It seems to have been a really busy week at home after trip 3 and I’ve not had a chance to write a diary. So I’m sat on the train on my next trip trying to pull something coherent together. It seemed like a long trip, not in a bad way, but in terms of volume of experience and variety of locations visited. I travelled so much of the UK, lots by bike, yet, for some reason I have few words for it. But what I do know is it was a journey of hope discovery. I remember feeling a bit down on my first trip, so much of our wild places has been shaped by man, basically all of it, that it seemed we had no real nature left. This mixed, badly, with my pessimism about the future. Through this last trip, I found a bit of hope for the future. Not just in the Wildlife Trust reserves and staff, but in other places and from other people.
Starting in Gwent in Wales was looking like a good start, but as I travelled on the train through Hereford and on into Wales the weather was very rainy. Then on the first day the Alfine Hub gear on my bike failed leaving me with only 2-3 working gears most of the time. And on the second day I managed to trigger my lactose intolerance resulting in stomach problems and difficult camp hygiene. And I missed my girl, desperately. But, some of these are problems that can be overcome and with some solutions in place I tried to get into the photography.
Solutia Meadows on the edge of Newport was my first stop and it felt a little hard at first. My mind was elsewhere, the rain continued, so I tried to relax, I knew the inspiration would come, it usually does. It came from the sounds of the meadows first, warblers, buzzards, wind turbines, dragonflies, wind in the reeds, the Solutia Meadows soundtrack was amazing and it led me into some lovely evening panoramas full of pastel meadow colour of greens, pinks, yellows, purples.
Travelling up to Monmouth via the Wye Valley was one of the best rides I have ever done. The valley is really pretty, in a very pastoral way, and the sun was beating down, but I cruised along with my two gears being gently caressed by woodland dappled shade and the smell of wild garlic and pine. I could have ridden up that valley forever. After a very steep hairpin infested climb to Pennalt to find the pub was closed I met up with Gemma from Gwent Wildlife Trust. The countryside around Monmouth is really pretty, but because it is heavily wooded it is quite difficult to find places with good panoramic views. After a few hours driving around, feeling that we weren’t going to find anywhere, Gemma said she had just one last place to show me, probably didn’t fit the brief, but did I want to see it? It was fab, a lovely view over the Usk and Wye areas, hills, fields, livestock, a place that really captured the areas essence. Sometimes I just don’t know what it is I am looking for till I have travelled round a bit to get a feel for the place.
The second stroke of luck that day came as I was trying to fight my tent pegs into some very stoney ground, and losing. Rebecca and Richard from Gwent WT had a cottage nearby and wondered if I would rather have a room to stay in than the tent. This seemed to set a pattern for the trip, I spent as much time in Wildlife Trusts peoples houses as I did in the tent. Very kind of them, I think you have to be a kind and genuine person to offer a complete stranger a room in your house, and after the bad start to this trip their offer was really appreciated. They were right on the edge of Pentwyn Farm meadow so it was an easy trip in the morning, double bonus. The meadows here, perched high up on the hill overlooking the Wye Valley, are glorious, full of orchids and a palette of other colours. The skies were less than useful, usually solid grey or solid blue with just the odd plane contrail to add interest, very frustrating.
Had some interesting bird encounters in my tent the next night! First a crow tried to perch on top of my tent but ended up sliding down it wakening me from a deep slumber, pretty scary for a few seconds till I figured out what was going on. Then whilst I was having my breakfast a fledgling blue tit crash landed in the meadow in from of my tent and I guess it could only see my tent through the long meadow herbs and flowers as it headed right for the entrance. It moved through my tent, shouting loudly for its parents, before hopping up onto the flat load bed of my bike trailer which was a perfect take off point. Happy days.
I left Wales via the Severn Bridge and headed down to beautiful Bristol. The sun was shining brightly and everyone seemed to be out in their finery looking very cool and beau. This transition, from rural to urban, from country to country, on a bike is such a seamless and fascinating experience. When I compare my journey to what The Wildlife Trust are trying to achieve with their Living Landscape landscape scale projects which about linking up wild areas to create travel corridors for wildlife and linking up communities and business with nature, the transitions and the links seem very parallel. No time to stop in Bristol though, it was slow progress in the heat with few gears, so I pushed on to Chew Valley. I was on my own for this one as the local contact couldn’t meet up with me, but armed with his supplied maps I went to explore around Chew Lake and up Burledge Hill and it’s meadows. The reserve at Chew Lake is formed where a main road crosses to the reservoir to form a separate pool. It’s a unique location that is very accessible, so I was photographing along with young families, an ice cream van and a bike race for company. A pretty lively place and the ducks, geese, coots and other waterfowl seemed pretty happy to have a steady supply of bread and ice cream cones!
It was just as alive in the evening with massive swarms of insects swirling and buzzing above the trees and my tent.
Rain the next morning put paid to any really good photography in the meadows of Burledge Hill, but the rain kept me cool as I cycled up onto the top of the Mendips to the remote village of Priddy to meet up with Michelle from Somerset Wildlife Trust who would show me round the Mendips, then Alys who would show me round the Somerset Levels. For some reason I didn’t have the location information from Somerset so I had no idea where I was going to be photographing till I arrived, and I was going to be starting with Cheddar Gorge! A bit of a result for a landscape photographer. I immediately started looking for locations part way down the gorge, much to Michelle’s horror, so she made me promise I would text her the following day to let her know I was safe after I had finished photographing down the gorge. Very thoughtful, and a very interesting lady who had lived much of her life in very remote Papua New Guinea. I enjoyed hearing about her life as much as hearing about the Mendips Living Landscape. The Somerset Levels were a total contrast, in nearly every way. Alys was full of passion for the Levels, and as we travelled along the bumpy drove roads in her 4×4 it was easy to see why. After the rolling Mendips, the extreme flatness of the Levels, broken by rows of trees, roads, peat extraction sites and reens (ditches) had a sparse beauty that was captivating.
This was one of the first places were I started to feel the hope I alluded to earlier. The landscape is so man made, so scarred and so sparse it is easy to see everything. All the changes. All the damage. And all the improvements that people and organisations like Somerset Wildlife Trust are making to rebuild wild areas for nature and for local communities. The first site we visited, near Westhay Nature Reserve, had an active peat extraction site on one side of the track and on the other an area that was being re-landscaped into a wetland. Just up the road is the nature reserve showing how wild spaces can be rebuilt, and if it wasn’t obvious enough from travelling around the area, then the history of the site was beautifully explained with wooden carvings designed by local school children.
I was delighted to be photographing both the Mendips and the Levels, but with a fair amount of pressure to perform as both Michelle and Alys had been so passionate about their areas I didn’t want to let them down. Again I landed on my feet with a couple of nights stay in a farmhouse on one of the WT reserves thanks to Kate and Moose the dog. A couple of visits to the local pub, the Queen Victoria in Priddy, to sample the local cider were most enjoyable. I can’t imagine I should have ridden my bike after leaving the pub though!
Scrambles down steep gorges for airy panoramas, getting badly lost on the Levels, cider, lovely kind and generous people, I liked Somerset a lot, it was a grand adventure.
Wiltshire was my next stop, and I had a terrible journey to get there. 70 miles over the Mendips via Glastonbury was really pretty and interesting, but overly aggressive drivers around Swindon soured the end of the journey. Then as I climbed up Morgans Hill near Devizes with Karl and Tony from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust with Tony excitedly explaining all about the chalk grassland and the sea of orchids, we saw about 7 species from common spotted to the rare fly orchid, I was soon lost in the landscape. The view from the top of Morgans Hill out over the soft patchwork of rural Wiltshire, with soft evening light and a gentle wind blowing through the long grasses was just sublime. Road rage was soon forgotten.
I had a much better ride over to Oxford the next day. Passing through posh Marlborough with it’s smart college I stopped at the Oxfam Books to pick up a new book as I had finished my fantasy fiction. Their book selection was a bit more erudite, so I went for some Hemingway before continuing through the thatched cottages, oak beamed and Morris Minor countryside. I really enjoyed the ride, the high standard of bike friendly driving and to finish a nice ‘community woodland’ to camp on. I passed through East Hanney which not only had a great farm shop with amazing pork pies, but it also was home to the first UK residential building to be powered by a water driven archimedes screw, which along with various other energy saving measures meant they had cut their carbon footprint by 92% over a standard home. Pretty impressive.
I met Giles from BBOWT (Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust) the following day and we started the day with strong coffee and not one, but three slices of cake in their HQ. A good start in my book which only continued when we went outside and Giles got his bike out as we were going on a bike tour of the Oxford meadows and flood plains. From the wild, but split in two by the A34, Pixie Mead meadow, through Port Meadow which has been grazed for over 1000 years, and then on to Christchurch Meadows in central Oxford overlooked by the college buildings and longhorn cattle, it was a varied meadow tour. And all the better to be experienced by bike. Not content with providing me with cake, coffee and an amazing tour, Giles wondered if I needed a place to stay that night, but was concerned that being Friday night he and his wife would be sat up drinking wine resulting in less sleep for the weary cycling photographer! Oh well, I managed just fine, with the help of a delicious home cooked meal and some wine. Their kindness and talk of successful Wildlife Trust conservation work, and talk of the future really filled me with a bit more of that gradually building hope. A very fine day, very fine indeed.
Setting of early the following morning, I mixed the days photography with regular visits to a local coffee shop to keep me perked up. Maybe a bit too perky, I ended up making a couple of panoramas on Port Meadow surrounded by cows, then geese and ducks. Another amazing soundtrack.
And so filled with melancholy to to leaving lovely Oxford I headed down to Greenham Common. The heavy rain matched my mood and I ended up soaked through. It was that heavy British drizzle that gets through even the best waterproof clothing, bloody horrible. Never having been to Greenham Common I was keen to explore and find out about the area and it’s amazing nuclear and anti-nuclear history, so despite being cold and soaked I wandered round for a few hours soaking, literally, up the location. I met Jacky from BBOWT the next day for a proper tour, also conducted by bike. Well, sort of by bike. I got five punctures in an hour on the commons flint track, so I ended up pushing my bike around. It was a great end to a great trip, so much has happened there, it was despite the rain, a real pleasure to be making panoramas in such an iconic location surrounded by lots of other people who were out enjoying the common, or passing through on their bike on their way to the new industrial area created in the old military compund.
Trip 3 was a real journey, geographically, personally and emotionally. The only problem was I was so moved by all the locations that I made a huge amount of panoramas which all had to be sorted and stitched. Worth it though, worth it for the little ember of hope that I start to feel.