed of the river is a lovely white colour clearly seen through the crystal clear water.
In some ways I wasn’t sure that to expect from the next days photography. The land is very flat and agricultural, and very un-natural. I wasn’t totally sure as a landscape photographer ‘what I was going to do with it’! First I needed a quick stop to buy water and batteries, the dark side of this environmentally conscious trip, before I met up with Jon Trails who was going to be my guide to the area. I needn’t of worried about inspiration. When you are with someone who is immensely knowledgeable and passionate about something, inspiration flows in abundance. We spend hours wandering around, Jon pointing out otter runs, water vole holes, kingfishers in song and flight, even a pair of water voles made an appearance to give us a swimming display. We finished at the lovely bakery at Carr House Farm where we were treated to fresh apple juice and bread and some homemade pizza. The Carr House Farm is a great example of what a Living Landscape project is all about. A combination of a wild space that is of immense value to both wildlife and local businesses and how with coordination, communication and long term thought it is possible to achieve a landscape scale space that is of value to both. I was impressed, and there were many more local examples of the success of both business and wildlife in this intensively farmed area.
And then my iPhone died. Unbelievable, three days in. No more calls, twitter, GPS logging, maps, travel plans, all gone. I couldn’t believe it. I suspect that the charging voltage sensitive iPhone was not enjoying the dirty fluctuating voltage from the dynamo, but I have no real idea why it failed. Much as I like to get away, the functionality and sense of companionship through connection that I get through having a smartphone has made it an essential part of my life, and my photography trips. The fantastic phone shop in Driffield did all they could to help me get a replacement from Orange, but Orange wouldn’t budge and wanted £180 for a replacement. Stuff that, I would try my luck at the Apple Store when I got home. (As it turned out this was the best course of action, Apple Metrocentre were ever so apologetic and gave me a a brand new replacement on the spot for £55, the cost of a replacement iPhone battery! Yay for understanding customer service.) So, PAYG mobile it was for the rest of the trip!
I took the train down to Newark from Hull and pedalled out to the River Trent via a section of crazy dual carriageway. Bike route maps were another casualty of the iPhone and I am using 1:250 000 scale maps for this trip which are great for large scale navigation, but not so good for bike routes and other small details. If I’m being honest, this was probably the low point of the trip. Broken phone, nearly got my bike trailer ‘burgled’ in Newark whilst I was in a shop and when I arrived the landscape location was so flat and uninteresting I just didn’t know what to make of it. And then it started raining! Great. But as the local Trust representative Jenni explained the area to me, again it started to come alive. The tidal river, the natural and man made sand martin nest banks, the old quarry workings, they are all part of a fascinating story. It’s a story that is right at it’s beginning, the sand quarry that has so shaped this landscape is not long gone with the conservation work beginning.
Trent Holmes had that critical factor that I have come to recognise as I visit wild places. It’s the sound. It changes, there is less man noise and more nature noise. Road, plane and people noise is still there, but the dominant voice is one of nature. Geese honking, the first cuckoo back (keeping me awake all night), buntings, wagtails, dunnocks with their noisy little chirps, water, wind in the trees, all these things tell me audibly that I have entered a wild place where nature is thriving. It’s amazing now I know to listen for it.
My campsite for the next couple of nights was not easily found, I thought I was going to end up bivvying in a quarry as it felt like there were people and cars all around with no where safe to sleep, but in the end I found a lovely spot on the edge one of the gravel pit lakes with a clear view and a nighttime soundtrack to die for, except the bloody cuckoo that is!
A quick note on campsites. In a lot of places it is necessary to what I am doing to wild camp as campsites are often too far away from where I will need to photograph easily the next day. I try to pick a site that will cause minimal disturbance to wildlife and flora, I leave no litter, cooked food is prepared where the only waste is hot water and I wear soft shoes in camp (and whilst photographing) that will do less damage to the ground than heavy boots. I aim to leave each spot exactly as I found it. It’s not perfect, especially in England where wild camping is frowned upon, but I try to do my best.
The next morning the rain had cleared along with my doubts and I was treated to a perfect misty sunrise over the Trent that became a blue sky with glorious white fluffy clouds, the only ones I would see for the rest of the trip. Very, very lovely despite my initial misgivings.
I cycled through Nottinghamshire the next day, through old villages near where I used to live, stopping in Nottingham to buy another memory card before heading out into the ‘Wild West’. There are parts to the west of Nottingham that are pretty rough, and a distinct lack of campsites, so I was pretty nervous at being here having to camp with expensive camera gear, but photography first and with a job to do I met up with my next contact, Gaynor, who introduced me to the Erewash valley. Home to the Erewash canal, the now partly filled in Nottingham canal as well as the original Erewash stream this promised to be an interesting spot for wildlife and people watching. And how did I get there? I ended up on the wrong side of the valley with the only access via a dirt track through the grounds of a Hell’s Angel nightclub! Keep pedalling. Whilst I was probably right to be cautious, the people were friendly and interested in what I was doing and I soon felt more at ease. We thought we spotted a water vole during the tour, but when it re-appeared it was a rather large rat. The next day though, whilst mooching around waiting for the light I was treated to a water vole swimming up the Nottingham canal. I even managed to find a dappled bluebell wood to photograph much to my and my clients delight.
The Peak District
My legs were in for a rude awakening the next day. Gone were the flatlands of Yorkshire and Notts, here were the hills of the Peak District, right in front of my wheel at the start of the day as I headed from Heanor to Cromford. Hey ho, on we go, thighs burning, but delighting in the scenery, and the secret training I was getting in compared to my mountain biking friends. Pulling a 30 kg bike trailer for a year is going to make me monster strong.
I decided it was time for a proper campsite. I was sick of washing my cycling shorts in streams and public toilet sinks, and after a week of warm weather I definitely needed a shower! The first campsite I found looked ever so promising, hidden up a long dirt track I thought it might be quiet and away from some of the Bank Holiday camping crowds. And quiet it was, for good reason. Knocking on the house door, I was grumpily greeting by a gent with most of his lunch down the front of his shirt, who after a couple of questions asked me to “please leave and find another site!”. Ironic as it is me who normally spurns campsites and I was asked to leave. A quick look at the map identified another nearby campsite, with large sinks, quiet family camping and hot showers. Bliss, I stayed for two nights.
The Peak was climbing territory for me when I was younger, the limestone cliffs of the River Derwent, Black Rocks high on the hillside, it was like coming home as Jane from Derbyshire WT showed me round before treating me to coffee and cake, my first coffee in a week. Hmmm, not sure about that caffeine rush. The Derwent Valley is another area that has been shaped beyond recognition by man. The whole of Cromford was built by Arkwright, a man who thought to harness the power of the river to drive his cotton mills and who many see as the father of the industrial age. There were benefits though. To attract skilled workers to this relatively remote area he had to build high quality housing for his workers and that quality is still much in evidence today in the solid and robust buildings that are everywhere. I saw a huge pike in the canal, probably waiting for the ducklings to fatten up on the bread being given to them by the multitude of passers by.
With an area that has been so dominated and shaped by the river, it was time to get my feet wet and make some photographs from in the river. The first, at night, was a cold and scary experience as I forgot my head-torch, so had to work and move about the thigh deep water in pitch darkness, but the next morning, with the early sun streaming through the trees, sparkling on the turbulent river crests and backlighting the chlorophyl vibrant leaves was a delight. This is when I feel at my best, when it is so right to be photographing outside, immersed mentally and physically in a beautifully lit landscape.
I photographed around Cromford for much of the morning then it was time to head up to Buxton. It’s not far as the crow flies, so I fancied a detour over the dale tops with a few steep climbs to make me sweat. In hindsight this was a mistake given the heat. It had been warm most days up until this point, but temperatures were now probably into the mid twenties, and I don’t do heat. It wasn’t helped by a five mile gruelling climbing out of Bakewell that I hadn’t been anticipating and which severely drained me after an already hard ride. I stopped at Robin Hood’s Stride and scrambled up onto the top of one of the gritstone tors to make a panorama from it’s top, and a welcoming pub at the top of this last climb provided a life-saving pint of orange&tonic with a bag of salt&vinegar crisps. It’s amazing what becomes a ‘life-saving luxury’ after a long hot ride. Steak and chips, caviar, champagne? Nope, a pint of juice with some crisps is just perfect. But the dehydration and heat damage was done then.
The thing that is most fascinating to me about the river gorges like Cheedale is that they look and feel so natural. With gentle sheep farming and tourists surely this must be a natural landscape relatively unaffected by man. Not so however. An area that was once predominantly woodland became open top sparsely soiled dale tops that through soil improvement became prime farmland, first for livestock and now even capable of growing arable crops. Even the river, so deep in the valley bottom has been dammed and lined to create deep pools for fishing. I found this emotionally quite disturbing. I assumed that there were some places left that were relatively wild, but this illusion is now shattered. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is requiring a rethink of my world view.
But there are some benefits to nature. The stream supports brown and rainbow trout, the friendly watervole which has been following me around to make guest appearances showed up again and at first light as the sun hit the misty gorges whilst I was photographing from up high a trio of canada geese flew out of the mist, honking to each other with the sunlight glancing contra jour off their backs.
A lovely day, but another hot dehydrating one, and as I rode towards Hathersage all was not right. I know tiredness and how it feels. I was definitely into the realms of heat exhaustion and a food intolerance that had been lurking around making me feel a little queasy just got a bit worse, a bit rumblier, a bit more liquid! I still had two days photography to go at that point. I downed litres of Lucozade to try and rehydrate and reenergise, but I couldn’t keep my dinner down, couldn’t sleep as I lay there in a sweaty fever through the night camped in a small wood above Hathersage. I felt pretty lonely at this point, I missed my wife and just wanted to be home in a cool and safe bed. Daylight brought some relief, but it was all I could do to stand. All I wanted to do was point my bike downhill to the station and home. Instead, I pushed on, literally. I gave up trying to ride my bike up hills, any incline no matter how slight was just beyond me, resulting in a push to the top. I coasted down to Wyming Brook above Sheffield feeling sick, exhausted and guilty as hell turning up to greet a client in this state.
But Rob who manages this area took it in his stride carrying my camera gear for me and showed me round the magical glen that is Wyming Brook. If ever there was a place where elves live this is it. With delightful little waterfalls, quiet woodland paths, quaint little wooden bridges over the falls and dappled golden rays slicing through the canopy and lighting up the glades and brook this is a magical place. Home to red start, wood warblers, dippers and even brown trout in the turbulent brook it was teeming with life, and with people. Many stopped to chat with Rob, it was clear many felt a sense of ownership and pride in this area, so beautiful and only five miles from Sheffield city centre. A perfect example of a wild place that is being managed for the benefit of people and nature.
Despite shaky legs and soft vision I left Rob and went off to make some photographs, how could I not in a place like that. By late afternoon I had had enough though. I was meant to be at another location the next day, but there was simply nothing left of me so I freewheeled down to Sheffield train station just in time for the next train home. But confronted by a huge staircase which I needed to carry my bike and huge duffel bag over I nearly broke down. I didn’t even think there would be a lift. Until a voice said “Can I help you?”. A young lad, may be 17 or 18, on his way to a Scout camp. A good deed was done. Sometimes, no matter how seemingly simple the task, we all need a hand sometimes, and I am so grateful to him for his helping hand.
I was ill for about four days, dropping half a stone in the time I was home, just spent, but as I looked through the photographs, editing them down, stitching them together I felt the sense of wonder I had felt when I was at each of these places. The other good thing about VR tours is it is easy to give a sense of place, of connectedness and through that connectedness I hope I will be able to show connections, both human and natural, that are forming as part of the Living Landscape vision.