Trip 2 May 2011 – A tale of blown pre-conceptions

No points for fashion sense, but what a location.

When I first started planning this year long adventure, it was some of the headline locations like Alderney in the Channel Islands and the Isles of Scilly that really captured my creative imagination. And at the opposite end there were some locations that, being honest, weren’t getting my creative juices flowing in the same way. But with the first trip under my belt I realised that all of the locations were really interesting, and as I set off on my second trip to Alderney, the Isles of Scilly, Worcestershire then to finish in Birmingham I realised that I was keen and excited to visit and photograph all of these locations.

Alderney & Burhou

Due to the tight time constraints of the project and the logistics of this particular trip, unfortunately it was necessary to fly to the islands which is something I try to avoid because of the carbon footprint and the farce that is airport security. So I locked up my bike at Bristol airport and my wife and I got into a fairly small plane to fly to Guernsey. It’s then another short hop to Alderney, this time in a real puddle-jumper with about ten seats. Security and baggage processes are in small huts on the airfield and you are personally shown to your seat so it was all very easy, and friendly for a change. And the aerial views were lovely. Guernsey, so packed with houses, then a tiny speck that is Alderney.

Me and my pre-conceptions. I’ll admit I looked at this tiny island and wondered if I had made a mistake in coming for a week. At 3.5 miles long, I suddenly panicked that we would see it all on the first day, the weather was really wet and cold when we arrived with wind from Siberia, so a week’s camping really didn’t seem that appealing. Like most of my pre-conceptions, I was totally wrong. The sun came out sometimes a couple of days later, but by then I was already under the charm of the island of Alderney. It could take us all day to walk a couple of miles. The broken wild coastline, the flowers, the caterpillars and butterflies, the Victorian forts, the wartime bunkers (all 600 of them, on an island 3.5 miles by 1.5 miles), the weather, the amazing bakery and lovely places to eat. The week flew by. I think I could spend months exploring Alderney. The typical island weather is ever and quickly changing. The highlight was 24 hours of serious thunderstorms. We were out on the cliff tops when they hit, very scary, but I was keen to go out in the morning and try to capture some of the lightening and storm light. I scrambled down into Telegraph Bay using my head-torch to illuminate the loose rock and faded ropes that are the climb down, full of fear and anticipation, just in time for the storm to run out of steam as I got down into the bay. So frustrating but it was a fun adventure anyway.

One of the highlights of the trip was a trip out to Burhou island to see the puffins, gulls and shag nest sites. During nesting season only three people are allowed on the island at a time, and that is with permission. Too much human presence can disturb the nesting birds. Liz and Lynne gave me a tour of the puffin burrows and shag nests, then whilst they were counting birds I went off for some photography. Burhou is lovely, but it does smell very seabirdy! It took me two washes when I got back to get my clothes, and me, not smelling fishy. I should just have put them in the tidal current that flows past Burhou. The violent meeting of two tidal flows is something to see and means you can only get on and off Burhou at slacktide, any other time it is just too rough.

The Isles of Scilly

Sad to leave, but with the Isles of Scilly to look forward to I left Suse at Bristol airport and got on another tiny plane. The plane to Scilly is really small with no real hand luggage allowed so I had to hastily fill all my pockets with lenses, cameras, sound recorder, microphone etc and plead to be allowed to take my laptop in the cabin with me too. Bristol airport staff security staff were actually human and friendly, so it was not the hassle that some airports are. Well done Bristol airport. The flight was amazing. We flew at about 10000feet, so there were clear view of the Cornwall coast, then the sea, then I thought we had time and space jumped to the Caribbean! The Scilly Isles are an archipelago, and they looked stunning from the air with white beaches and turquoise seas. I arrived on Scilly totally disoriented, too much travel and varied culture, for me. Julie and Dave from the Isles of Scilly WT came to collect me, show me round the island then took me to their home for a lovely meal where I ate my body weight in food, I think Julie and Dave were a little surprised by my appetite, I hope I didn’t appear rude when I went for fourths and then ate the left overs on the kids plates! They had also arranged accommodation for me at the Woolpack, a converted wartime bunker that is used by WT volunteers and researchers. Bliss, a warm underground bed. Not content with being such perfect hosts they had also negotiated a trip out to the Isle of Annet for me. Access to Annet is restricted to researchers only, photographers are not normally allowed, so I was in a privileged position in exchange for assisting Richard and David who are GPS tagging shags to understand their foraging and nesting habits. We didn’t get to Annet on the first day as the weather was bad, so we went to Tean island instead.

Inter island travel is mostly done using small boats, sometimes landing at piers but on smaller islands you just glide up to the beach or some rocks and hop off. Travelling out that first day, spray on my face, the sun on my back surrounded by these beautiful islands, I did feel like the luckiest photographer on the planet. No shags that day for Richard and David, so I left them and went off to make some panoramas of the islands from the top of Tean Hill and also of the white sands. The sands are not so tropical as they appeared from the plane. Made from eroded granite, the beaches can be very rough. I certainly won’t need to exfoliate my feet for a while.

The sea was flat the next day, so the trip to Annet was on. I had been told about the frosting of pink icing over everything that is the thrift in bloom, but I wasn’t ready for the full sensory overload. The softest spring green tones have a thick layer of pink thrift floating over them. The green continues out into the turquoise sea, before you turn a bit and a pink granite carn (tor) juts out of the thrift. With a layer of yellow lichens all over the carns, they complimented the sirrus streaked blue skies. It’s like something from a fantasy watercolour. All it needed was a dragon on top of the carns and it would be complete. Instead, there were shags, lots of them, much to Richard and David’s relief. We spent the morning stalking them to their nests, sometimes catching them, often missing them as they wriggled out of the trap. But we caught a few and attached the GPS loggers to the feathers on their backs before letting them back to the water and their nests. They are lovely birds up close, prime yellow flesh meets their beak, but it is their eyes, a deep verdant green that drew my attention. It’s a green no photograph can ever capture, so vibrant is it. Maybe Annet has dragons after all.

My last few days were cloudy and I was starting to feel a bit glum as I’d not seen some nice morning or evening light for a few weeks. I was especially keen as I had found a sublime location at Peninis Bay. With massive wind and weather formed granite forms that catch the full force of the sea, it is one of those perfect photographers’ locations. Up at 4am everyday I walked out there, returning again for sunset at 9pm, it was just stubbornly cloudy. In a cliched case of it all happened on the last night, it all happened on the last night. Just perfect.

Worcestershire

But after 2 weeks of being off my bike I was glad to be heading back to the mainland and my bike. After some confusion in Bristol as to which airport I was at I rode 55miles up the historic Severn Valley to near Tewkesbury. I was slightly dreading going back to wild camping, I find it quite stressful at times trying to find out of the way places where I won’t be disturbed and where I won’t do too much damage by camping there. Eventually I found a decent farm field, but as it was near a village I thought I would pedal around for a while to kill some time till it got a bit darker. Grumbling under my breath about crap campsites but accepting that that was the way it was, I then spotted a nice little bridleway that led into, the prettiest campsite I have been on in quite a while. As the sun shot the sky with grey and gold, I pitched my tent on the edge of a gorgeous buttercup hay meadow. Lovely and peaceful.

I met David from Worcestershire WT the next day and he took me on a tour of the Pershore Community Wetland. The inspiration of a Dutch visitor, the wetland was created on a floodplain, by breaking into the town’s runoff water pipe which previously had just topped up the river. The most interesting thing to me, was the inspired idea to build a boardwalk out into and over the wetland. In so many nature reserves you have to, by necessity, observe the area from hides on the edges, but here you can actually walk right out into the space and get up close to the ducks, coots, swans, moorhens and warblers. Bloody brilliant, and the wildlife are used to seeing people so they are undisturbed, and well fed! We then slogged up Bredon Hill for a larger view of Worcestershire and the other wetlands that have been created by Worcestershire WT. Then back down the hill so I could spend a sweaty hour and a half to push my bike and trailer back up for an evening photo shoot. Crap weather for most of two days, but the sun came out just enough and I enjoyed spending two quiet days on Bredon Hill looking over the farmland and meadows to Wales.

I met David again a few days later, and I could tell by his enthusiasm that we were going somewhere special. Eades Meadow in the Forest of Feckenham, only miles from the centre of Birmingham. It’s pretty hard to describe this unique meadow, and also sad that something that was once so common is now so rare. Orchids, rare ferns, moths, butterflies, a myriad of other flowers and then a huge variety of green leaves underneath the sea of colour, make it a time consuming affair to even walk 5 metres without seeing something new and interesting that requires a hands and knees inspection. The flora is very fragile and easily damaged by too many feet over it but I was allowed, in bare feet, to take my camera into the heart of the meadow away from the footpath to make some panoramas. They were one shot attempts as repeated attempts would have meant repeated trampling over the botanics which would have caused a lot of damage. I felt like a hippy gently traipsing through the meadow barefoot. If you are in the Birmingham area, this is definetely worth a trip out, and it is relatively easy to get to by road or by bike from Birmingham.

Birmingham and the Black Country

It was Birmingham, specifically the Black Country (a different area altogether I am told), that was my destination the next day. Again I was to have my pre-conceptions wiped away, in fact utterly annihilated. I met Julia from the Black Country Living Landscape Scheme at the Moorcroft Nature Reserve after a long bumpy ride along the canal cycle track through typical built up industrial area. My initial view of Moorcroft was what I had expected, desolate post industrial land covered in litter with stories of the local troublemakers constantly undoing a lot of what was achieved. However Julia seemed to take this in her stride, “if they wreck it, we just build it again, and again until they get bored and move onto something else”. This sort of attitude must take real guts and determination and to remain so positive, always looking to what has been achieved and what is still to be done, is an attitude that I saw again and again throughout the day. And it was evident just what has been achieved at Moorcroft as we walked round. Even the large slag blocks with their rare lichens and embedded artefacts are fascinating. Photographically I faced a bit of a dichotomy, to shoot this very damaged landscape in dark brooding light which might convey some of the desolation, or to shoot it with the sun out on the fishermen lined pools as a celebration of what has been achieved. The decision was made for me, the sun came out and lit the place up like a beacon and this felt right. Looking back at the panoramic images, they are some of my favourite from this trip. I think they take understanding and explaining, but they are fascinating in their scope and history.

So many words for one simple location.

We also fitted in the Rye Hills and Dudley Castle, with Julia in true Black Country style keeping up a constant dialogue/monologue. So much history, so much interest, so much passion, I could have listened to her for days.

We finished the day at Bumble Hole on the BCN Canal. With the 2776m long Netherton Canal Tunnel at one end of my panorama, the Cobb Engine House building and local blue brickwork in-between, and the shapely black and white cast iron bridges at the other, it’s one of those urban areas at the opposite end of the visual prettiness spectrum from Moorcroft. Speaking to locals (“I’ve walked my dogs here for 50 years!”) it is apparent they feel a great deal of pride in the area. A little bit of a confrontation with some local youths forced an early exit from Bumble Hole, which was a shame as the setting sun was glorious that evening and I would loved to have made a panorama with such glowing light and clouds over the canal.

That was it, trip two over, well, after a visit to the Cadbury’s shop at Bournville to top up on kilos of cheap chocolate. From wild friendly islands to wild friendly urban centres, this was one hell of a trip with every silly pre-conception blown from my head. Only a week till the next.

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